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Mind the generation gap

2011 February 3
by Paul Vallely

Young people today will be the first generation for 100 years who will end up worse off than their parents. So the Labour leader Ed Miliband will say in a speech today. It is a profound insight into what could become the defining political issue of the decades to come.

The generation which shaped the modern world grew up in an era in which, as the then prime minister Harold Macmillan put it, people had “never had it so good”. So it proved. Average incomes soared, life expectancy rose, infant mortality plummeted. Modern medicines staved off cancer, heart disease and countless other diseases. University was free. Jobs were plentiful. Pensions were sound. House prices climbed inexorably, creating nice equity nest eggs for owners who sat back and did nothing.

But the last generation got too greedy. It deregulated financial markets, dooming its kids to job competition with cheap globalised labour. And it crowned its achievements with a global financial meltdown and an inheritance of climate change which will sentence the next generation to decades of picking up the bill. The unwritten covenant – that parents create better lives for their children, and in return those children finance the care of their parents in their old age – has been broken.

The generation of post-war Baby-Boomers, having raised the expectations of their kids, are leaving behind a world set to frustrate those aspirations. For the first time in more than a century there is a risk that today’s young people will find it harder than their mothers or fathers did to continue in education, find a decent job and own their own home. Mr Miliband has put his finger on something here which the nation intuitively knows to be true. Polls show a deep sense of pessimism among voters. Almost three-quarters of the nation believes life will be harder for our children.

Yet having crystallised this perception Mr Miliband now needs to formulate the policies to deal with a world in which Britain is going to have a lot more older people who will need a lot more looking after – and far fewer younger folk to pay for it. That long-term demographic imbalance could prove a more grievous legacy than our current economic doldrums.

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