The trouble was the sheer number of Boomers. As a big generation, the Boomers had achieved political and cultural dominance. They were no more self-interested than any other group, but they warped government priorities. And that was unfair to everyone else. Boomers, Willetts argued, were not okay.
Still, in terms of government policy in Britain, little in a tangible sense has changed over the past decade, and Willetts—now a member of the House of Lords and the president of the Intergenerational Centre at the Resolution Foundation, a London think tank—has returned to the subject with an updated edition of The Pinch. “The frustration for me is that the core argument remains absolutely the same,” he told me. “The problem is as acute now as it was 10 years ago.”
The 63-year-old—yes, Willetts is a Boomer himself—is well aware of the subject’s emotional resonance. Mostly, though, he is surprised that the rage tends to come not from Millennials, who feel disadvantaged, but from the Boomers, who feel attacked. (After The Pinch first came out, he began to receive furious letters in neat copperplate handwriting on expensive notepaper.) “When we have all this power, we shouldn’t be surprised when younger people are rather resentful,” he said. “I’m surprised they aren’t angrier.”
He does not think Boomers hate young people, “but I don’t think they’re yet aware of the impact of the policies they vote for on the younger generation.” In Britain, for example, Boomers have opposed housebuilding, leaving the country with a chronic shortage that protects the value of their homes but traps younger people in the expensive private-rental sector. (In 1980, the average private tenant spent 10 percent of their income on rent. That figure is now 30 percent.) Boomers have successfully deterred politicians from devaluing the state pension, even as salaries and working-age benefits have stagnated. The result is that pensioner poverty has halved since 2000, whereas poverty among people of working age has risen. Pensioners are less likely to be surviving on a low income than are those of working age.
The challenge for politicians is that, like other relatively privileged groups—think men or white people—Boomers can be defensive about their unearned luck. After all, any individual pensioner might be poor; might have been driven out of a much-loved job by an ageist employer; might have been recently divorced or widowed; might be worried about future retirement bills. Very few of us feel that we have lived unfairly blessed lives.
That defensiveness can sometimes manifest as retaliatory accusations that younger generations have it easy. The intergenerational debate has spawned its own weird jargon: “Avocado toast,” for example, has become shorthand for the argument that Millennials splurge their salaries on good living, rather than saving for a home like their parents did. The only problem: even the priciest avocado toast at a London restaurant costs in the range of £10 ($13), while the average home in the city costs more than £450,000 (about $575,000) and a buyer would be expected to have a 20 percent down payment to get a mortgage. That is an awful lot of toast.