I am getting a little fed up with the old and later middle-aged people in this country, with their selfish, inward-looking, self-satisfied view of themselves! Don’t accuse me of generalising – I know I am – but it is the only way to look at most issues. The many special cases are and remain special – but it is an inevitable fact that policy cannot be based on special cases.
The ‘baby boomers’ are defined as those born between 1946 and 1964 (approximately) – ie those who this year are aged from about 48 to 66. It was in July 1957 – bang in the middle of that period – that Harold MacMillan, then our Prime Minister, announced that the British people ‘had never had it so good’. This, of course, effectively included those born before 1946, who were still young enough in the 50s to the 80s to benefit from how good it was.
What was so good about those years? The late 40s weren’t so great in many ways – for example war-time rationing did not finish until the 50s – many younger people today find that incredible, but it’s true. But what was so good, as the memories and realities of the Second World War receded? I’m just going to mention two or three factors, which I can most easily bring to mind.
Firstly, the middle and upper classes (hate the language but can’t see a way to avoid it – but basically I am talking about those who were not living in Council Housing) became rich on the massive inflation of house prices starting in about 1953. The young and younger middle aged of today who are suffering from negative equity or the inability to afford a home of their own at all are facing the real cost of the deflation of house prices and the seizing up of the housing market in the last few years. But the older members of our society (joined by those Council Housing tenants who were able to cash in as well, following Thatcher’s fire sale) are still sitting pretty. Many of them are moaning about how they have lost money on their houses in the past few years, but compared with what they paid for them and the (from today’s perspective) trivial mortgages they needed to take out, they are quids in! 40 or 50 years ago Inheritance Tax (or it’s forbears back to Estate Duty) was something that we knew affected the Duke of This and the Earl of That and they had to make their homes open to the public. But in the last generation anybody can have a house which puts them into the Inheritance Tax paying bracket. ‘Ordinary’ parents have been leaving their children real wealth for more than 20 years now.
Secondly, the NHS was still the envy of the world for good and obvious reasons. Medication was freely available to all for all ailments. Although the pharmaceutical companies were already getting rich on the British NHS and the American Insurance backed medical services, nonetheless medication was affordable – it was not rationed, as it has to be today. The queues for operations were still manageable and managed. Triage had not been invented, because somehow, when you arrived in Casualty (now renamed, of course) they seemed to be able to see you without any particular delay. No one had to pay for their prescriptions.
Thirdly, university entrance was open to all (so long as they could get the GCE grades they required) and they ALL received an annual maintenance grant (not a loan) and the state paid all the fees. With lots of grammar schools still about and many of the new Comprehensives still using grammar school techniques for the brighter kids, until they learned differently, anyone could go for the requisite GCE grades. [As a right wing political aside, the failure of so many secondary modern schools and their like was the problem – not the success of the grammar schools. Equality achieved by hitting the best advantaged rather than advancing the worst advantaged is showing its cost now in an un- or poorly- educated nation today.]
One of the major challenges facing us, as well as most of the developed nations on the earth today is our increasing longevity. But as ever it is the haves who are not making way for the have-nots. And I mean by that today’s middle class property-owning pensioners. They grew up when they could get a university education free if they wanted it, when they could walk into a job that was for life if they wanted it, when their middle class jobs offered them pensions (albeit often based on their own partial contributions) that promised them inflation linked pensions set at about half of their final salaries (or better if they were in public service). Those pension schemes were based on rapidly outdated statistics of life expectancy – on years of expected retirement. They really have had it and continue to have it good.
So what has happened? We live longer. What have we done about it? Nothing, except wring our hands about how there are not enough working people working long enough to pay for our (the currently and future retired) pensions! Am I the only one who can see a serious flaws in this lack of thinking? I can’t believe it, but I have heard no one propose that the problem is that we are not working long enough anymore. It is suggested that individuals maybe should be allowed to work on past retirement age (65 for men and maybe 65 for women if we wait long enough). But we should all HAVE to work longer for 50% pensions.
This is not an imposition. In my father’s time, men retired at 65 after hard working lives of 45+ years, put their feet up and died before they were 69. Women lived much longer because they did not stop work (mainly in the home) because even if it reduced with the departure of children, they still had all the chores to do and did not fall off a cliff the way their men did – but they received much smaller pensions than the men did and the system (right or wrong in itself) could afford it. But the average man of 65 nowadays is not old; he is no older than my father was at 45. If a man’s life expectancy has gone up from 69 to 79, it is not 10 years of old age that has been added to his life (it may well be two or three) but it is actually several years of MIDDLE Age that he has had added on – that is additional years of healthy, fit life.
All our three major parties seem to be obsessed with the idea that increasingly, they have to pander to the pensioner. May I make the radical suggestion that (obviously gradually but not too much so) we raise the official retirement age (to 70 or higher) and that with pension contributions being paid for that longer working life to support that shorter retirement, we could then afford again, pensions as generous as the baby boomers have ‘earned’. Unfortunately, it is precisely the current pensioners (who will lose nothing by such changes, because it would be difficult to send them back to work) who will, through their Alliances etc, make the loudest protests. The hardest hit would be those who are two or three years away from retirement, with their plans in place, having to be told No Way, Jose – you have another five years to do.
Rather a political rant, but… – when we can get away with it, we are too lazy and greedy for our own good. When things have got completely out of kilter, it needs a radical shift in arrangements to get back in order again. Business go under, when they do not keep up with the changes in the environment within which they operate. Countries are much less flexible – look at Greece paying the price for unaffordable policies maintained for too long – France has been trying to grapple with precisely these social security problem for a couple of decades and is not getting there yet. It remains that those who have had and want to still have will not making room at the table for those just joining who thereby can’t have. Those most alienated in our society today are the young and especially the young who did not take the precaution to be born in families of the nouveaux property-owning, pension drawing riches of the never-had-it-so-good UK of the 1950s to the 1980s.
I suspect that many of our Christian churches are substantially kept going by just the people I am attacking – on the whole they are good people, who are generous and kind. They are the sort of people I like to be with and to associate with. But we are prone to that besetting human sin – blinkeredness – we can’t see very far beyond our noses and have limited ideas about how we really can make a contribution to general happiness. Somehow and soon, we need to recognise that we have a well-off retired ‘class’ and a beleaguered working ‘class’ (and I don’t mean the Marxist ‘working class’).