Rows over the triple lock on pensions and social care have intensified the intergenerational debate, with ever more young people pitting themselves against the older generation. There can be no denying that the under-25s, while extremely unlikely to suffer severe symptoms or die from Covid-19, have endured a difficult 18 months. I missed months of schooling, cancelled my 18th birthday celebrations, and at times have felt like my life is not my own. Millions have experienced similar – if not worse. But resentment serves no one.
Doubtless, the old enjoy a number of government handouts – many of which are not means tested. Not all pensioners need to receive a winter fuel allowance, free public transport or a £10 Christmas bonus. And the pensions triple lock – which uprates the state pension in line with average earnings, the Consumer Price Index or 2.5 per cent, whichever is highest – was difficult to justify even before the pandemic struck. While pensioners receive a guaranteed income boost, our productivity puzzle has left millions of working Britons suffering stagnant wages and job insecurity. Nonetheless, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Boris Johnson will get away with his social care plan, solely because the suspension of the triple lock and dividend raid make the young feel vindicated: at least the old are also feeling the pinch. And we should bear in mind that a decent pension is not an unearned benefit; often people have made contributions over the course of many decades, working hard to ensure that they can enjoy their retirement.
Further, the young are recipients of indiscriminate handouts, too. Student loans, which 75 per cent of people will never pay back in full. Help to Buy, which enabled over 420,000 people to get on the housing ladder (though our government would have been far better to liberalise planning rather than pumping up demand). The Kickstart scheme, like many job creation schemes, will be costly and is unlikely to deliver any multiplier effects.
The lesson here isn’t that government should seek to address generational imbalances, but rather that benefits are in many cases counterproductive, expensive and pointless, and that young people should question whether some great injustice really has been served. Often, while complaining that the old robbed them of their futures, the young will simultaneously campaign for the Foreign Aid target to remain in place, or an open-borders approach to immigration. There are merits in their arguments, but also a risk that they are overlooking our shameful treatment of the elderly in some cases. Many are lonely, have little disposable income, struggle to adapt to modern technologies, and receive a poor standard of care. 2.1 million pensioners in the UK are living in poverty, with 1.1 million living in severe poverty.
The recent social care debacle has sparked outrage amongst young people who are frustrated that the working age population will be taxed more to fund the care of those beyond the state pension age with substantial assets or income. However, while The Who famously sang “I hope I die before I get old,” the reality is that we all need, and are responsible, for social care.
The idea that all pensioners are selfish, well-off Brexiteers is absurd: many have contributed to the British economy and society for decades. It is deeply irresponsible to suggest that pensioners aren’t in need – or deserving – of our support.
We do need to fix our broken care system, and we need to address the ways in which some pensioners are receiving far more than they put in. Perhaps the sale of houses could be deferred until after someone passes away and their care paid thereafter. Perhaps we could introduce a scheme like pension auto-enrolment, and give people more responsibility for footing the bill for their own care. But we shouldn’t waste our energy fanning the flames of a non-existent intergenerational war. Many cultures celebrate the ageing process and venerate their elders, but in Britain we fetishise the young and often make the elderly feel like second class citizens. The resentment and bitterness we may feel towards entire groups of people may seem justifiable to some, but to many others it presents itself as simple bigotry.
A decent pension and reliable social care are the least that our elderly deserve.