Book club: The Pinch

Ricky Ghosh sticks up for the "selfish generation"

The Pinch

David Willets

Atlantic Books, 2011

In the corridors of power, Willetts is known as "Two Brains", and even a cursory flick through this book will show the reader why. This book is a serious, academic study of what Willetts labels the most significant social issue for the near future - the challenging legacy of the "baby boomers" (the post-war generation born between 1945 and 1965).

The main argument of the book is that they were a "selfish generation" who used their sheer demographic power to exercise a disproportionate influence over society, getting, on average, an 118 per cent return on what they put into the welfare state and even dominating culture - Willetts observes that without baby boomers keen to relive their youth, the Rolling Stones would not still be touring.

This generation, according to Willetts, had too much of a good time at the expense of their children and grandchildren - "failing to fix the roof while the sun was out", primarily by borrowing too heavily against their assets in the property boom, gaining disposable cash to improve their quality of life but betraying the interests of their children. Willetts argues that our generation, which will be saddled with the burden of paying off a massive national deficit, has a right to be angry - indeed if he is to be believed, this currently buried resentment will translate into political conflict between the generations by 2030.

Unusually for a politician, Willetts cannot be criticised for failing to research the facts before offering an opinion. The level of detail he goes into is impressive, for example, he uncovers the startling fact that women with university degrees are the least likely social group to have married by 45. Its depth can sometimes mean the book is inaccessible to an amateur reader, but Willetts does try to spice up the stats whenever possible. He draws together various disparate facts to create one of the most convincing notions of "Britishness" advanced in recent years, centring it around our small, nuclear families (as opposed to continental "clans") - which have led to a relative abundance of civic and charitable organisations and a meritocratic society.

However, there are several foundational flaws in Willetts' argument. In particular, his attempt to characterise generations as single entities which can be held responsible for their decisions is misguided . Many baby boomers will have looked after their children financially. Willetts, perhaps surprisingly for a Conservative, argues that the baby boomers have a responsibility not just to their own children but to the entire younger generation. However, this duty surely lies with government, not with individuals? Willetts' fanciful attempts to create a narrative - tying the social problems of "Broken Britain" into this "inter-generational theft" - fails because of this, and other basic flaws.

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