John Hayward Posted: 5 February 2010
'Choice and freedom are everything. We might argue about whether we like it or dislike it but the liberal progressives and the moral pessimists agree on the trend. Then there really is little chance of society meaning much apart from perhaps, if we are lucky, a feeble agreement on how we are going to disagree with each other.' (David Willetts, The Pinch: How the baby boomers took their children's future - and why they should give it back, p.33)
Tracing the changes in intergenerational relations in Britain from the days of Bishop Wulfstan in 1014 through Tocqueville to Schumpeter and Giddens, with their predictions that as material wellbeing and a consumer culture spread people would abandon investing for the future in favour of living for today, David Willetts' book 'The Pinch' reads like one that could have been penned by Dale Kuehne under the title 'Money and the iWorld'. Like Kuehne's landmark 'Sex and the iWorld', Willetts draws upon modern advertising slogans to explain recent trends: 'a modern consumer society takes the waiting out of wanting.' Safe sex during the 1960s, Willetts writes, meant safe for women, as a man was expected to marry a woman if he got her pregnant, with the consequence that the years before the advent of the Pill saw both the highest ever birth rate and the highest level of first marriages.
'Kings and queens among consumers'
Although 'The Pinch' is not about sex as much as it is about money, the theme is established strongly in the early chapters and keeps resurfacing; for 'childhood obesity, high rates of personal debt, and teenage pregnancy are not really different problems, but are the same problem - the difficulty we all face trying to resist our appetites of today in the cause of something better in the future.' The book summarises the lot of the baby-boomers as being 'kings and queens among consumers ... you will be able to spend your life in a generational bubble, always outvoting and outspending the generations before and after you ... unless of course you see yourself as part of a wider network of obligations that tie you to other generations.' Like Kuehne's thesis, it also insists that 'every man for himself (and every generation for itself) is not a well-founded account of what it is to be fully human and to lead a good life.'
'The Pinch' contains a vast array of fascinating demographic insights, such as the negative impact of a low median age population similarly observed both in the world's most unstable countries and in Britain's toughest housing estates. Or the fact that while immigration appears to solve the problem of how to make pensions affordable in an ageing population, the increased workforce also results in higher infrastructure costs in other areas, such as education. And the way expansion of university education has had a far greater impact on women than on men but with the unintended consequence of reducing social mobility, causing Willetts to summarise, ‘Feminism has trumped egalitarianism.’
Beneath all the tables and trends though it presents and calls for a simple issue of justice to be redressed. 'The Pinch' shows how even an apparently prudent financial rule like balancing the budget over the economic cycle can deliver a generational imbalance. It also demonstrates how the cost of public commitments is set to grow as the baby boomers move into retirement and become heavy users of the welfare state. It further highlights how we should have been reducing government debt while this generation was at the height of its prosperity, not shifting the burden of paying for today’s public expenditure on to the next generation.
Time for children
Encouragingly it notes that family ties at least are becoming more important to us. Although we tend to work harder, contrary to popular myth, we also have greater time with our children – largely as a result of labour-saving household appliances, which in turn appears to have improved cognitive and emotional development for our children; as Willetts puts it, ‘The microwave oven has raised IQ.’ Nevertheless, trust in others has declined and the pressure to be better parents has made us worse citizens as parents withdraw from civic activities. Moreover, the unusual dependence of British teenagers on their peers might, despite their earlier advantages, affect their subsequent cognitive development.
All of which, Willetts decides, means new school providers must be able to enter the maintained sector if we are to provide fairer opportunities to the next generation, teenagers must have access to better careers advice, our vocational training system must be reformed, and, most crucially, we must invest in the nation’s infrastructure and reward saving so as to begin the slow and painful process of adjustment over the next decade. Even beyond material issues such as energy security, food shortages and water stress, the ‘collapse of confidence in a cultural canon and the rise of militant Islam’ makes the challenge of conveying our culture from one generation to the next seem much harder. But good politics, he concludes, is about a contract between the generations in which the interests of the present generation should not automatically come first. Dealing with such vast issues requires all of us to value the claims of future generations. This link between generations – cultural and economic, personal and ethical – is offered as a source of meaning to a ‘world where unreflective obligations to institutions or ways of doing things are eroded.’
Ultimately, Willetts’ analysis is astute and the book’s endnotes are a rich source of social data but, unlike Kuehne’s vision of the ‘rWorld’, in which a larger web of healthy social relationships provides the most personally fulfilling context for relational well-being, ‘The Pinch’ does not really tell us how we might achieve a society in which a balance in intergenerational relations is once again restored. In that sense, perhaps we can look forward in a future year to a sequel from the Shadow Minister for Universities and Skills: ‘Reciprocity: Placing the principle of fairness between generations at the heart of the political agenda’.