Johann Hari: As Britain ages, will generational conflict dominate our politics?

A million elderly people don’t see another human being from day to day
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The Independent Online

Welcome to the Brave Old World – a dystopic Britain where an endlessly growing mass of grey-haired incontinents are financially supported by a dwindling trickle of ever-more-burdened young people. Think of the country as a giant Great Britain Residential Home, where a harried young staff spend all their time mopping up after the immobilised old.

This is the story being portrayed by a growing number of conservative thinkers, based on their reading of the demographic changes set in train after the Second World War. The returning soldiers, in a great rutting release, created an unusually big and bulging generation. Now they are retiring. The first female Boomer retired in 2007, while the men follow in 2012. The generations that come after are significantly smaller – so Britain en masse is getting greyer.

A surprisingly large number of conservatives are presenting this as a disaster. The Tory front-bencher David Willetts has written a surprise-hit book called The Pinch: How the baby boomers took their children's future – and why they should give it back. It says the old – and especially the Boomers – are "taking too big a slice of the pie", and so unwittingly screwing over their own children and grandchildren.

It's a big, sweeping thesis – and at first glance, it may seem persuasive. Twenty and thirtysomethings are experiencing an unusual pile-up of problems. Buying a house seems like an unreachable fantasy unless you have rich parents who can stump up a deposit. We have worse unemployment than any other age group. And even as we pay for the pensions of the elderly, we know we won't be able to depend on the state pension ourselves – yet we struggle to get into decent private pension pools.

Willetts says there is one group to blame for all this: the Boomers. To him, Britain has become an episode of Absolutely Fabulous, where the young are all Saffy, watching our mums snort up our futures through a fifty-quid note. The next 20 years will be "the pinch-point" when all this becomes clear. After that, he predicts a future where generational conflict could eclipse class in politics, as the old vote as a block to keep sucking the wealth towards them.

For conservatives, this framing of our future hits three of their G-spots: it presents the Sixties generation as decadent vandals, it implies that state benefits are far too generous, and it finds a dividing line that replaces class. But in truth, it is riddled with wild over-statement and false play-offs.

We need to start this conversation from a very different place. This demographic shift is the result of two incredible, life-enhancing transformations – ones we should celebrate. People are living older because of our collective victory over disease and damp and dirt. Most human beings, through most of history, were lucky to make it to 40. Three of my grandparents made it to 90 – and enjoyed far more of life. Who would have had them live a day less? Better still, the generations that came after are smaller because women now regulate their own reproduction, so they choose to have fewer babies, and they care for them better. My great-grandmother has 18 children and was reduced to being a walking wounded womb. Who would go back?

We should be delighted by these developments – and remember it's incredibly insulting to the old to talk as if we would be better off if they hurried up and died. Yes, this change presents some challenges – but not half as many as Willetts and co claim.

In reality, most of the problems attributed by them to demographics have very different causes. Look, for example, at one of the worst – the inability of young people to get a house. Almost none of my friends are owners yet, as we slump into our early thirties. A future of wasted rent – or torpid semi-adulthood in Mum and Dad's spare room – seems to stretch on to the far horizon.

Willetts says this is because the Boomers are hogging all the property – but it's not true. In the 1980s, a political decision was made to sell off the social housing stock. This was a good way of spreading home ownership, but – disastrously – the government then used the proceeds not to build more housing, but to give tax cuts to the rich. Since then, virtually no new affordable homes have been built, as New Labour continued the policy. In whole boroughs of east London, where I live, no new social housing has been built since I was four years old.

What has this got to do with demographics? Nothing. Countries with similar demographic changes but strong state-backed house-building programmes don't have this problem. But it's a useful way of directing people's anger away from the real cause – small-state conservatism – towards a bogus one: your parents. It offers you Oedipus to rage against in place of Thatcher and Blair.

Yet The Pinch rests on an even more fictitious premise. Far from being excessive and taking too much, our current system of care for the elderly is not even adequate. From my own experience – I had to rescue my grandmother from two atrocious homes – I know that residential "care" is often dirty and dangerous, run by untrained and panicked staff. When the residents rightly rebel, they are given a cocktail of antipsychotic drugs to shut them up: more than 140,000 elderly people are being subjected to this "chemical cosh", according to the Alzheimer's Society.

Outside the care homes, it's barely better. A million elderly people don't see another human being from day to day; every 24 hours, 30 of them die and aren't discovered for more than three days. Yes, young people have it tough – but so do the old. How could care be cut from this level, short of simply leaving people to rot?

So what can we do? We can't change our demographics, short of following Martin Amis's proposal to set up euthanasia booths on every corner to cull the "stinking" old. (I assume this was another of his painfully unfunny moments of satire.) We can't cut support for the old, without allowing obscene neglect to occur. Fortunately, there is a better way – one Willetts refuses to cover.

First, there is no reason why an older population should be a predominantly passive or helpless one. Some 38 per cent of retirees wanted to carry on in their jobs, but were forced not to, according to a Saga study. Even more wanted to continue part time. People aren't just living longer – they are youthful for longer too. They could be more youthful still if kept active. A lot of mental deterioration comes from loneliness and boredom and feeling unwanted: I'd go crazy stuck in my flat all day, with nothing but Loose Women for company, and I'm 31. Instead of jeering at the Boomers, we should be helping them to carry on contributing well into old age.

But it's true many people will need more support as they get into their eighties and beyond, and that costs. By 2017 we will have to spend £20bn more on support for the elderly to retain the current level of pensions, healthcare and residential homes. By 2050 it will be £60bn. The best way to deal with this generational gap is to deal with the economic gap at the top.

To name just the lowest-hanging fruit: the super-rich currently avoid or evade £25bn in tax each year, according to the Tax Justice Network. So we have a choice. We can set the young against our grannies in a squabble for scarce resources. Or we can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our grandparents in demanding the super-rich pay the taxes they're supposed to – and, over time, the higher rates they paid during the long post-war boom. It covers most of the costs of an ageing society, while reducing our chasing inequality into the bargain.

In all their joyless negativity, David Willetts and the Boomer-Bashers are turning the Pinch into the Grinch. Britain can age gracefully – without the ugly family row these conservatives are trying so strenuously to stoke.