Boomers Are Not Okay

Older voters warp their countries’ policies because of their political power. One British politician has a plan to end that dominance.

Older voters listen to Boris Johnson speak in June 2019.
Dylan Martinez / Reuters

For more than two decades, the Conservative politician David Willetts was the member of Parliament representing Havant, a cozy middle-class town in southern England. He dealt with the usual problems: traffic in the town center, littering along the seafront.

After the 2007 financial crash, though, he noticed something alarming. He was regularly visited by young couples—the man might be a nurse, his partner might be a cashier at the local supermarket—who worked hard and lived frugally, yet found themselves “camping in the spare room of his parents’ house, with a baby in a box at the bottom of the bed, and they couldn’t see how they would ever get anywhere to live.” Often, Willetts would give them whatever help he could—very little—and then head over to a local residents’ association meeting, where he would talk to “completely decent people” in their 50s and 60s who owned their own home but wanted no further houses to be built in their neighborhood.

Willetts had stumbled onto one of the great divides of modern politics: young versus old. In Britain, age is now a better predictor of voting intention than social class. Overall, the Boomers voted for Brexit in 2016 and the Conservatives in 2017; their Millennial children voted Remain and Labour. The single biggest error that Theresa May, the prime minister in the lead-up to the 2017 election, made during that process was to float the idea that older people might have to contribute more to the spiraling costs of their own retirement care. The “dementia tax” prompted an immediate, ferocious response, and May backed down.

That is not an isolated example. A guiding principle of politics in Britain, and elsewhere in the West, is: What Boomers want, Boomers get. Working-age benefits, for example, have been frozen since the 2015 budget, but the state pension has consistently risen. At this election, Britain’s two main parties have both promised to keep increasing pensions; Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has also pledged £58 billion ($74.7 billion) to Boomer women affected by the rise in the female state pension age from 60 to 66.

The debate is also about so much more than abstract disagreements over policy and government funding. Caring for the elderly, for example, becomes wrapped up in assertions of “just deserts”—I’ve worked hard all my life and paid my taxes—and fears about money-grubbing children selling off their parents’ houses. It is also, like taxes on inheritance, a subject that prods at many people’s deep desire to pass something on to their offspring. Perhaps some are jealous of what appear to be greater opportunities afforded to younger people, bemused by younger generations’ lifestyles, and fearful that their own values are seen as outdated. Generational arguments are essentially family dramas, with all the friction that implies.

Both sides claim that the other is being condescending. Some Boomers argue that the word itself has become a cover for ageism; Millennials roll their eyes and reply with the phrase that has come to encapsulate their weariness: “Okay, Boomer.”

Still, it would be a shame if the age divide in politics merely became another front in the internet’s never-ending, constantly mutating, 24/7 culture war. Because as Willetts’s experience in Havant showed, the battle between the generations presents modern politicians with an inescapable challenge. Boomers have bent the gravity of politics toward themselves and their needs. They buy newspapers. They vote. They wield their spending power effectively. Their voice is loud. To build a fair and just society, the question then must be: On everything from elderly care to housing, how do you persuade them to vote against their own interests?

Willetts started by exposing the scale of the problem. In 2010, he wrote a book called The Pinch, which argued that British “baby boomers”—the generation born in the 20 years after the Second World War— “took their children’s futures.” They bought cheap houses, which have since rocketed in value. Their standard of living rose throughout their working lives. They retired with solid state-funded pensions, and sometimes generous private ones, too. Their Millennial children, by contrast, were having a tougher time—struggling to buy a house, watching their salaries stagnate, and looking ahead to a much less comfortable retirement. It was, Willetts wrote, selfish of the Boomers not to recognize, and mitigate, this situation.

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.

Arguments about Boomers versus Millennials crop up in other countries—hence the popularity of the “Okay, Boomer” meme in the U.S.—but the problem is particularly acute in Britain, because of the country’s steep fall in home ownership in recent decades. The British rental sector is much more “mom and pop”—literally. “Something like 20 percent of Boomers have a second property that they rent out,” Willetts said. That means there is a direct transfer of wealth from younger renters to older asset-owners.

How, though, do you explain to otherwise reasonable retirement-age voters how much damage their demands are causing to their children’s generation—without completely alienating them? “In politics, you’re not a kamikaze pilot, you’re not on a suicide mission,” Willetts said. He told the Boomers that the houses they owned had been largely built in the 1960s and ’70s so their parents had somewhere to live; they now had a similar obligation to allow more building for their own kids. “That was the only argument that gave them pause,” he said.

The most consistent criticism of the “generation war” thesis is that enormous inequality exists within generations—there are poor Boomers and rich Millennials. But we would not argue that the existence of Oprah Winfrey—a black, female billionaire—means that racism and sexism do not exist. So why overlook the advantages and disadvantages of being born in a particular year? Those differences within generations do matter, though, because rich Boomers, the luckiest part of a lucky generation, will leave their money to their children, further entrenching inequality. If the value of assets is rising faster than incomes, we are heading for a society where wealth matters more, and earnings matter less. The problem will not resolve itself without intervention.

What form might that intervention take? One obvious answer is to build more houses (bad news for the residents’ associations who want to preserve their unblocked views or quiet roads) and ease lending criteria for younger people, to make it easier for them to get mortgages. Willetts has a more radical idea: Offer younger people £10,000 when they turn 30, money that they could put into a pension, use to start a business, combine into a down payment, or spend on education or training.

Free money for Millennials? That might cause a few Boomers to choke on their (non-avocado) toast. Willetts is intent on persuading them that it’s only fair. He reminds me of the famous bumper sticker: “Be nice to your kids: They choose your nursing home.”