Polly Toynbee Guardian/UK 4 April 2017
We were the generation who won all those freedoms on sex, contraception, abortion, gay rights, divorce, who saw the start of women’s lib, an end to censorship ... what’s happened to us? We stood for liberation. But our Brexit voting has revealed a great many things about ourselves we might prefer not to know. My generation and those older thought we were the avant garde; the tearers-down of barriers; freedom fighters for the permissive society in the vanguard of progress.
What’s happened to us? The big baby boomer generation bears down on a shrinking proportion of the young. In attitudes, we are not ageing well. A YouGov poll last week revealed how yearning for that imaginary 1950s golden age was a strong force that helped blow Britain out of the EU. Remember, 64% of over-65s voted for Brexit, while 71% of under-25s voted remain.
Yet the anti-immigrant sentiment, much stronger among the old than the young, was only the topsoil on deeper strata of backward-looking aches among the old. Brexiters are 53% for bringing back the rope (supported by just 20% of remainers). Bring back beating in schools, say 42% of Brexiters (against just 14% of remainers). Three times more Brexiters than remainers would bring back incandescent lightbulbs, blue passports, imperial weights and measures and pre-decimal currency – which would fox anyone under 55.
At the last election, 20% more over-65s voted Tory than for Labour. Compare that to the under-30s who voted 4% more for Labour. YouGov finds nearly three quarters of the over-65s would ban burqas (36% of the under 30s). A kindly 62% of the young think we have a moral obligation to refugees, a view shared by only 39% of the old. Same-sex marriage gets 83% support from the young, but just 46% of the over-65s. We who saw the start of women’s lib, an end to censorship, capital and corporal punishment, who threw off hats, gloves and conventions to wear and think what we liked? But no doubt many of my generation never bought into what seemed like the spirit of the age: abolishing capital punishment was never popular.
My generation should count their blessings as the never-had-it-so-good beneficiaries of the National Health Service, better schools and overseas travel, with new opportunities in that great upward sweep from blue to white collar work. Now most of us sit on the proceeds of decades of booming house prices, enriched by an unmerited, untaxed property windfall. True, the over-60s are twice as likely to give to charity as the under-30s, though generosity may be easier with more cash. Growing old, too many in my generation seem unwilling to share all that experience of progress they have enjoyed.
Of course the poorer old need and deserve all these supports, but the biggest cohort ever to retire on decent pensions still keep their universal perks. The extreme £12bn benefit cuts starting this week take most money from young families and give 80% of tax cuts to the richest, leaving the poorest third considerably worse off. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts there will be 5.1 million children in poverty by 2020, up 50% – directly due to tax credit and working allowance cuts starting now. Those with children are hit hardest: children’s services, health visitors and schools cut back, yet universal pension perks are protected.
Of course the old never willed any harm to the young, and the real blame lies with the government’s draconian cuts, deliberately shared so unfairly. But the voting habits of the old are the underlying cause of a shift of wealth and income towards them and away from the impoverished young.
The one oddity is the care system, dysfunctional in every way and starved of funds, as described in a trenchant Commons report last week. If the grey vote is so politically powerful, why doesn’t the social care crisis force the government to act? Partly because relatively few over-65s at any one time need care: many older voters don’t confront the crisis until their very last years, when the average time in residential care is two and a half years.
What do we do about my generation? They have the voting power but too many seem to lack awareness of their good luck. If Brexit further harms the life chances of the young, the old who voted for it will owe them serious recompense. [Abridged]