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Don't blame the baby boomers - they had it tough too

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

Here’s a competition for you: ‘The most irritating discussion on Radio 4 in the past month.’ Answers in not more than 140 characters — but on a proper postcard, preferably written in fountain pen. My own choice was an edition of The Moral Maze that heaped abuse on ‘Baby Boomers’ (usually understood as those born in the decade after the second world war, including me as a happy arrival of January 1955) for ‘raiding their kids’ piggy-banks’ and other offences of ‘generational theft’.

The argument — vehemently made by the former Labour policy guru Matthew Taylor, and rebutted by Melanie Phillips when she could get a word in — is that the cohort now at retirement age is, in a moral sense, disgustingly well off. Having enjoyed free education, steady careers, rising property values and no major wars, they look forward to gold-plated pensions, bus passes and winter fuel payments. And they ought to be ashamed of themselves, because their unwillingness to sacrifice any part of this accumulation has left the cohort of 40 years behind them with miserable job prospects, mountainous debts, scant chance of buying a house and even scanter chance of a decent pension when their own time comes.

Governments are afraid to penalise these ‘selfish’ middle-class wealth–hoarders because they are far more likely than the demoralised young to vote in elections. ‘Fairness’ would begin with ritual surrender of bus passes; but it must go on, said Taylor, to real redistribution through punitive rises in inheritance and council taxes.

I was listening to the late-night Saturday repeat as I drove home in a heightened emotional state after an epic Opera North performance of Wagner’s Siegfried at the Sage Gateshead. The boy Siegfried had triumphed heroically over adversities meted out to him by his elders, pierced the ring of fire (a nice metaphor for today’s graduate job market) and given Brunhilde an ecstatic seeing-to. In doing so he reminded the packed hall that the young should never expect, as a matter of entitlement, joy without struggle.

Baby Boomers who started work around 1970 have survived four recessions, at least two of which felt much darker than the most recent one; they have seen runaway inflation, sky-high tax rates and an era when Britain in decline seemed to be tearing itself apart; more recently, their savings have been eaten by near-zero interest rates. They have paid their dues throughout, earning entitlements which cannot fairly be taken away. The idea that windfall taxes on them would be morally correct as well as good for other people’s offspring is, as Melanie Phillips put it, ‘politics-of-envy stuff’.

The young have chances and choices rather than fixed entitlements; some start with better chances than others, but the advantages of birth diminish as they play the cards in their hand; and all have more choices today than we had in the 1970s. The future may look challenging, but no more so than  it did then — and anyway it will look totally different in five years’ time, and will change and change again. I bumped into a middle-aged Siegfried in Mayfair this week who I had last seen in the grim winter of 1992, a jobless, disconsolate father-to-be, behind on his mortgage. ‘Look,’ he said, pointing to a double-fronted Georgian townhouse. ‘I’ve just bought myself a new office.’

So how is ‘intergenerational equity’ best achieved? Surely not by state confiscation of carefully nurtured lifetime capital. Much better for the taxman to encourage oldsters to write cheques to grandchildren and nephews to help them buy first homes or study for better qualifications; or to endow scholarships and give generously to skills training charities; or to follow Lord Young’s recent advice here about mentoring and investing in the next generation of start-up businesses. After all, that’s what equity means.

The Treasury’s man

First reports from my man in the Bank of England in an ill-fitting pink coat with a recording device in the lapel are that the new Governor, the Canadian Mark Carney, is ‘very bright, very Goldman Sachs’ and ‘not afraid to think aloud’. One question he’ll be talking to himself and the Treasury about this week (since applications for the first £260,000-a-year vacancy closed on Monday) is the matter of who should become his deputies in place of the cold-shouldered Paul Tucker, who departs in the autumn, and the invisible Charlie Bean, who stays until next year to ease the succession.

Another Canadian would look too much like a takeover, and let’s hope we can rule out the appointment of any of the Chancellor’s hedge-fund chums. An insider is expected, and the most interesting of the Bank’s own is Andy Haldane, executive director for financial stability — but perhaps his free-range intellect, much more Warwick University than Goldman Sachs, won’t fit the technocratic Carney mould.

The Financial Times thinks the insider might come from the Treasury: either Tom Scholar or John Kingman, both second permanent secretaries and both, as it happens, members of the appointment panel for the deputy governorship. Harry-Potter-lookalike Kingman has a tendency to come and go, but has long been one to watch. Having left the civil service for stints on the Lex column at the FT and in John Browne’s office at BP, he came back to be Gordon Brown’s press secretary and mastermind of the Northern Rock rescue; then he slipped off to Rothschilds, returning again last year.

I’ve also heard Kingman’s name as a ‘parachute’ candidate to succeed Stephen Hester as chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, where the likes of Justin King from Sainsbury’s are said to be in the frame in the absence of a suitable list of clean–handed commercial bankers. This is an example of a reverse Catch 22: if ‘anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy’, as Joseph Heller’s army psychiatrist observed, then anyone who actively wants the most difficult, most politicised and most scrutinised job in British banking must be too mad to do it. So the Treasury may well have to send in its man.

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Show comments
  • The Red Bladder

    Well I am just about as old as a “baby boomer” can be and, given the choice, I would certainly, by a country mile, rather have been young during the 50s and 60s than I would now. Had it cushy? We didn’t know we were born!

    • Jambo25

      Really. I was actually born in 1950 so I am, I suppose, right in the middle of the ‘Boomer’ generation. What I remember of life in the 50s and early-mid 60s was slum housing, limited clothing, fairly basic food most of the time and cold during the winter. A visit to the ‘school’ dentist was a joy. Families still lived in fear of polio and TB. I went through about every childhood disease. Scarlet Fever, Whooping Cough, Measles, German Measles and a couple more.

      I wasn’t brought up by feckless parents. Mine were loving and highly competent. I wasn’t brought up in some post-industrial hell hole but Edinburgh. My childhood and youth were probably representative of what most people experienced at that time.