Widening inequalities between generations are impeding social mobility

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Intergenerational progress – the principle that each generation will do better than the one before – has come to a halt. Millennials in their late 20s are earning less than generation X did 15 years earlier, own half as many homes as the baby boomers, and shoulder greater levels of risk than previous generations.

It’s not all bad news though. Families have stepped in to help, from the bank of mum and dad providing help to first-time buyers, to housing their adult children. This is the intergenerational contract at work. But as the familial contract has sprung into action, the societal contract appears to have waned. This is putting further pressure on both inequality within generation, and between generations too.

For many young people, the offer of parental wealth just isn’t on the table. Among the 20-35 year olds that don’t yet own a home, nearly half have parents that also don’t own a home. So not only are they disadvantaged relative to earlier generations, they also face disadvantage relative to their similarly aged peers. This represents a stunting of social mobility as poorer millennials will have a tougher time trying to catch up. This will be especially acute in age of rising inheritances, which look set to significantly widen the wealth gap between those that already have property and those that don’t.

But social mobility isn’t the only way that less wealthy millennials are affected. In the past, those that didn’t own homes had access to social housing. And social housing, although rented, provided security of tenure and housing costs.

For young people today, the combination of Right-to-Buy and the end of significant state building programmes mean that this security net has been drastically pared back. Of course, Right-to-Buy boosted to social mobility, but this primarily benefitted the baby boomers and the pre-war silent generation. Since then increased house prices, smaller discounts and depleted stocks mean that later generations not only miss out, but face the consequences. And it’s low income families that suffer the most.

Housing isn’t the only area in which intra-generational inequality has widened over time. One positive driver of social mobility in recent decades has been the rapid increase in the number of people going to university. But the rate of increase in degree attainment has slowed recently, and so too has the rate of decline for people gaining no qualifications above GCSE level. While youth unemployment overall remains low, it is twice as high for low-skilled millennials as it was for the generation before them. Too many young people are paying too high a price if they don’t take the traditional A-levels to university route into the labour market.

In effect, widening intra-generational inequality has placed young adults with lower incomes at the sharp end of intergenerational inequality. And with tougher circumstances, opportunities to improve your lot are harder to come by.

But we can fix this. Our Intergenerational Commission proposes better funded technical education to provide good non-university based career routes, and a ‘Better Jobs Deal’ to help young people move onwards and upwards in the jobs market.

To tackle Britain’s wealth gaps we are proposing a £10,000 Citizens Inheritance for all young people. Asset ownership, or the ability to rely on parents, plays an important part in a person’s ability to bear risk and take chances on their careers. Without these things, young adults from low-income backgrounds are likely to be left behind, further widening the gap between rich and poor. A Citizens Inheritance will provide these young adults with the collateral needed to support the acquisition of skills, entrepreneurship, get onto the housing ladder or save into a pension, providing a much needed boost social mobility and repair the Intergenerational contract.

This post originally appeared in the i paper.