Intergenerational Inequality – Did The Baby Boomers Really Have It All?

The Age Factor in Voting

Links between age and voting are increasingly important, and the evidence that in recent elections age was a good indicator of how people voted is considerable. However attempts to claim an older and wealthier population is causing the problems faced by the young is more questionable,  with Tory thinkers and particularly the Daily Mail blaming ‘baby boomers’ for the difficulties of the young play politics with the facts. A generation war is not the way forward for British politics and the slogan “Millenials and Baby Boomers united” has to be the chosen path. Below, John Hurley looks at some of the issues involved finding no simple link to justify seeing the elderly as priveleged however they vote.

Trevor Fisher.

The recent Tory Party conference shows that questions of intergenerational inequality have become part of their current policy thinking, despite governments since 2010 blatantly favouring the older voters who have kept them in power and exempting them from some of the excesses of austerity. To an extent this is an overdue recognition of the problems of young people in contemporary capitalist Britain. At the same time it pushes the debate into familiar divide and rule territory, where one group can be pitted against another.

There is a growing narrative, intensified after the Brexit vote, that there is a group, the baby boomers who are “A generation given everything, free education, golden pensions, access to good housing, social mobility”. It is implied that they are responsible for Brexit, have voted to strip younger generation’s future and that they are a major factor underlying current inequality. The narrative of generational inequality, has been adopted uncritically by a large part of the more serious media, and disseminated in particular by the Guardian.

In using generation as the main category in the analysis of inequality, it overlooks, or perhaps deliberately supplants, social class as an explanatory construct for social divisions. This narrative is promoted by, amongst others, the Intergenerational Foundation and the Resolution Foundation, behind whom stands the shadowy figure of David Willetts. His position is particularly hypocritical, a leading critic of intergenerational inequality, but who as Minister of State for Universities and Science introduced higher education fees of up to £9,000 and a loans system which cripples the prospects of the educated young at great cost to the public purse.

Are the over 65s responsible for Brexit?

Are the specific allegations that the over 65s were responsible for Brexit true? The Ashcroft [1] exit poll (curiously the only one conducted and the basis for most of the figures subsequently thrown around) shows that those over 65 voted 60 /40 percent to leave.  In fact every age group above 45 voted by a majority to leave, and the 35-45 age group only voted remain by 52/48 percent. The other factors in determining voting patterns have been given much less prominence. One very awkward finding of the Ashcroft poll, that voting was most strongly linked to socioeconomic categories has been largely ignored.

Analysis of constituency results, by the Financial Times[2], and at Ward level by the BBC[3] showed that whilst the average age of electorate was a factor, the picture was a much more complex. Education and deprivation emerged as key factors. In these areas leave voting crossed generational lines.

There was a broad pattern in several urban areas of deprived, predominantly white, housing estates towards the urban periphery voting Leave, while inner cities with high numbers of ethnic minorities and/or students voted Remain. [4]

The Resolution Foundation in its analysis of Brexit voting, The Importance of Place[5] also gives a statistical analysis of voting patterns in the referendum. A variety of indicators are considered including average income, unemployment, education, age, home ownership and social cohesion, but indicates that the main factor was age. Oddly, however, the Ashcroft finding that leave voting was even more marked by socio economic category is not included. Whilst income, employment status and education may be partial proxies for socioeconomic divisions based on work, this analytical omission is to say the least surprising.

Was there a golden age for baby boomers?

The golden age thesis depends on a homogenised concept of favoured baby boomers against the deprived under 35s. I do not want to take issue with the fact that many young people and young families are currently having a hard time in the jobs and housing markets, whilst other groups, notably pensioners have been favoured by the Coalition and Conservative governments. However I question the thesis that the baby boomers are homogeneous strata and are all members of a particularly favoured group who were given everything, free higher education, easy mortgages, golden pensions and social mobility.

Once again the Resolution Foundation has had a key role in promoting a view of generational differences based on:

“commonly-used generational cut-offs distinguished based on US discourse and David Willetts’s work on the UK generational cycle ” [6] (sic) .

