‘We’re not to blame’: Breaking down the myth of the young vs old cash rivalry

Politicians say we should take benefits from the older generations to fix the housing crisis for the young. But the over-50s are taking a stand to show they're struggling too

Westminster politicians are stoking the fires of intergenerational rivalry, and it’s clear the battle is on. In April Tory MP Damian Green, one of Theresa May’s key allies, argued that the over-50s should be taxed an extra £300 a year to fund the UK’s struggling social care sector. Days before, a group of peers said benefits like the winter fuel allowance and free TV licences for everyone over 75 should be scrapped. 

They’re calling it ‘intergenerational fairness’, pushing the idea that while pensioner poverty once justified age-based benefits, the older generations just aren’t poor enough any more. They think cash should be invested in young people instead. The spending power of retired people now far outweighs that of workers in their twenties and thirties and so, they say, it’s fair for pensioners to carry some of the weight of the millennial housing and employment crises.

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But the over-50s aren’t having it. Campaigners are incensed to see the plight of two million pensioners living in poverty swept under the carpet, and say that to suggest older people are to blame for the impact austerity has had on younger people is hugely damaging – and an example of Tory MPs dodging their responsibilities. The UK state pension, the only source of income for many, is the lowest in the developed world. So should pensioners be funding the future?

Not long ago, avocado-munching millennials were lambasted in the media for a financial rut of their own creation. But Age UK’s head of external affairs Angela Kitching thinks the target has shifted to the older generations. “We’ve certainly noticed we’re up for a kicking at the moment,” she says.

Older people are telling the charity they’re seriously concerned by the direction policy could take. “Politicians are looking at these questions on the basis of an entire generation,” Kitching explains. “By going by the calculated average income or whatever measure used, you’re missing the fact that two million of those are in poverty.”

About 40 per cent of over-75s polled by the charity said they either wouldn’t afford the change in TV licensing or would have to cut back on food and heating to pay for it.

Campaigners want to “explode” the understanding of older people as a homogeneous white, rich, London-based population. Kitching slams lazy policy analysis that groups generations together – the over-50s, over-65s and over-75s
have all been put at risk of losing benefits recently, but that covers people who are still in work right up to people who have been retired for decades and are near the end of their lives. And critics are slow to recognise that marginalised groups grow old too, she says.

“Look at the experience of older BME [black and minority ethnic] people, look at the experience of older women, look at the experience of older people with disabilities that are often astronomically expensive. It paints a completely different picture to the averages.”

For WASPI Women – who campaign against the way the state pension age was equalised between men and women, leaving many women retired without an income – the proposals are deeply unwelcome. Millions of women born in the 1950s were given just a couple of years’ notice that their pension ages were going up by as much as six years.

That’s fine for women who want and are able to carry on working, the group say, but many who had already planned their retirement were forced to live off savings in the interim until they reached their new pension age – by which point they have to rely entirely on small state pension payments. 

“There are 3.8 million of us who have been hit by increases to our state pension age without adequate notice,” says communications director Debbie de Spon. “Some had to give up work when they had children because that was what you were once required to do by some employers. We weren’t able to join company pension schemes so many women of our generation don’t have a private pension. 

“There are women using foodbanks and having to sell their homes. These women are struggling – and now you want to punish them more?”

De Spon and Kitching agree that pitting age groups against each other on such a large scale is wrong. “It’s certainly never been the case that things that are taken away from older people end up being given to younger people,” Kitching says. 

Brooklyn author Ashton Applewhite penned This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. Writing for The Big Issue last week, she said: “Underlying all the hand-wringing is ageism: discrimination and stereotyping on the basis of age. Ageism cuts both ways and younger people experience a lot of it, but older people bear the brunt.” 

She believes that fabricating a rivalry between two groups – in this case, the young vs the old – is a time-honoured tactic used to divide people who might otherwise unite to change the status quo. So is this a rivalry rooted in truth, or a symptom of policymakers adopting a divide-and-conquer approach to patching over an economy still gasping for air?

Research suggests some truth to the supposed intergenerational tension. YouGov data shows that more than one in four voters of retirement age who voted to leave the EU believe that poorer wages for the next generation would be a justifiable evil when exiting the EU. But the same research showed that a quarter of Remain backers aged 18 to 34 would accept reduced pensions for older people if it meant keeping the UK in the EU. 

And the idea of intergenerational unfairness isn’t entirely disputed. Steve Edwards is chief executive of the National Association for Retired Police Officers, a founding member of older people’s lobbying group Later Life Ambitions (LLA). He recognises the housing chaos facing millions of young people, and that their employment is often precarious at best. But he believes the real issue is the UK’s unbalanced distribution of wealth.

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“Young people can’t get council houses because there aren’t enough,” Edwards says. “And there isn’t suitable housing available for older people to move to, so you end up with pensioners alone in massive homes, relying on television for social interaction.” 

Poor housing costs the NHS £2.5bn a year, and exacerbates the loneliness crisis playing out among older men as reported in Age UK research released last week. It showed the men hardest hit by isolation were those living in poverty, many admitting television is the only regular company they have. Edwards scoffs: “And they want to take away free TV licences!”

Pensioner poverty doesn’t seem to be a pressing issue for today’s politicians, but it is contributing to the social care crisis. Council cuts to essential services in England left more than 50,000 elderly people to die while waiting on care over the past two years.

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Kitching refers to social care ‘deserts’, where even well-off residents struggle to access social care. “I hesitate to even call it a system,” she says. “It’s managing on the back of families who are stepping in as the state has retreated. The idea that we’d all be fine if families would just band together and look after each other, and so taking benefits away from older people wouldn’t have as great an impact – that’s rubbish.”

The generations agree on one thing: as life expectancies increase, reforms will have to be made to the schedule society has centred itself around. But last year, the average age at which people die stopped rising for the first time since 1982; in some places it even declined. Experts blamed austerity and cuts to social care – not free TV licences.