Saturday, July 07, 2012

Divide and rule

I am writing seriously at the moment, so haven't as much time for blogging. But a bit of conventional wisdom seems to be cropping up recently that I have a vested interest in and I wanted to comment on it. Why? Well, despite being a young, vigorous buck in my own mind, the empirical reality is that I am not quite in the first flush of youth. And, actually, I have sort of retired.

This all began a little while ago. There was this argument floating around. It started as an attack on babyboomers and it was not without some validity. The notion was that the generation to which I belong had the best of everything, which is true - we were lucky, but when it came to their turn to pay for the next generation to have similar benefits they became parsimonious and demanded tax cuts instead. Now I am not too sure that it is entirely due to all of us being selfish, rather I might just suggest that a change in the elite consensus on how economies are managed could have had something to do with it. And maybe those super-rich enthusiasts for a bit of state-aided redistribution coming their way could take a bit of the flak as well. But never mind, if you have a few million people to blame instead, why not go for them?

Gradually, rather than being venerated for our wisdom and experience, we seem to be becoming the target of 'progressive' opinion. Robert Skidelsky is after retirement itself. Whilst, I may agree with this: 
... the rich and super-rich have raced ahead from everyone else; and there are 13 million households, or 21% of the population, who live below the officially designated poverty line. This group cannot reasonably be expected to trade income for leisure. They must first have more income.
How to bring about those more equal conditions of life needed to realise the promise of leisure for all is the main social challenge facing advanced capitalist countries. 
I am less sure about his view that part of the way to do this is
The abolition of the concept of retirement, with "special needs" to be attended to by a retirement agency. 
Now I have to admit bits of retirement are not easy, especially for someone like me who loved his job and retired earlier than he would have liked in circumstances that he would rather not have happened. But there are benefits, especially today as I can look out on a blisteringly hot day at my beautiful Greek garden that I had the sense to acquire when I was still earning. Now I can contemplate long, extended stays here. Yet this guy sees me chained to work forever, even if I am only working three-hour days (actually too short to do anything meaningful). Yes, state pensions and the idea of a retirement age only came in for the first time in 1908, but it was to replace the workhouse.

A couple of weeks ago in his Spectator blog post Nick Cohen also chipped in about how the Tories are targeting young people, including the horrible proposal to remove housing benefit from the under twenty-fives. Again, he makes a decent point well when he points out the fact that older people are more likely to vote and thus are a much more politically dangerous target to hit. (I would point out that older people actually have taken a number of hits, from pension mis-selling, changes to the way pensions are calculated, the rising retirement age etc., to the hidden ones like the death of non-accredited adult education, which was a lifeline to many of the retired). But then he makes a utilitarian point about the need to invest in the young.
I am sorry to be brutal, but there is no way of phrasing it delicately: the young are our future and the old are our burden. 
Hold on a second. There is a bit of natural justice to consider. Someone leaving school at eighteen has just spent the whole of their lives being "our burden", paid for by the old. The old have worked most of their lives, contributed in other ways, such as by being carers, and coughed up taxes for more than forty years. If we get a few perks to go with our sharply reduced incomes, I would like to point out that we have bloody paid for them! The young have so far paid nothing.

Obviously, youth unemployment is a problem and a far worse one in Greece and Spain. The young need a start and wouldn't it be good if they too could look forward to some liberty at the end of their working lives or even that people should continue to work if they want to? If the problem is about how we enable the young to become the contributors they desperately want to be in a contracting economy, then the problem is the contracting economy, not pensioners. One generation doesn't have to be supported at the expense of the other. Of course, eventually they are the same people. The old were once young and the young, if they are lucky, will be old. And, if I remember correctly, there is something else that differentiates people and their life chances at the moment that seems to be a bit more permanent and pertinent. What is it again? Oh yes; class.

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