It defines Baby Boomers as all those born between 1946 and 1965. The narrative is, however based based on sociologically unstable foundations. This concept draws uncritically on American formulations, ignoring the different experience of the UK and the USA. More significantly it ignores the very different experiences of people born in two separate UK baby booms, and the substantial differences of experience between the most favoured and least favoured in each of these cohorts.

The Office for National Statistics identifies two booms amongst those born after world war 2. The first in 1946-52 used to be called, somewhat inelegantly, but aptly, the “post war bulge”. The second,  those born in 1962-1967 the “baby boom”.[7] British cohort studies[8] also identify different generations in this period, and one subsequently, with distinctly different experiences, those born 1946, those born 1959 and those born in 1970. These correspond, approximately, to the two baby booms, and the following generation. Of these generations, only the first born in the baby bulge, and those members of the previous generation born shortly before and during the war are now over 65. Were they beneficiaries of a golden age? The facts show otherwise.

Access to free education

The 1944 Butler Education Act extended free secondary education to all, those previously not selected for Grammar Schools having remained in elementary education until they were 14. However this remained based on a selective system where only one in four or five children went to Grammar Schools which offered GCE qualifications at 16. The vast majority of children left school with few or no qualifications. Entry to University was even more restricted. Of those born in 1946 for example only 7 percent of the age group went to University[9]  and a further 2 per cent to other higher education such as teacher training. Whilst these groups had their fees paid and access to means tested grants very few of the age cohort achieved this privilege.

Later cohorts, those born after 1956 including the 1960s boomers benefitted from increasing educational opportunity, from the raising of the school leaving age (ROSLA), exit qualifications (CSEs and later GCSEs), comprehensive schools with sixth forms and expanding University and other higher education provision. Still higher education opportunities were restricted. It was not until 1990 that one in five young people attended University and one in three by 2000. As access widened, support was progressively withdrawn, and loans were introduced in 1990.  Generations have enjoyed either wider access or generous support but not both. Compared to later generations the over 65s had the least opportunity, which is why they have the lowest level of educational qualification compared to subsequent age cohorts.


Golden Pensions

Once more the Resolution Foundation has sensationalised inequalities claiming in a recent press release, reproduced in the Guardian, that pensioner households are now better off than working families[10].  This conclusion has been reached not by comparing actual incomes, but by a statistical construct, of net disposable incomes and making a comparison only with the newly retired. It is claimed that housing costs of the young reduce their real incomes below the level of pensioner income. But the housing costs of the over 65s were not considered. No allowance was made for the 25% of the newly retired still carrying mortgage debt[11] or the costs of those renting, in leasehold retirement housing or paying for social care. A construct which does not consider costs on both sides of the equation is not worthy of consideration.

To provide a more accurate account, it is estimated that about a half of of the population over 65 are entitled to credits in addition to their pensions to raise them above the poverty line[12]  and of those a third are not claiming them.[13] Britain has one of the lowest basic state pensions relative to average earnings in the world.[14] Overall about 1.6 million pensioners were estimated to be living in poverty in 2012/13[15], around 1 in 6 of the total. The Joseph Rowntree trust states that this figure has increased by 300,000 since that date.[16] Those most at risk are women, single people, those with disability, or who have broken employment records. So it is far from the case that all those who are over 65 enjoy gold plated pensions. It is true that median pensioner incomes have increased in relation to those of working age, and the median pensioner income in 2015 amongst the 65-75 age group was £18,000[17] somewhat below the equivalent average of £28,600 for those in full time work[18]. Whilst the average pensioner in this age group has manageable rather than lavish means, half will fall below this level.

Nevertheless a fifth of pensioner households, largely comprised of pensioner couples, are in the top fifth of household incomes. They will of course contribute as taxpayers on a similar basis to those in work. As with education it is the small number of the more privileged who have benefitted most, but as a generation the 65-75 age group are not especially advantaged.  The Resolution Foundation has chosen to emphasise the differences between generations rather than the rather more significant differences within them.

