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We have come full circle on millennials. First, there were opinion pieces arguing that the younger generation was arrogant, entitled and flighty. Then there were articles on their economic plight, lamenting that their wages are depressed below those of older generations and their home ownership ambitions thwarted by towering property prices. They also face — as my FT colleague Janan Ganesh puts it— “electorally potent older people”.
Nobody is disputing the data — and if they are, some more has just been published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showing that since 2008 those aged 22 to 30 have fared significantly worse in terms of household income than their older counterparts.
But now there is a new argument thrust at the millennials: the data do not matter. Rather, young people should be grateful for smartphones, cheap flights and not having to live through the second world war.
Millennials probably are grateful for these things, because this seems a matter of common sense. They’re also probably grateful for hairdryers, washing machines and fridge freezers and, less trivially, the fact that they were born in an economically developed western European nation (if they have).
Every generation has seen advances in technology. Of course millennials are grateful for cheap flights — but so are baby boomers, who enjoy them in equal measure. They may experience them later in life, but their higher incomes mean they can take more holidays to make up for it. The children of millennials, in turn, will probably be grateful for their robo-butlers and self-driving cars. Does that mean they should put up with depressed wages and high unemployment?
Arguing that society tends towards technological and social progress and claiming that it is always better to be born later is not particularly contentious, but neither does it seem particularly relevant. Few would dispute that it’s clearly more fun living now than it was in Tudor times, whatever the glorious suggestions of the BBC’s costume drama department would have us believe.
Whatever social justice and technological advances we enjoy as a society, young people need jobs and they need to be paid enough to give them a shot at securing a home. It’s not about complaining, or about “generational politics” (whatever that means).
It’s madness to chastise a generation for asking for better — while admitting that the data shows they’re getting a raw deal. It’s also unsatisfactory to view the economic problems of millennials in absolute, rather than relative terms. Young people should not have to put up with policies that favour older cohorts at their expense just because smartphones exist now.
There is a range of policies aimed at protecting the elderly at the expense of the young, and it’s difficult to believe this is accidental. The recent IFS report finds the long-term impact of planned changes over the course of this parliament will see this trend continue. Pensioners are protected, while deep cuts are made to working-age benefit spending. This affects more than millennials, but it does draw attention to the privileging of pensioners over other economic groups.
There are two arguments to explain this. The first is that the decision to favour pensioners over the young is ideological. The older generation have paid into their pension and worked hard so they don’t deserve to lose the retirement that was promised to them. The second is that this is pragmatic politics: in the UK 2010 general election 74 per cent of people over the age of 55 voted, compared with 44 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds.
Another issue is that political passion is strangely lacking when it comes to injustices foisted on the young — not least among the young themselves. Millennials are not to be found waving flags outside parliament to protest against the triple-lock protection for the state pension at the expense of working age benefits.
But a low level of political engagement should not be regarded as an indicator of contentment. A study by Citizens Advice Bureau in November found that having a sense of financial security is associated with more positive attitudes to democratic processes. In short, you are less likely to vote if you feel financially insecure.
In their book Scarcity, economists Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan make the commonsense argument that people have less time and energy to spend engaging with political processes when they have other things to be worrying about — such as money.
So making millennials feel financially secure is good for democracy. Arguing that they should shut up and be grateful for their smartphones is not.