Pampered pensioners vs. lazy youth? European battle comes to UK elections

As party leaders debate government spending ahead of the May 7 vote, some argue pensioners are being overprotected to the detriment of unemployed youth.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Four elderly women eat their lunch on a bench in a square in Edinburgh, Scotland, in August 2014.

An 82-year old retiree exits a supermarket in London's Hampstead neighborhood with her shopping stroller half full. She decries the costs here – from groceries to gas bills – that make it nearly impossible to live on a pension alone. And she balks at any suggestion that pensioners deserve any less than every last pound.

“We paid for it years, heavens above!” says the woman, who only gives her first name, Rose. “We worked very hard for it. Young people want everything handed on their plates.”

Rose need not worry, according to Robin Dick, a college student, directly across the street. As Brits head to the polls to elect a new government May 7, pensions are safe from cuts, while housing prices balloon and tuition fees have been hiked – a sign of how the elderly are being unfairly wooed in the British political system, he says. Starting at age 60, they already get free prescriptions, free bus travel, and a winter fuel allowance. 

“I feel the young have suffered the most,” Mr. Dick says.

It’s just a small difference of opinion in a leafy neighborhood of northern London, but it hints at a battle line forming across the Western world, where the share of elderly citizens is growing – and with it their electoral clout.

Older voters have always had more power at the polls – simply because they are the ones who show up. According to research firm Ipsos MORI, 44 percent of those ages 18 to 24 voted on election day in Britain in 2010, for example, compared to 76 percent of those 65 and older. But demographic change is skewing that balance ever further, especially in rapidly aging Europe. United Nations data shows that by 2050 the ratio of inhabitants aged 60 or older – now at about 23 of every 100 residents in Europe – will climb to 34, compared to 21 for the world.

And they aren’t just playing a role in campaign pledges, but also in shaping policies and causing resentments among age groups. British politicians have been condemned for short-term pandering to the so-called “gray vote,” ahead of other age groups.

“Policy makers seem intent on protecting [the wealthy elderly], by encouraging high house prices, giving over-generous final salary pensions, and other universal benefits while our packhorse generation of young people face poor employment prospects, low pay, and high housing costs,” says Liz Emerson, co-founder of the Intergenerational Foundation in London.

Policies by the Conservatives-Liberal Democrats coalition that has governed since 2010 have disproportionately favored the elderly, she says, with younger citizens bearing the brunt of the coalition’s austerity cuts.

In one of the most polemic decisions, the government in 2010 raised the fee caps universities can charge to 9,000 pounds ($13,400) a year from 3,290 pounds ($5,000) after slashing funding to the institutions. New policies and changes will reduce housing benefits and jobseekers’ allowance for those under 25, and child benefits have been curbed. The government also closed youth centers and abolished additional aid called the Educational Maintenance Allowance.

Meanwhile, spending on pensions grew by about 7 billion pounds ($10.5 billion) between 2010 and 2016, according to one estimate by the Nuffield Foundation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

In January, the government introduced a one-off special bond for pensioners that pays interest of up to 4 percent, as much as four times the rate of a savings account. And in April the government liberalized the pensions industry by allowing retirees to grab their whole pension and do with it as they please.

“That is as close as you can get to an electoral bribe,” says Graham Smith, a professor of politics at the University of Westminster in London.

Demographic trends are not just determining campaign platforms; they're setting policy agendas long after the posters are taken down. In Germany, one of the world’s fastest aging societies, the elderly have led opposition to infrastructure spending, which has markedly waned compared to social spending, says Olaf Gersemann, author of "The Germany Bubble: The Last Hurrah of a Great Economic Powerhouse." He says the outcome is crumbling bridges and snarled autobahns across Germany.

Sven Steinmo, a professor of public policy at the European University Institute in Italy, says that workers' unions in Europe are also dominated by people who want to keep pensions high for past members. “Unions don’t represent the working class; they now represent the retired class,” he says.

Mr. Steinmo has taken some of his generation to task in a book he is writing called “The Greediest Generation,” which looks at the beneficiaries of post- World War II welfare who are reluctant to watch any of their comforts disappear.

But demography hasn’t yet provoked deep intergenerational strife – in part because the imbalances aren’t as stark as they will be as the baby-boom generation ages. In countries such as Italy or Spain, generous pensions are keeping families afloat amid crippling youth unemployment. “Grandchildren are literally dependent on their grandparents’ pensions,” says Steinmo.

But signs of division are growing at the local level. Rose is not alone in dismissing critics who say pensioners have a better deal than the rest.

“I’m doing quite well now, thank you. But that’s because I worked hard for 42 years,” says David Armer, a 67-year-old Londoner. “I think at the end of my career I should be living well.”

The division is starting to play out more publicly, even in the most unexpected places. In France, when two groups of singers, one younger, the other older, recorded a song earlier this year called “Toute La Vie” for a French food bank charity, they inadvertently set off an intergenerational war of words. In France, the government invests heavily in family policies like free preschool, but youth unemployment has been crippling and opportunities scarcer.

In the song, a YouTube hit, the younger group sings that the elders have no idea how tough life can be, because they only know “peace, freedom, full employment.” The older ones sing back that they didn’t “steal anything” and that the younger ones have to “do something.” “Everything we have, we had to earn it,” they sing.

It sparked fierce debate over the airwaves, with journalists, sociologists, and artists weighing in. Among the loudest critics was Laura Slimani, head of the Socialist Party youth movement. She wrote on Twitter: “When they say ‘do something’ are they talking to the 25 percent of young people who are unemployed, or just the 22 percent who are under the poverty line?"

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