Social mobility and economic activity

Definitions of social mobility are notoriously fraught. Various measures have been promulgated to measure movement between social groups within a lifetime and between generations. (Intra and inter generational movement.)  However the structures through which people are seen to move, education, occupation, income distribution are not themselves static.

Since the 1990s there has been a huge expansion in higher education which has substantially benefitted those in their 30s and 40s. Many industrial jobs have disappeared, so that skilled manual labour has declined but technical and scientific jobs have increased. The number of clerical and managerial jobs in finance and services industries has expanded, as has less skilled work in retail and distribution. The occupational structure now looks substantially different to that of the 1950s or even 1990s. In particular many formerly non-graduate but professional jobs now require graduate qualifications.

Any notion of a smooth progression in opportunity was disrupted in the 1980s with unemployment reaching three million, few job opportunities for less skilled school leavers and the destruction of many traditional industries like mining and the creation of deprived communities some of which persist today. These are consequences which have been felt across the generations, and are a basis for significant social divisions which are not age related.

Whilst economists reporting for the Sutton Trust have argued that social mobility declined from the chances of those born in 1958 to those born in 1970[19] the sociologist John Goldthorpe has argued, citing substantial sociological evidence, that apart from the occupational and educational factors instanced above, leading to a general pattern of perceived upward mobility in the middle of the last century, inter and intra generational movements are relatively static.[20]  David Goodhart has suggested that increasing geographical mobility is the main observable change in our social structures.[21]

There are genuine concerns about social mobility but they are not generational ones. The gig economy is a product of making labour markets more flexible, by weakening Trade Unions and undermining workers rights across the board. The occupational structure is currently changing and opportunity may soon be dramatically worsened by technological change impacting on middle class jobs. This has much more to do with rampant capitalism and the dominant ideology of governments since 1979 than any perceived generational advantage.


Clearly this is one area where younger people are currently extremely disadvantaged, “generation rent” fairly describes their plight. However the advantage is not uniquely that of older people. Almost anyone who is over 35 and entered the housing market before 2005 will be relatively privileged. This does not mean that those over 65 who have paid for their house are, through their lifetime experience of housing, the most favoured.

Post war baby bulge children grew up in conditions of severe housing shortage due to wartime destruction and new household formation and where over 15 per cent of the housing stock were officially described as slums. Whilst 30 percent of homes were in owner occupation,[22] the experience of the majority of children in the immediate post war era was of growing up in conditions of overcrowded, multi-occupied, slum or near slum conditions.

Huge effort was put into building houses in both the private and public sectors through the 1950s and 1960s. The peak in housing completions was 350,000 in 1967, more than three times the current rate. However the buildings generally lacked what are considered essentials today. Central heating and double glazing was not common until the early 1970s. En-suite bathrooms were practically unknown and much of the older stock lacked inside sanitation unless improved under government schemes starting in the 1960s.

Looking at long term trends in affordability (which include not only house prices, but rents and mortgage repayments) there are critical moments when housing becomes excessively unaffordable. These moments occurred in the early 1970s when the baby bulgers were forming households, in the mid eighties when interest rates skyrocketed and the 1960s baby boomers were forming households and in the boom years of Labour Government in the mid 2000s when costs exceeded the 1980s peak.[23] The recent problem is that prices have remained at historically high levels as investment for rent from UK and foreign owners has increased competition with new households seeking to buy, and building has reached historically low levels. Rising prosperity under the 1997 Labour Government and its poor performance in failing to ensure adequate house building or to expand the social rent sector has sent prices soaring. This must rank as a major failure of that Government. A failure that has been compounded since 2010.

It is fair to conclude that both boomer generations experienced many problems within the housing market which intermediate and some subsequent age groups did not experience, but that all of these, if they are owners, are beneficiaries of long term house price inflation. New entrants are very substantially disadvantaged in comparison not just to the old but to anyone who entered the ownership market before the mid 2000s.

