A quote about Brexit supporters by a friend of mine last week attracted a lot of attention when I stuck it on Twitter yesterday.
This is the last ‘fuck you’ from the baby boomers. They took the secure corporate and government jobs with the guaranteed pay rises and final salary pension schemes and benefitted from property they bought cheap and sold dear. They burnt the bridges behind them by colluding with the dismantling of the very things that had brought them prosperity. Their last act will be to burn the economy before they die.
It even made the Independent. Some people were offended by it but, for the majority of those who commented, it seemed to strike a chord, suggesting there is at least a grain of truth in it.
It is certainly true that the pollsters are recording the highest support for Brexit among older voters. YouGov data showed Brexit support increasing with age, with the 50:50 point at 43. ComRes released some data yesterday which points to majority Brexit support from the mid-40s, peaking among the 65-74 age group.
Thanks to the postwar baby boom, most of that group will have been born between the period after the war and the 1951. In many ways they, and those born a few years later, had the best of it. They just missed conscription, were taken care of in their early years by the new welfare state and had free secondary and higher education. They came into the workforce at a time of economic growth, bought property when it was cheap and sold it when the prices rose. They worked during a period when highly structured organisations with regular pay rises and final salary pensions were the norm in both public and private sectors. Then they retired just before the state pension age was pushed out beyond 65. Even the later boomers coming up for retirement, born from the mid-1950s, won’t be quite so lucky.
The FT looked into this last year and found that, at least in terms of income, there has never been a better time to be in your late 60s:
The average 65-70-year-old used to have lower living standards than 75 per cent of UK families. Now people in the same age group can expect to be almost in the top 40 per cent of family incomes.
It’s possible to over-state the intergenerational conflict angle in all this. There was no conspiracy by the baby boomers. Their relative good fortune is largely an accident of birth. Their working lives coincided with the lucky half century when the economy grew at a rate never seen before, when wages peaked as a percentage of GDP and when middle-earners got the largest slice of the pie. Rising incomes meant that more people could buy property which then appreciated in value. This, together with long service and occupational pensions, enabled older generations to hang on to their gains. It is unlikely that later generations will be able to pull off the same trick.
It is also worth noting that a lot of this came about during the period when Britain was a member of the EU. It’s impossible to know what might have happened had the UK stayed out but those in their 60s and 70s have certainly done well out of the status quo.
So why are they so angry with it? It would be more understandable if their anger was directed against the decline of the things that helped them achieve the prosperity they enjoyed throughout their working lives and from which they are still reaping the benefits. If they were raging against the removal of final salary pension schemes, against precarious employment, against low investment, against tuition fees, against falling wages and against the dismantling of social housing, it might make more sense. It is true, many from the boomer generations are active in such campaigns but this is not the anger that is driving the Brexit vote.
No, they are angry about Brussels bureaucrats, national identity and democracy, even though it’s quite difficult to get specific (and true) examples of what they mean. They are angry about immigration, even though a lot of them don’t live in high immigration areas. They are angry about a Britain which has actually been very good to them and, with its protected pensions and pensioner benefits, continues to be so. These are some of the most prosperous, secure and healthy human beings ever to walk the planet. Yet, with a howl of rage, they may be about to tip our wobbling economy into recession, thereby wrecking the chances of younger generations.
Update: Thanks to Joe Sarling at Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners for this chart showing house price affordability when each generation was aged 25. This is perhaps where some of the generational generalisations fall down. Baby boomers stretch over a long period. Many of the later boomers and early GenXers got caught by negative equity. The earlier boomers did OK though. Joe reckons the next generation will be Generation U – for Unaffordable!