There’s a lot to do, and no-one around to do it. That’s the conclusion from Britain’s first week as a country on a course for Brexit.
Most debate, and financial market turmoil, is focused on the huge task of redefining Britain’s role in the world. Whether we like it or not, and whether our leaders have answers or not, we’re going to need to decide what level of openness we actually want as we determine new approaches to trade and migration.
But our leaders, as and when they emerge, have other tasks too – less visible but no less pressing. First on that list is bringing this nation back together after the disunity of recent weeks and months. We need to do that not just because the vote was close, but because it revealed painful fractures for all to see.
The UK’s geographic and economic divides – and the political pressures they’ve exposed – have received the most attention to date. But it is the generational divide in voting patterns that stands out most. No region of Britain voted as strongly to stay in the EU as did those aged 18-24, and none voted as strongly to leave as those aged 65 and over. Those that will live longest with the costs and benefits of leaving the EU voted overwhelmingly for Remain.
This divergence in view about the best future for Britain comes on the back of the young bearing by far the biggest burden in the post-crisis living standards squeeze. Typical pay for those in their 20s fell by 12 per cent between 2009 and 2015. At the same time, major policy failures have visibly and viscerally harmed the interests of younger generations – none more so than on housing. But these are symptoms of policy and political failure, not of a generational war. Indeed it is the old who are in many cases most worried about the young – or as they call them their children and grandchildren.
The reasons for this divergence are cultural as much as economic. The young have never lived in a Britain not embedded in European institutions (indeed the tipping point for whether a generation voted to leave or remain is 45 – exactly the length of time since Britain joined the EEC). They have travelled more, and in many cases share more culturally with those across the sea than older neighbours across the road. They’re also far less engaged with Westminster politics and are less inclined to vote as a result.
Governments cannot address all these differences, but they have a responsibility not to make them worse. Good leadership will seek to actively strengthen rather than weaken the social contract between the generations that underpins all societies. That responsibility has been taken far too lightly in recent years with little attention paid to the intergenerational impact of big public policy decisions.
New times, and soon a new Prime Minister, give us the chance to start putting that right. But whoever walks into 10 Downing Street on 9 September will not start with a blank sheet of paper. Instead they will inherit announced plans for tax cuts and benefit reductions for the next four years with very significant intergenerational impacts.
But far from compensating for the tighter living standards squeeze on the young the tax and benefit changes to be implemented between now and 2020 will exacerbate this divide. They take away an average of £220 from those in their 30s, and give away £170 to those in their 60s (as the chart below shows). This will mean a redistribution that takes £1.8 billion from millennials and gives £1.2 billion to the baby boomers.
This form of inter generation transfer from the millennials to baby boomers risks fuelling, rather than healing, intergenerational tensions. Rethinking it should be a priority for the new Prime Minister and all political parties.
Alongside putting right these tax and benefit changes we need to see a focus on the most-visible failures of policy that drive both young people’s anxieties about their own future, and the worries of parents and grandparents for the next generation. Both our catastrophic failures to build homes or to put in place quality, clearly understood routes from school into work for those without a university education stand out as priorities for action.
We come from different generations and different political parties, but we agree on this: the need to close the generational divide in Britain was there before the Brexit vote last week, but the last week has made it a national priority by tying it up with the biggest political change for more than half a century.
As politics resets with new leaders and new challenges it’s crucial we address that divide directly. The new Prime Minister might not be able to give the young what they want on EU membership, but they can give them reason to believe that Britain isn’t just a country for old men.