Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The intergenerational conflict fib

Intergenerational conflict. Let's make some effort and disassociate these two words. Fiercely negative, this political and media fueled construction is drip by drip, convincing us that the young and the old are involved in some life or death struggle, for scarce resources. 

"Hey, it's the age of austerity!"

"Wait, the stock and housing markets are on a tear!"

So, who's right?

Dr Debora Price, King's College, London considered this toxic groupthink in her remarks: "Challenging Futures: Intergenerational Conflict and Critical Gerontology in the Age of Austerity" for the ERA, Emerging Researchers in Ageing, at the 42nd BSG (British Society of Gerontologists) Conference on 10 September.
As is generally the case, whoever wields the power allows popular discourse to run and flourish, right alongside unpopular counter discourse. It's effective. The roller-coaster titillation diverts attention, albeit momentarily. Meanwhile, the deluge of conficting information becomes so incessant, that most of us are inclined to tune out. And so we do, except the niggling is now in our brains and it festers. Simultaneously, a very, selective, evidence base is supporting this head pounding discourse.
Intergenerational friction has a long, rich history. Today's young have been made to feel that the boomers have hoarded housing, education and health care while less attention has been focused on the increase in boomerang kids; those who return to the safe haven of "home". Previous generations were more likely to be escaping from home, in search of something different and sometimes better. Some boomer parents have made things so much better that the cocoon of home can look infinitely superiour to the big, bad world. University degrees and bags of promise aren't enough and cushy homes with full refrigerators and free wifi are in some cases, turning these hard earned edifices into the next graveyard of ambition.
It's as if a collective terror of ageing has coalesced, resulting in a confusing melange of increasing attacks on the accumulated wealth of the boomers. Then, it gets lumped together with the vitriol heaped on "senior" perks like free bus passes, TV licenses and winter fuel allowances. "Watch out!" These are being gobbled up by the preceding generation, the over 85's who are also regularly accused of bankrupting the NHS and clogging up A&E's.
In 2013, its everyone's turn to be anxious and for good reason. Putting inheritance, the biggest driver of inequality to the side momentarily, some research suggests that only 50% of people over 50 have more than £100K in savings for retirement and another 25% have zero housing equity. These same people are predicted to live another 30 years. Concurrently, financial transfers via the bank of mom and dad have increased significantly in the last 10 years. Stingy, aren't they.
In addition, some 63% representing 7M grandparents in the UK provide essential child care, unpaid and the incidence of intergenerational co-housing has also steadily risen. Selfish, too.
So why is the inequality fib so pervasive, who is it benefiting and whose interests is it serving? The political debate has been structured erroneously and it is really up to us, to speak the truth to power. What can be done? Here are a few ideas to get the new discourse started:

1. In the case of equity release programs, the government enthusiasm is markedly flawed. Those who need it the most have the least housing equity and this makes it highly regressive.
2. More progressive taxation will be necessary to fund social care going forward.
3. Rethink the way that NI money is actually used.
4. Particularly pertinent now, correct the divide between health care and social care, beginning with reclassifying dementia as an illness instead of a social problem.
5. Re-engineer the financing mechanisms in reforms of the NHS and make social care also free, at the point of delivery.
Obviously so simple! But changing the political discourse means acknowledging that the marketization of the welfare state can not be reduced to another left vs right debate. This could be better accomplished by advancing the disassociation suggested above and replacing it with intergenerational cohesion as the new, more powerful discourse. People, seriously, do need people.
Change might be in in the air. Sir Andrew Dilnot, architect and champion for social care funding reform and Chairman of the Statistics Authority recently challenged the views of David Willets, author of The Pinch and Frances Becket author of What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us. He believes that material improvements in the lives of Britons, already in evidence, will continue to improve. Longer, living boomers and their also ageing, former charges, have every motive to actively participate in contributing substantively to these improvements.

Deborah Gale

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