This month’s Trajectory Trends Breakfast turned its gaze on intergenerational conflict – a term used to describe a societal phenomenon in which there is “collective tension, strain, and antagonism between older and younger generations over what constitutes the fair distribution of public resources across age groups.”
The topic has received a lot of attention – particularly since 2010 and the release of David Willetts’ The Pinch and Ed Howker & Shiv Malik’s Jilted Generation – some helpful, some less so. Our aim was to parse these narrative strands in order to establish the extent to which our society faces a crisis intergenerational conflict.
In analysing the narratives surrounding intergenerational conflict, perhaps our most important finding was the identification of a conflation of collective generational consciousness and basic cohort effects.
These narratives – and the definition in the opening paragraph – require some form of generational consciousness; a set of attributes, attitudes and beliefs in common with those within your birth cohort, an identification as part of this generation, and the identification of the ‘other’ – the generations that you are not part of.
In rejecting this generational consciousness, we begin to carve our own view of intergenerational conflict, not, as our opening definition described it, a conflict of tension, strain, and antagonism, but rather a conflict of self-interest. These acts of self-interest do not happen in a vacuum: rather, the innocent actions of each generational cohort have a butterfly effect and create new contexts for subsequent generations. Importantly, these conflicts take place in a context where different generations have different financial and democratic power, with important implications for resource equity.
We see this play out most obviously in housing, with much of the owner-occupied housing stock owned by members of older birth cohorts. By and large, house prices have increased since the 1970s, and for the vast majority of buyers in the last 50 years, purchasing a home was simply a sound financial investment, saving enormous amounts in rent while retaining a large financial asset which can be passed down or liquidised in order to pay for care. Housing has proved such a great investment for those who can afford it that many have bought second, third and fourth homes to generate revenue in the private rental sector, driving up both the price of buying and renting, a burden felt most keenly by millennials, aka Generation Rent.
In turn, these acts of self-interest have the potential to seriously exacerbate the problem of social mobility in the United Kingdom, where persistence of intergenerational outcomes (the extent to which the circumstances you are born into predict your outcomes in life for education or income for example) are already among the most entrenched in the developed world. With property wealth likely to be passed down generation to generation – within families – it is likely that those without will continue to rent, and perhaps give up on homeownership as an aspiration.
If things continue as they are we can expect a couple of trends to continue, or even accelerate. Unlike the children of previous recessions, the unattainability of homeownership means that young people today have nothing to save for, creating a generation of uber-consumers that are happy to spend now without accumulating property wealth. The wealthy among these will be hoping to accumulate property wealth through inheritance – a process likely to further slow social mobility – and as this wealth is passed down it is possible that a new property-owning class will emerge among millennials, creating even greater resource inequity within one generational grouping.
That class divides can emerge from within these generational groupings highlights the shortcomings of generational analysis as a lens. Demographic imbalance can have huge implications for outcomes, as can being born in a period of economic growth, but with inequality passed from generation to generation, it becomes more useful to explore and confront these causes of inequality at their source.