Living standards

It is clear that living standards have increased since 1946. The Beveridge report of 1942 identified five evils in society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease.[24] The Labour Government of 1946 enacted the recommendations creating a welfare state paid for out of taxation and national insurance. Conditions post war were substantially better for the majority of people than those that had prevailed before 1939.

Nevertheless we would consider that most of those who are now between 65 and 70, the  baby bulge, grew up in relative poverty compared to today.They, and those who were children during the war, were children in an era of austerity, food and commodity rationing, in generally poor housing conditions. However these conditions, with the social infrastructure of health, education, improved nutrition were so far superior to pre-war conditions that they established a broad governmental consensus about improving living standards for all that lasted until 1979. Living standards for most increased through the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1980s and 1990s with increasingly divisive policy making they increased substantially for some but declined equally sharply for others. This problem was only addressed at the margin by the last Labour Government, through for example minimum wage and in work benefits.

Certainly for those in the middle of the social structure living standards increased, with some fluctuations, through the later decades of the last century. As ever it was the children who benefitted most. Those born in the 1970s on average, enjoyed better standards of housing, more varied diet and enhanced opportunities for foreign travel. This trend has continued as parents naturally wish to give the best to their children. However alongside this has come rising expectations. Some generational angst appears to be that young people do not have immediate access to those things that it took their parents years, and their grandparents decades to achieve. This may be perceived by some older people as an undeserved sense of entitlement. Some may indeed envy the young who seem, despite the problems they face, relatively privileged.


The narrative of generational inequalities persists in the media, but is it deeply flawed? Does it conflate the experiences of several different generations into one amorphous whole, cherry picking an advantage specific to one age group and applying it to several different cohorts? Thus the immediate post war “baby bulge”  generation had good support if they reached higher education, but few did. The 60s baby boomers had more opportunities to go to higher education but fewer opportunities in the world of work if they entered the labour market directly.

Does the narrative consistently generalise the benefits of a few with the whole generation? Whilst a proportion of those over 65 enjoy generous pensions, a greater proportion are dependent on benefit top ups because they have little or no occupational pension income. For those that have the average income is low.

It can be argued that we have become a more divided society since 1979 in many dimensions.  In each age group there have been winners and losers, though the proportion of educated middle class  young people who are economically disadvantaged may be a new phenomenon. The last Labour government did too little to address the structural inequalities around work and access to housing which were developing. The gig economy is a product of irresponsible capitalism. The growth of it is a policy choice, and one which furthermore the majority of people of any age do not support. It is a consequence of the free market orientation of all governments since 1979 which has overridden public scepticism. It could be ended simply by legislative action, which despite its rhetoric the current government has no intention to enact. This is not a product of generational inequality, but of capitalism in a class society.

John Hurley

December 2017


[1]Lord Ashcroft Polls: How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday … and why.

[2]FT Data Brexit: voter turnout by age



[5]Resolution Foundation – The importance of place – July 2016

[6]Resolution Foundation – Stagnation Generation – July 2016

[7]Mid-year population estimates for the UK 2014 – ONS

[8]National Survey for Health and Development – March 1946 cohort

National Child Development Study – March 1958 cohort

British Cohort Study – April 1970 cohort

[9]House of Commons Library – Education Historical Statistics

[10] Resolution Foundation – As Time Goes By – 2017

[11] Prudential Insurance – Feb2016 2016

[12] Age UK – How can we end pensioner poverty.

[13] DWP – Income related benefits estimate of take up 2009-10


[15] DWP – Households below average Income 2012/13

[16] Joseph Rowntree Trust UK Poverty 2017

[17] DWP Pensioners Incomes: An analysis of trends in Pensioners Incomes 1994/95 – 2014/15

[18] ONS Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings

[19] Blanden and Machin – Recent Changes in Intergenerational Mobility in Britain – Sutton Trust 2007

[20] John H. Goldthorpe – Understanding and Misunderstanding Social Mobility in Britain.

[21] David Goodhart – The Road to Somewhere Penguin 2017

[22] Malpass and Murie, Housing Policy and Practice, 1982

[23] ibid

[24] Beveridge, William. “Social Insurance and Allied Services”

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