Ed Howker: We can't put it all on the never-never

Governments of every hue shirk hard choices about public spending and borrowing
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The Independent Online

The Chancellor may have "miscalculated" by levelling the personal tax allowance of the retired with the working age population, but I think I'm in deeper trouble. In defending the idea that more of his cuts should have fallen on the old rather than the young, I've been accused by Saga's Emma Soames of being "chippy", by the National Pensioners Convention's Dot Gibson of "pitting the young against old" and by Owen Jones, in this newspaper, of being a "prophet of the generation war". It was a busy old week.

The Budget, more than most things, is a zero-sum game. We even report it in the terms "winners" and "losers". And viewed like this, it's easy to portray anyone who looks at public spending in terms of fairness between generations as dangerous. But my concern isn't just that our young people get the thin end of the Budget wedge too often, it's that governments of every hue deal with financial problems by shirking hard choices about public spending and borrowing against future generations. Last week was no different.

Despite wheeling out a "horizon shift" – the Coalition's soundbite du jour, designed to show how seriously they take the future – David Cameron announced a typical gambit whereby the private sector will pay upfront, and future users will pay forever, for new roads. The Chancellor also "did a Maxwell" on the Royal Mail's pension fund. Future taxpayers will now pay for this in addition to the £2.2 trillion of unfunded public pensions they already owe. Even Michael Gove's new schools will cost more to the children they educate than their parents because they're being funded by PFI.

Debt is habitually thrown forward because governments find it easier to give in to the siren voices of sectional interest that demand more benefits, more tax breaks, more special favours. And they refuse to level with the electorate about the consequences: future generations will be poorer and growth will be slower than it otherwise would be because of these decisions.

The young are already feeling the sting, but their parents are also perplexed. Bright, educated, hard-working twentysomethings are still living at home long after their education has ended, still unemployed, however many job applications they fill out. Social divisions are becoming entrenched precisely because young adults are becoming more dependent on their parents' wealth.

This isn't just the fault of the downturn and the ensuing austerity. These are long-term consequences of short-term policy errors compounded over decades. To dismiss those who point this out as prophets of a generational war feels like a cheap shot. It also lets this government – and the last – completely off the hook.

Ed Howker is the co-author of Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth