Mary Ann Sieghart: The war between the generations

There is a vicious circle that traps the young. Because they are less likely to vote, politicians pay less heed to them
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The Independent Online

We watched in horror as generation turned against generation – shirts were splattered with blood as the old man's eyes were gouged out. Beamed live into cinemas last week was an intensely powerful performance of perhaps the greatest play Shakespeare ever wrote. As King Lear, Derek Jacobi encapsulated the petulance and pathos of old age, anger at the ingratitude of youth, and the rage of the old against the young.

Four hundred years on, we are seeing the same themes playing out again. When Ed Miliband stood against his elder brother for the Labour leadership, several commentators saw in him the bastard younger son, Edmund, trying to usurp his legitimate older brother, Edgar. But there are other resonances from Lear, too. At the Labour Party conference, the newly crowned leader disowned his elders, talked of the "new generation" and promptly appointed a strikingly young set of MPs to his front bench. And last week, he gave a speech lamenting cuts that would disproportionately hit young people and warning that the next generation would be the first to do worse than their parents.

King Lear is all about intergenerational strife. Edmund is not just out to usurp his brother but also his father. As he says when he is plotting to betray Gloucester in order to take over his title: "The younger rises when the old doth fall." And poor Lear himself is the victim of two of his daughters who, despite being given half the kingdom each, break their promise to house him and his retinue. As soon as he ceases to be King, he loses their love and respect and becomes a tragic, powerless old man. "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is/To have a thankless child!" he wails.

So is Labour now trying, opportunistically, to turn young against old? In difficult economic times, when people are feeling angry and insecure, it is easy to whip up divisions. We've seen it already with class envy. The BNP and the English Defence League are trying to foment enmity between races and religions. And the trade unions are keen to exploit resentment between workers and their bosses.

Today's younger generation is increasingly resentful towards their elders' wealth and disregard of the future, and at least some of this irritation is justified. Lear's daughters, Goneril and Regan, become fed up with housing Lear's 100-strong retinue of unruly knights. They argue that he could make do with 50 or 25 – or indeed none, since they have servants of their own to look after him. Many a young person today must look at their parents or grandparents rattling around in houses utterly unaffordable to a twentysomething and share some of the daughters' annoyance.

This may be promising political territory for Labour. Today's teenagers are being asked to borrow £27,000 for a university education that their parents enjoyed for free. (Though they generally fail to appreciate that in my day, there were university places for only one in eight of us – now it's nearly one in two.) They won't be able to afford to buy a place to live until they're 37 unless their parents help them out. And that assumes that they get a job: unemployment is highest among 18- to 24-year-olds.

According to Labour's private polling, 76 per cent of people believe that the next generation will be worse off than their parents. Labour claims that Conservative cuts are unfairly hitting the young. It is one thing to defer, say, spending on pothole-mending; councils can simply catch up later when they have more cash. But the abolition of Educational Maintenance Allowance, paid to 16- to 18-year-olds to encourage them to stay on at school, may blight a young person's whole life chances. (What Miliband doesn't admit, of course, is that the debt built up under Labour will also be a burden on their generation.)

The Labour leader's advisers deny stoutly that he is chasing the youth vote. They argue that parents and grandparents are just as concerned about the next generation's futures. Indeed, the older people get, the more pessimistic they are about younger people's prospects.

David Willetts, the Conservative higher education minister, first exposed these generational differences last year in his book The Pinch: How the baby boomers took their children's future – and why they should give it back. He has found that older readers' reactions to his thesis are sharply divided. There are those who feel guilty and agree that they have let the younger generation down. Then there are others who describe young people as feckless shirkers who don't know what it's like to have to work hard or save up for years for a deposit on a house.

The latter are probably a minority, and any political party that tried to appeal to them would look mean-spirited. What is certainly true is that older people – oddly, perhaps – are more future-orientated than the young. Young people live much more in the present and tend to be self-absorbed. If you ask them what was the most significant event for them in the past year, they are most likely to describe something that happened to themselves. Older people will talk about their son's marriage or their granddaughter's exam success. And, increasingly, the elderly are starting to see their homes not as an asset that will pass to their children when they die, but as something they should sell earlier to raise money either for social care for themselves or to help their children out.

The Government is well aware of this growing divide between the baby-boomers who have never had it so good and the young who feel badly done by. Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg had a brief flirtation with what they called the "horizon shift", but not much has materialised in practice. And what they have done has been badly sold.

So, for instance, the Government could have cut university places rather than raise tuition fees, but ministers were determined to protect opportunities. And the number of apprenticeships is rising, despite the business department's budget being cut by 25 per cent. But equally, younger people look at how generous the Government has been to the old and wonder which side ministers are really on. Winter fuel allowances and bus passes, for instance, are still given to all pensioners, however rich they are.

Of course, older people are much more likely to vote, and much more likely to vote Conservative. At least half of those who voted at the last election were over 50. So it is always going to be tempting for politicians, and particularly Tories, to chase them.

Conversely, there is a vicious circle that traps the young. Because they are less likely to turn out and vote, politicians pay less heed to them. Then, because the young feel that politicians don't listen to them, they don't bother to vote. If the tuition-fees protests at least led to a higher level of political engagement in that generation, they will have achieved something.

But it would be a great shame if another social division were opened up for politicians to exploit. We shall emerge from these bad times in a better state if we do try to stick together. At the end of King Lear, the old king becomes reconciled with the daughter he had rejected. The villain Edmund deservedly dies. And one of the few left standing, the Duke of Albany, displays both the humility and self-delusion of youth: "The oldest have borne most: we that are young/Shall never see so much, nor live so long."