Britain could soon become “permanently divided” as a result of intergenerational inequality, the UK’s social mobility tsar has warned, as a survey shows that more than half of Britons believe young people will be worse off than previous generations.
In the run-up to George Osborne’s budget next week, new polling lays bare the country’s anxiety about young adults facing an intimidating mix of evaporating jobs, unaffordable property and rising debt. The survey found that 54% believed young people’s lives would be worse than those of their own generation.
“Unfortunately there is a growing sense, somehow, that Britain’s best days are behind us rather than ahead,” said Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. “That is so corrosive. And so I think genuinely, the wind of change does have to sweep through the country.”
Milburn was responding to a week of coverage in the Guardian that has exposed the scale of the financial betrayal of twentysomethings. Over 30 years, young adults have slumped from being a well-remunerated cohort able to buy property, settle down and start families, to being the poor relation of society.
The chancellor, George Osborne, has been accused of using his budgets to protect pensioners from austerity and of concentrating fiscal pain on young adults and families. A series of cuts has affected young adults in the past six years, including the tripling of tuition fees, the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance, and the slashing of housing benefit for single people aged 25-35.
Milburn, a former Labour chief secretary to the Treasury who was appointed by David Cameron as chair of the social mobility commission in 2012, added that Britain may be about to face an “existential crisis”.
“What both the polling and the data suggest is that we may have reached an inflection point which, if these trends continue, we may become a society that is permanently divided. Certainly on home ownership, we’re heading for a world where rates of home ownership among young people are below 50% for the first time. If this trend line continues, we’ll be there by the end of the decade. It is a wake up and smell the coffee moment,” he said.
“This idea that the succeeding generation would do better than the previous generation is part of the glue that binds, as has been the notion that if you put in effort, you get a reward. Certainly I was brought up to believe that if you stuck in at school, you’d get on in life.
“Unfortunately, there’s pretty compelling data to suggest that that may no longer be the case and that has got huge consequences for social cohesion in our country. It almost feels like we’re facing an existential crisis about what sort of society we want to be,” he added.
The poll, conducted by Ipsos Mori, asked 1,000 adults: “When they reach your age, do you think today’s youth will have a higher/better or lower/worse quality of life than you/their parents’ generation, or about the same?”
About 54% of the country believe young people’s lives will be worse than their own generation’s, the highest proportion ever recorded, Ipsos Mori said. A little over one in five thought life would get better. That was little changed from November 2011, but nearly half as optimistic as the mood in spring 2003, when the question was first asked.
The population’s deep sense of foreboding about the next generation’s prospects is in stark contrast to an overwhelming recognition from those born before the second world war, and the baby boomers (born between 1945 and 1964), that they have a much better life than their parents.
The over-50s were overwhelmingly positive about their own life course. When those polled were asked if they felt their generation “will have had a better or worse life than your parents”, two-thirds of boomers and 81% of the pre-war generation answered it was better. The younger the respondents were, the more likely they were to be negative about their prospects: nearly half of Generation Y (those aged 18-35) – also known as millennials – believe they will be worse off.
Bobby Duffy, managing director of Ipsos Mori’s Social Research Institute, said the fact that a majority of the populace believed the lives of today’s young adults would be worse than those of their parents was striking. “It’s the highest we’ve measured – it’s completely flipped around from April 2003.”
Duffy said the poll, conducted in mid-February, showed there was a good dose of generational sympathy around, with middle-aged baby boomers most likely to be fretful about the future of youth.
“It’s not just Generation Y who think it’s bad: 63% of baby boomers expect it to be bad, which is in effect their kids they are talking about. The point about looking at things generationally is that we’re all connected.”
A further set of questions directed at millennials found that difficulty getting on the housing ladder topped the reasons cited for their worsening prospects. This was closely followed by a quarter worrying about job security or wage growth.
Twenty per cent feared that government support – investment in public services or benefit payments – would dwindle in their lifetime, while18% feared a growing burden from student debts. One in 11 felt mental health issues would make life harder for their generation.
There's a growing divide between those who have access to the bank of mum and dad and those who haven't
Milburn, from County Durham, who stood down as an MP in 2010, said frontline politics was failing to deliver on bread-and-butter issues.
“Developments like the national minimum wage are welcome, but where politics should really be focused is unleashing people’s aspirations to succeed. It’s not just a question of helping people to get a good job, but the progress in their career. It’s not just about helping people get affordable housing, it’s about helping them to own a home. These are very tangible aspirations that each successive generation has wanted for itself.”
Milburn added that he was extremely concerned that intergenerational disparities would lead to further inequality overall: “Frankly, without the bank of mum and dad, many people even in their 30s would not be able to afford a home. And that’s great if you’ve got access to that bank, but there is a growing divide between those who have and those who haven’t.
“The starting points for people to be able to progress are becoming more differentiated and divided. And that should be something that concerns every politician in every political party everywhere. I personally think it’s welcome that Cameron talks about ‘one nation Britain’, but what these alarming figures demonstrate is that the gap between the rhetoric and the reality is alarmingly wide, and it has to be closed.”
‘You still feel like a bit of a burden on your parents’
Roseanna Marshall, 25, Newent in Gloucestershire
Roseanna Marshall, who has a degree in drama and theatre art, is worried about a variety of issues, but her primary one is job security.
“At the moment I’m on a zero-hours contract with the NHS as a receptionist for an out-of-hours GP pilot scheme. I don’t really know how much I’m earning every month. You contact them and say you can work these hours and sometimes they give you more hours than the others,” she says.
“Before I was working as a teaching assistant and the pay wasn’t very good at all. I was earning, on a 25 hours a week contract, £670 [a month].”
Marshall lives at home with her parents. “It’s comfortable,” she says, “but you still feel like a bit of a burden on your parents, as much as they love and care for you.”
It certainly wasn’t where she thought she’d be when she was younger, but she has a plan. “I’ll try and get a more substantial job and then … I’m hoping by the time I’m 30, I will try to buy a house but I’m not really sure at the moment.”
Rachel Egan is in no doubt that mental health is going to be a problem for the millennials and that the underlying cause is financial.
“We’re facing a lot more economic challenges,” says the psychology graduate. “I went to university just as the financial crisis hit ... worrying I might not get a job when I came out. I also went to university just as fees were going up.”
Egan, who is a mental health first-aider and has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, says the high cost of living makes this worse. She says pays £650 a month for a bedroom in zone three in London. “You’ve got this constant sense of anxiety about rent.”
His rent in a shared, two-up two-down house takes at least a third of his income – he has about £100 a week after basics are paid for. From that, he has managed to save £1,000.
“I kind of expected I’d own a house by now. When you’re 21 or 22, you do mess about. You go out every weekend and you have your fun. But when I reached 25, 26, I was like: ‘Right, I need to save for a house’.
“I don’t have a great relationship with my parents. A lot of people of my generation stay with the parents until they’ve built up a deposit. I don’t have that.”
He adds that the goalposts keep moving and his salary is not keeping up with house prices. “The area I live in at the moment, house prices went up about £10,000 in the past year and a half. It feels like it gets further away every time you get closer.”