Isn’t it all just class? Age and generations in British politics

Posted in: Culture and policy, Democracy and voter preference, Economics, Housing, Political history, Political ideologies, UK politics

Dr Joe Chrisp is a Research Associate in the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at the University of Bath.

Since at least the 2016 EU referendum and general election of 2017, most people with a passing interest in British politics will have identified age as a pivotal dividing line in how we vote in the UK.

While younger voters are more likely to be Labour-voting Remainers, older voters have been the main constituency for Brexit and the Conservative Party as it has swept to successive election victories. A populist backlash from left-behind areas could equally be painted as a triumph for gerontocracy, prompting some to rebrand the Red Wall as the Grey Wall.

The age divide has often been linked to values and emerging culture wars. The 'cultural backlash' thesis of Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris maintains that recent populist votes across Europe and America such as Brexit constitute a conservative reaction against the 'silent revolution' in the mainstream cultural values of post-industrial economies, with older voters spearheading the forces of reaction.

In previous work published in 2019 and last year, Professor Nick Pearce and I sought to build on exhaustive analysis by the Resolution Foundation on intergenerational fairness and re-pivot the focus of the age divide from cultural values to the distinct material interests of different age groups, most starkly visible in housing and wealth inequalities and the welfare state. Another paper by Jane Green and Raluca L. Pahontu found that, contrary to the left-behind narrative, wealthy voters were more in favour of Brexit. Thus, economic interests matter for the age divide, but the old are not necessarily the left-behind.

Last week, an excellent Nuffield Politics Research Centre report written by Professor Jane Green and Dr Roosmarijn de Geus further showed the importance of economic security to both the age divide and British politics. They find that younger people are in general more economically insecure, particularly younger non-graduates, while both economic security and age predict voting for the Conservatives.

To many on the left, allergic to the idea that a Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn lost its working-class base, the recasting of older people in post-industrial towns as Tory voters because of their relative economic security is an obvious and welcome corrective.

But to others on the left and elsewhere, discussion of age or inter-generational conflict as a distinct phenomenon is a distraction or an illusion. This attitude is evoked in an article from Stephen Bush who hints at two frequent ways that people dismiss the importance of inter-generational conflict or question the idea that different age groups have divergent interests.

The first and perhaps most common refrain is that the intra-generational divide is greater than any inter-generational inequalities. In other words, class explains the real divide not age.

Unsurprisingly, this depends on how we define class. Comparing inequalities across age groups to a multi-dimensional or latent conception of class will inevitably make age divides look inconsequential or reflective of class. When class is defined as a combination of education, wealth, parental background, inheritance, household income and occupation, it will outperform any other variable in explaining life chances, economic security and well-being. However, if we use this more abstract or latent conception of class, then our model becomes something of a tautology, simply explaining economic security or well-being with economic security or well-being[1]. The more interesting question with respect to age is whether it is now a better predictor of economic security than specific indicators of socio-economic stratification such as occupation, income or education alone.

On that front, Green and de Geus’s analysis has some answers. For younger people, there is indeed a gulf between the economic security of graduates and non-graduates, but this is roughly equal to the gap driven by age in general and there is virtually no divide between graduates and non-graduates for those over the age of 50. The boring answer is that their analysis shows both intra- and inter-age divides are important for understanding economic security, as are gender and ethnicity. It is inadequate to say that a former factory worker that lives on a state pension and owns a £100k house in Hartlepool is simply middle class. But they are both old and economically secure.

In short, explaining everything with class is either axiomatic or reductive.

The second counterargument to the relevance of inter-generational conflict is that over the life-course a comparatively insecure middle class 30-year-old will eventually become a wealthy and secure 65-year-old. In the long run, everyone will get their triple lock pension and those with wealthy parents will get their inheritance. Resisting the urge to quote Keynes or to question the predictability of the future, this narrative rings true if we are concerned with social justice alone.

But the impact on society more broadly of a gerontocracy matters even if (most) young people now will benefit from higher pensions and better healthcare services eventually. Is it beneficial to prioritise health and pension spending above all else? Or to have a government that seems only tangentially concerned with economic growth and solving the housing crisis?

Similarly, one of the main reasons age has become a preoccupation for many is its central role in predicting voting and political preferences. Current young or working-aged people are relatively insecure and so right now are more predisposed to vote for the Labour Party, even if they might inherit (a share of) a house in 30 years. And current pensioners, who are more economically secure than past pensioners or the current working age population, are more likely to vote Conservative. The divide could be interpreted as simply a function of class politics transmitted through age but again this either masks distinct age-based interests or is stating the obvious.

To some extent, the critique of inter-generational conflict as an important lens with which to study social and political outcomes blurs the distinction between generations, unchanging and determined by your year of birth, and age, which is (unfortunately) ever advancing. Some factors are fundamentally tied to age or the life cycle: retired people are detached from the (precarious) labour market, while older people tend not to have young children and have had a longer period with which to save money and acquire assets. This will determine the level of economic security of people at different stages in their lives in a way that cannot be simply reduced to other economic factors, even if there is variation within age groups. Incidentally, this means they will also have life-cycle interests with respect to the welfare state: older people will prioritise pensions and NHS spending over working-age benefits and education spending and are less likely to vote out a government for increasing national insurance.

Our past analysis showed that while there was particularly strong support for the principle of the triple lock among older renters, the young were significantly less supportive in general. And it is hardly a gargantuan leap to link the different trajectories of working-age benefits and pensions in the last 12 years with the grip that older voters have on the Conservative Party. Last Thursday’s policy announcements marked a welcome change in the support given to working-age, low-income households, albeit with continued neglect of larger families, but pensioners were again at the top of the list for greater support. Age and the relative power of age groups matter for social and political outcomes and cannot be explained solely with respect to income or wealth. Many of today’s younger precarious renters may become tomorrow’s older secure homeowners but there will be plenty of new younger precarious renters to replace them tomorrow too.

On the other hand, when it comes to inequality across the life-course, age is by definition irrelevant. But specific generations can accumulate more benefits and advantages than others across the life course. Comparing the rates of homeownership, benefit levels and growth in real wages across generations at similar ages tells us something important about the experiences of people in their formative years. As the Resolution Foundation have extensively documented, baby boomers or the “Platinum Jubilee generation” benefited from low house prices and greater social housing provision, rising real wages and then just as retirement age approached well-protected state pensions and employer-based defined benefit pensions across the income distribution. These same benefits have not been enjoyed by younger generations entering the labour market after the financial crisis[2]. Ultimately, inequality in general may be the primary concern of most but generational differences is one way in which this is visible. Intra-gender and intra-ethnic inequalities are stark, but it does not require us to dismiss the importance of gender and race in shaping who gets what and at what cost.

The politics of age is complex and notoriously difficult to disentangle given the dual effects of ageing and generation and the correlation of age with other economic and social factors. But an account of economic interests that takes age into account as a distinct factor is worthwhile if we are to both explain political and social outcomes and create a more equal and productive society.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.


[1] Although the idea that young people are drowning in taxes is much overstated. Even with student loan repayments and employer NI contributions included, most workers pay less tax on their wages as a % of their income than previous generations did (only the highest earners pay more).

[2] It is reminiscent of the argument that economic or social values are better predictors of political preferences than social class as if values are something dropped on people from the heavens rather than an essential part of what we are trying to explain.

Posted in: Culture and policy, Democracy and voter preference, Economics, Housing, Political history, Political ideologies, UK politics


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