Intergenerational war?

Thaddeus Best explores the potential for conflict between old and young. Prepare to be terrified

A political undercurrent is slowly forming. Across Europe, bubbles of rebellion are surfacing. From Greece to Rome, to London, sporadic riots have been taking place in response to government cuts, while in France Stéphane Hessel's 12-page pamphlet, Indignez-vous! (Be Indignant), a call to action for the youth of France, is flying off the shelves.

While its ideas are not unique, Hessel weaves a worrying narrative for young people. While the modern day dangers to our generation are not as distinct as those in the era of fascism, Hessel draws a parallel between Nazism's domination of Europe in its heyday and the increasingly tight grip of financial institutions over our political, economic and social lives.

However, his greatest outpourings of indignation are reserved for the growing inequality of Western nations. "How dare governments say that they can no longer afford to support their citizens" asks Hessel, "when wealth production has increased so dramatically since la liberation?"

Hessel targets his arguments squarely at the French, but his themes are equally relevant in Britain. Higher education is about to triple in cost. There are few jobs, and even fewer affordable homes. The privileges enjoyed by previous generations are disappearing - the baby boomers are pulling the ladders up behind them, leaving behind a weighty bill for the younger generation to foot.

Ed Howker and Shiv Malik expose the gravity of the situation in their recently published book, Jilted Generation. They point to successive decades of disinvestment, deregulation and privatisation by the baby boomers which essentially amount to the squandering of what should have been the inheritance of their offspring. Despite being superficially wealthier in material terms, the iPod generation stands to endure one of the toughest eras since the Second World War. As Howker and Malik put it: "The generation who will bail Britain out can't quite get started. The generation waiting to retire are nervously looking on, wondering why."

One of the most serious aspects of this issue is the pension problem. From October this year, the mandatory retirement age will be removed in the UK, allowing people to work well beyond 65.When mandatory retirement was first implemented in the 19th century few would have reached this age and those that did probably wouldn't be drawing their pensions for long. The changes that have taken place since then are the key to understanding the problem. The retirement age hasn't been changed for over 100 years, but massive improvements in medicine and healthcare have doubled life expectancy in the UK - the over-45 population has increased from being equivalent to 60 per cent to almost equalling 80 per cent of the under-45 population. These changes have led to a critical situation.

The underlying problem with the British pension system is that there is no real pension pot - Britain pays out national insurance contributions as they receive them to the current crop of pensioners, essentially paying them out of the national "current account"rather than savings. The British state pension is therefore little better than a Ponzi scheme, working on the basis that there will always be more new money coming into replace that going out. Unfortunately, these types of system collapse if the funds coming in are not sufficient, which is a rapidly becoming a possibility in the case of the UK's state pensions because of the ever-increasing size of the retirement age population.

So while young people work hard today to support their grandparents and parents, they can't look forward to being supported by their own offspring when they reach old age. One in ten Britons now estimate they will be working until they die, up from just one in a hundred just a few years ago. Lord Turner, who chaired a government enquiry into pensions suggested that the retirement age would probably have to rise to around 70 by 2050. And even those who do manage to retire can't expect the same benefits as today's pensioners. While the baby-boomers enjoyed lucrative final-salary pension schemes from 65, often able to draw around two thirds of their retirement day salary every year for the rest of their lives, similar schemes for younger workers will now typically will pay out just 20-30 per cent a year of a final annual pay packet. Furthermore, many employers don't even offer final salary pension schemes any more, leaving their younger staff members at the mercy of the performance of penison funds for their income in old age

In addition to the problems caused by a top-heavy population, the younger generation now also faces mass unemployment and a global recession, which certainly aren't helping as the government asks them to foot the social security bill. Increasingly fed-up, today's youngsters aren't fighting for change for the better; they're fighting to maintain the status quo. One only needs to have witnessed the 2010 tuition fees riots across the UK, or the 2006 Parisian riots to understand that the youth of today simply want the same social protections and opportunities their parents enjoyed.

So what does this state of affairs mean for Britain? The mobile young middle classes may seriously consider upping sticks and moving elsewhere. Just as generations of Irish young men and women left - and are still leaving their homeland in search of better prospects elsewhere, it's possible we might see a similar exodus from the UK. The consequences are potentially very grave. Britain will lose some of its brightest talents to competing countries and those who choose to stay will be forced to shoulder an even greater tax burden as the working population shrinks.

Young people in the UK are slowly starting to realise what a raw deal they're getting. The recent student riots might be the first shots fired of an intergenerational war. Burdened with debt incurred by previous generations and faced with the possibility of working into their 70's and 80's, it is becoming increasingly likely that age-related conflict could erupt. As Jilted Generation warns, "If circumstances get worse, people will begin looking for simple shapes. They will start to seek out a narrative, any narrative. And then people will find someone to blame."

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