In the Daily Telegraph this week, Boris Johnson writes about the baby boomers and their influence and legacy. Click on this link to see charts and graphs.Boris begins: “Gah,” said the codger, as he approached our group. “Come on!” he shouted, and we meekly parted to let him through – daleking past us on his mobility scooter with a disapproving electric whine, as though the pavement was his. As I watched his back, I felt the waves of his scorn. How dare we impede his progress? Had we no respect for age, no reverence for his evident infirmity?
Blimey, I thought, and I marvelled at the armour-plated self-righteousness of the OAP, his certainty that it was up to him to drive his miniature golf cart straight at the pedestrians – and it was the duty of everyone else to scatter like pigeons, and to abase ourselves before his taxpayer-funded chariot.
I think of the pavement-hogging oldster today, as I read in the Sunday papers about my old friend David Willetts, and his great theme of intergenerational conflict. Once again David is warning us about the way the older generation have it relatively easy, and at the expense of the younger one .
You know the essentials. The older generation – the post-war baby-boomers – are among the most financially fortunate in our history. They did not fight in the war; they cannot exactly be called the generation of heroes; and yet they have been attended by every comfort of the welfare state. Their state pensions are triple-locked, and rising, and any other pensions they may have are immeasurably more generous than those on offer to the generation below.
Indeed, it is the fate of the current working population to pay for the older generation to have pensions on a scale that they will certainly not receive themselves. Today’s pensioners have been given free TV licences and free bus passes and winter fuel allowances.
Above all they have been able to afford their own homes – in a way that is proving all but impossible for those in their twenties and thirties. And to make it worse, it is at least partly the Nimbyism of the baby-boomers – their very great reluctance to have more homes built in their neighbourhoods, or spoiling their views of green spaces – that is making the housing crisis so much worse.
As David points out, they were perfectly happy to have loads of homes built for themselves – there were about 300,000 homes built every year during the Fifties and Sixties. Now they are pulling up the drawbridge, and organising themselves politically so that it is very difficult to get things moving on the scale required. Now we are building half that number – and at a time when the population is growing faster than ever, and when the demand is volcanic.
How can these oldies be so influential? They are powerful not just because they are so numerous, but because they vote, vote, vote. Woe betide the political party that tries to erode their privileges. The Liberal Democrats used to talk about means-testing the bus pass. Look what happened to them.
That, my friends, is the gist of the Willetts case – and that is the argument that he eloquently makes in his book The Pinch. I hesitate to disagree with him, or to take issue with the conclusions of just one of his brains; but I feel that someone needs to stick up for the baby-boomers, and their legacy.
It is not contemptible, first of all, for a society to treat its older generation well. That is a fine thing. And I am not sure that the legacy of the baby-boomers is really as poisonous as all that. Look at the Britain they have helped to create – a place that has been at peace for generations, and where everyone of every age has achieved a standard of living that was unimaginable 50 years ago.
Every family in the land has access to food of a daintiness and delicacy that the post-war generation could not have imagined. Virtually every child has access to electronic machines whose capacity for entertainment and education and self-affirmation is astonishing, and whose full social benefits we have yet to understand.
We have more young people going to university than ever before, we have more people in employment, we have more years of healthy life ahead of us – on average. And we in the UK – thanks very largely to the labours of the baby-boomers – are living in the fastest-growing and most dynamic major economy in Europe. Yes, we have all kinds of challenges, if we are to serve the younger generation properly. We must build more housing – and the forthcoming Government Housing Bill offers the way ahead, and we must make it work to deliver homes where they are needed most – above all in London, where the crisis is most acute.
We have to put in the transport infrastructure that young people will one day need: and as we grapple with HS2 we should look at what they are doing in Japan, with a Maglev train that is capable of travelling at more than 600 kmh (373 mph); and will link Tokyo and Osaka on a route that is 85 per cent in tunnel. Why aren’t we doing that in the Chilterns, and all the other areas that will be blighted by a 19th-century approach? We invented Maglev, for heaven’s sake. The Japanese plan makes us look antiquated.
All this investment – in housing and transport – will benefit the younger generation; all of it needs to go in the ground if we are to answer the challenge that Willetts has issued, and abate the intergenerational strife.
And there is one little thing we might do at once. Let’s get Back to the Future, and stop this ludicrous and nannying prohibition on the electric scooter-surfboard gizmos. They are the Segway-like things which the authorities have said young people may not use on the pavement.
Well, I have consulted Transport for London (Surface Transport) experts, and they think this hogwash. They are a new and potentially liberating form of personal mobility. We want to legalise them. If the oldsters can charge towards you on their terrifying chariots, the youngsters should be able to waft on their boards. It’s intergenerational fairness.”