August 21, 2019

First Actuarial’s Hilary Salt looks forward to a fringe meeting at September’s TUC Congress 2019 – Intergenerational solidarity beats intergenerational conflict – which will explore how trade unions can combat divisive attempts across the political spectrum to set one generation against another

Against a backdrop of budget cuts and austerity thinking, it seems that more and more politicians are happy to exploit generational differences.

On a range of issues – from housing and pensions right through to the global environment – we see public figures pointing the figure at smug and greedy baby boomers. Older people are all too often portrayed as blocking beds in cash-strapped hospitals or basking in retirement on the manicured fairways of their exclusive golf clubs.

Meanwhile, millennials can be dismissed as snowflakes, unable to handle hardship and confrontation, floating into university on a superhighway of inflated student numbers and exam grades, enticed by the ensuite bathrooms and walk-in wardrobes of today’s student accommodation.

Are these impressions true to the lived experiences of the baby boomer and millennial generations? And more to the point, are generational differences the real cause of the social ills we face?

Intergenerational fairness on the radar

Discussions around generational differences are pervasive enough to have drawn the attention of The Pensions Regulator, who held a series of roundtable discussions earlier this year on intergenerational fairness. The group, of which I was a member, discussed the widespread claim that millennials will be worse off than their parents and what this means for both the pensions industry and government. It was good to see The Pensions Regulator fostering a broad-ranging policy debate – something I actively encourage – rather than delving down into the minutiae.

David Fairs from The Pensions Regulator spoke at First Actuarial’s annual client conference in May of this year, pointing out that only 3% of Defined Benefit schemes remain open to new entrants. The finding was picked up by Terry Pullinger from the Communication Workers Union (CWU). We work closely with Terry on the introduction of CDC pensions at Royal Mail, as we seek to redress the generational balance on pension provision.

In his conference presentation, Terry referred back to the 3% Defined Benefit finding, and spoke passionately about the plight of his three children:

The full video of this conference session is available on the First Actuarial’s annual client conference web page.

Intergenerational fairness – or modern-day divide and rule?

Jennie Bristow, confirmed speaker for the TUC fringe meeting and author of Mugging Grandma: The ‘generation wars’ and why boomer blaming won’t solve anything, pulls apart the wrong-headed thinking of holding a single generation, the baby boomers, to blame for social injustices:

“The scapegoating of baby boomers is no accident. It has come about partly because this is the generation currently reaching retirement, at a time when austerity politics has placed the need to reduce public spending on pensions and healthcare high up the political agenda – and the boomers make a convenient target.”

In particular she attacks the notion that the boomers are a greedy generation:

“In making boomer greed the focus of their attacks, the Generals in the new generation wars are launching an all-out assault on aspiration. The irony is that the biggest casualties of this shrivelled worldview will be the younger generations: the very people in whose name the generation wars are being waged.”

The message is clear. If baby boomers are to be denied the right to healthcare and a comfortable standard of living in their declining years, then so will the rest of us. Although every generation denies this until their own time comes, young people do have a marked tendency to become old in the end!

When the gatekeepers of social spending play divide and rule, nobody wins. Instead, the energy that should be spent fighting for fair provision across society gets rechannelled into petty disputes as one grouping is pitted against the other.

As Jennie Bristow also points out, it’s pure myth to assume that members of any generation are all the same as each other. Instead, there are more differences within generations than between them. There are wealthy boomers and there are impoverished boomers. Almost two million people aged 55-64 have no private pension savings, for example. Meanwhile there are at least as many young people struggling on low incomes with little hope of betterment as there are privileged students and ‘trust fund kids’.

There are, of course, serious consequences of pension and healthcare under-funding for ordinary people of every age and social class. The problem arises when we view these issues through a generational lens. We need to resist every attempt to rob one generation to appease another. It’s so easy to point to affluent baby boomer pensioners – who incidentally went through post-war hardships in their early years that the rest of us can barely conceive of – in today’s cost-cutting climate. But ultimately it solves nothing.

The trade union movement plays an important role in improving standards of living across all generations of working people and pensioners, recognising common interests and resisting attempts to divide working people. First Actuarial is proud to work closely with people like CWU’s Terry Pullinger who are prepared to battle for improved pensions while at the same time highlighting the problems that young people face.

Unite’s Steve Turner, a speaker at our forthcoming TUC fringe meeting, says: “Any focus on intergenerational divide entirely overlooks the reality of the class divide. Our society is being divided and categorised in terms of the generation into which we are born more than at any other period in our history. It’s a divisive and simplistic approach that assumes all those born into one generation have the same life experience and outcomes, when the reality is health, property wealth and income – all class issues – are not evenly or equally distributed.”

The fringe meeting, part of TUC Congress 2019, is open to everyone. So whether you’re a pensions professional, a trade unionist or simply a fair-minded person concerned about the future, it would be great to see you there.

Intergenerational solidarity beats intergenerational conflict takes place on Tuesday 10th September, from 12.45pm to 2.00pm at the Regent Room, Grand Hotel, Brighton. The event will be chaired by Hilary Salt and speakers are Jennie Bristow, senior lecturer in sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University, Jonathan Charles from the Society and College of Radiographers, and Steve Turner, Assistant General Secretary of Unite.

Any questions or comments about this article?

Get in touch with the author, Hilary Salt.

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