Whose perceptions, whose expectations? Taking a new look at intergenerational fairness

18th July 2022

Author: Stephen Burke, CEO of Hallmark Foundation & co-founder of United for All Ages

Stephen Burke photo

Intergenerational fairness is much debated but viewpoints depend on our perceptions and expectations.

Until fairly recently, it was the general expectation that each generation would be better off than their parents’ generation. That no longer seems to be the case and social mobility has gone into reverse. Inherited wealth is the biggest determinant of how wealthy individuals in future generations are likely to be.

When comparing generations and their experiences, it’s often like comparing apples and pears. So today, for example, inflation is at levels not seen for 40 years, yet inflation is nowhere near as high as it was 50 years ago. How do you compare having an outside toilet and no bathroom with central heating and two showers a day, albeit in the midst of huge rises in energy prices? And of course, experiences differ hugely within generations as much as between generations.

That said, the main intergenerational fairness grievances tend to focus on housing, wealth, climate change and life chances which for many have been curtailed further by the pandemic and subsequent economic turmoil around the rising cost of living and stagnation. While falling real wages will impact most on younger people, older people on low fixed incomes will also experience severe financial difficulties. This highlights the continuing economic truth that being wealthier, whatever your generation, is still the primary issue.

Can anything be done to address younger people’s concerns, particularly given politicians’ desires to appeal to older voters (who are still much more likely to vote)? Younger people should make sure they vote at the very least and ideally they should contribute to political debate and shape future agendas.

The fact that the Welsh government has a commissioner not just for older people and for children but also for future generations points the way for the rest of the UK. Every policy should be assessed for its impact on those who inherit the world from us. The obvious example is ensuring long-term action to address climate change.

I would also expect policymakers to invest in much more affordable, energy efficient housing – building a minimum of 300,000 new homes a year. This should include more and better housing options for older people to help release family-sized homes for younger people.

Taxation is the other big area that requires government action. Currently the focus of tax is heavily on income earned through work and not enough on wealth and unearned income. Shifting taxation from work to wealth and assets which primarily rest with people over the age of 50 would have a big impact for younger generations. But it needs to be accompanied by a similar shift in the way resources are spent.

This won’t happen overnight. As well as younger people becoming more politically engaged at all levels, we need to promote much more dialogue between different generations. Only by sharing and discussing our concerns will we reach a common agenda. Many will be surprised to find that their issues and concerns are shared by people older or younger than them.

Every local authority should develop a strategy for creating communities for all ages. This would need to be shaped by local intergenerational conventions bringing together people of all ages to debate and develop consensus on these issues.

Local authorities and their communities also need to reflect on their age make-up. Britain is one of the most age-segregated countries in the world. That segregation leads to a lack of contact and connection between generations and thereby division, stereotyping and prejudice about other generations.

In the coming year, United for All Ages – a 'think-do' tank founded in 2010 to create a 'Britain for all ages' – will be working with Swansea University to explore whether mixed age communities are healthier, better places to live. This will have big implications for local and national policy and practice to make the UK an intergenerationally fairer place to live.

our goals

Fairer society

We are passionate about working with researchers globally to deliver a fairer, more inclusive society. This perhaps has never been more important than in today’s divided world.