The millennial bug: public attitudes on the living standards of different generations

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By Hannah Shrimpton, Gideon Skinner & Suzanne Hall of Ipsos MORI

Executive Summary

As previous analysis for the Intergenerational Commission has highlighted, the principle of generation-on-generation progress that has come to define 20th Century Britain shows signs of being disrupted. In a range of areas, including their earnings levels, housing situation and the extent to which they are building up resources for later life, the living standards of younger adults appear under threat.

For those interested in pursuing policies to address these challenges a key question is the extent to which they are reflected in public perceptions. Drawing on a new quantitative survey of over 2,000 British adults and a qualitative workshop involving members of different generations, this is the question this report (prepared by Ipsos MORI for the Intergenerational Commission) seeks to answer.

There is widespread pessimism about young people’s lives compared to those of their parents

Our survey findings show that Britons no longer think young people will have a better life than previous generations, with only around one quarter (23 per cent) of adults taking this view. Instead, roughly half (48 per cent) believe that millennials will have a worse life than their parents.

This pessimism – present in other developed economies but more apparent in Britain than most – represents something of a change from the pre-crisis view when the balance of opinion on the outlook for the young was clearly positive. The limited consistent data that is available over time suggests that the proportion of adults believing that their children will have a lower quality of life than them has roughly doubled since the early-2000s. And our new survey shows that this pessimism runs deep, extending to the living standards prospects of future generations of young adults too.

Indeed so great is this pessimism among millennials themselves that one third (33 per cent) would prefer to have grown up at the time when their parents were children, while only 15 per cent of baby boomers and members of generation X would rather grow up today. This is despite major technological advances and social progress in recent decades.

Graduates, unemployed people and Labour voters are among the most pessimistic

Millennials are more pessimistic about their own prospects than members of older generations are, with over half (53 per cent) thinking their generation will have a worse life than their parents compared to 44 per cent of baby boomers who think millennials will be worse off. However on balance the concern for the young is widely shared across different generations, and there is just as much if not more variation in attitudes by other demographic characteristics. In particular, graduates and those with higher incomes are markedly more pessimistic than their less-educated and lower-income counterparts. For example, 57 per cent of those with degrees think today’s young people will have a worse life than their parents will have had, compared to 44 per cent of non-graduates.

Indeed, statistical analysis that controls for the overlap between various characteristics tells us that a person’s generation (as well as other factors including income levels and housing tenure) is not significant in determining attitudes. The factors that are significantly related to a person’s outlook for the young include education level (with graduates more pessimistic than the lowest-educated); employment status (with the unemployed more pessimistic than full-time workers and retired people); marital status (with single or separated people more pessimistic than married or co-habiting couples); and voting intention (with Labour voters more pessimistic than Conservatives).

Housing, jobs and retirement living standards are the areas of greatest concern

Not all aspects of millennials’ lives are seen as likely to be worse than their parents’ lives. There is a clear divide, with pessimism regarding millennials’ economic prospects and security set against optimism in social and cultural areas including access to information and entertainment, travel opportunities and social freedoms.

However, pessimism pervades in the majority of areas. It is by far strongest in relation to young adults’ ability to own a home (where 71 per cent of respondents think millennials will be worse off than their parents’ generation), followed by their prospects of living comfortably when they retire from work (61 per cent) and having a secure job (54 per cent). These public perceptions chime with the economic data: analysis for the Intergenerational Commission has raised concerns about the outlook for younger cohorts in each of these areas. Global stability and safety from war and crime also rank highly in terms of pessimism for the young, in this case in contrast to most of the evidence which suggests crime rates and conflict-related deaths have been falling over time.

Housing and jobs market failures are the key causes of this situation, with relatively little blame placed on the actions of generations themselves

Reflecting the areas of millennials’ lives people are most pessimistic about, those who think young adults will have a worse life than their parents are most likely to point to rising house prices (47 per cent) and a lack of stable employment opportunities (38 per cent) as key drivers. In addition, three-in-ten (30 per cent) of those who are pessimistic cite Brexit as a key reason for millennials’ poorer prospects.

While there is evidence that some members of different generations point the finger at one another, such generational-blame-related explanations for millennials’ worse quality of life compared to that of their parents are less common. Baby boomers are more likely than other generations to mention a poor work ethic or sense of entitlement among young people and millennials more likely to cite government policies favouring older adults, but both groups rank these causes far below broader economic and global shifts.

Indeed, our qualitative workshop showed that there are high levels of intergenerational solidarity, with sympathy from older generations regarding the challenges young people face and little resentment among the young towards older people’s more favourable circumstances.

People of all ages support the notion that each generation should do better than the one before

The belief that today’s younger generation will have a worse quality of life than their parents’ generation is all the more concerning when set against widespread public support for the principle of generational progress. Three-in-five adults (59 per cent) think that every generation should have a higher standard of living than the one before it, far outweighing the 8 per cent who disagree. This implies a shared desire for something to be done to improve younger people’s prospects.

Government actions can make a difference, with addressing broad economic challenges and improving public services the top priorities

In terms of what should be done, people’s priorities strongly reflect their reasons for millennials having a more difficult life that have previously been discussed – relating to underlying structural economic issues. In particular, around three-in-ten adults list each of making jobs more stable and secure (31 per cent), supporting growth in the economy as a whole (29 per cent) and increasing the number of houses available to rent or buy (29 per cent) as key areas for government to focus on. Improving health, care and education are also seen as important. In contrast, policies that imply intergenerational redistribution – including shifting the balance of taxation from young to old or reducing welfare benefits to pensioners – are viewed as least important.

What’s striking is that almost everyone believes there are things policy makers can do to address the intergenerational challenge this analysis has set out – only 3 per cent of adults take the view that there is little that can be done by government. Overall, then, the message from this new primary research into intergenerational attitudes is of a firmly-held belief in the promise of generation-on-generation progress: one that few across generations and other demographic groups believe is being kept for today’s young people. Furthermore, the public believes this situation is one policy makers can do things to address.