The Biggest Intergenerational Gaps in Modern Britain
Sascha Lavin considers the vast, unspoken inequalities that exist between young and old
There is an unwritten rule of British society that has seemingly been shattered in recent years: the ideal that you can expect to be better-off than your parents.
The fortunes of young people now seem to have reversed, while well-heeled commentators suggest that we are feckless and wasteful; that our problems could simply be resolved by giving up on Netflix and avocados.
The reality of this situation is experienced intimately by the young and the old, as the prosperity of the next generation is reserved to those who can inherit it from their predecessors. Yet, with the senior ranks of the media still dominated by veterans of the profession, this broken British dream is rarely remarked upon.
To shed some light on this crisis, here are eight of the greatest intergenerational gaps in modern Britain.
Stagnating Wages; Soaring Property Prices
Between 1997 and 2020, the median cost of a property in England more than tripled, from £59,995 to £249,000. During the same period, average employee earnings lagged behind, increasing by 87%.
From 2010 to 2020, house prices increased across the UK by 33% (led by London, where property prices increased by 66%), while average real weekly wages were just £1 higher in December 2020 than in March 2008.
Therefore, in 1997, the average property was 3.54 times that of the average salary. By 2020, however, buyers were expected to fork-out 7.84 times their salary to buy a house.
Younger generations are more likely to acquire their first home in much the same way Kirstie Allsopp did when she was 21 – with help from the ‘bank of mum and dad’.
An increasing proportion of young people are receiving financial support from relatives – with the older generation contributing to 316,000 of the properties purchased in 2018, and 60% of first-time buyers now expected to be helped by family members.
On the flip side of the wealth spectrum, of the 20 to 35 year olds who don’t yet own a home, nearly half have parents who also aren’t property owners. More than ever, your ability to vault onto the property ladder – especially in affluent, expensive areas of the country – is decided by the wealth of your parents.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, half of all housing wealth has been accrued by baby boomers (46%), with the over-65s owning £1.7 trillion-worth of residential property. Meanwhile, millennials have 39% less property wealth than those born 10 years before them at the age of 30.
Home ownership is concentrated in the hands of the oldest generations: almost three-quarters of adults over the age of 65 own their own homes outright, while one-in-three millennials are expected to never own their own home.
Households headed by a person aged between 16 and 24 are the most likely to struggle to eat regularly because of a lack of money: nine out of 100 of these households have very low food security, where people are forced to eat less, skip meals or even go an entire day without eating because they don’t have enough money to buy food.
On the other hand, in part protected by their pension, only 1% of households headed by a person aged between 65 and 74 years old have very low food security. This is reflected in food bank usage: the Trussell Trust reports that just 2% of people referred to their food banks were from pensioner households in 2019.
Older families, households headed by someone aged 65 or older, held 35% of the total household wealth before the pandemic and accrued 42% (£378 billion) of the total increase in British household wealth between February 2020 and May 2021.
This trend is not new: between 2010/2012 and 2016/2018, the median individual wealth gap between the oldest and youngest age groups increased by 43%, from £208,000 to £298,000.
The Safety Net
For more than a decade, successive Conservative governments have slashed benefits for children and working-age adults, while protecting pensioner incomes. Children are £520 a year worse-off and working-age adults £260 a year worse-off as a result of Conservative changes to the benefits system, while pensioners’ incomes have been boosted with an extra £520 annually.
As of 2019, the rate of the guaranteed pension income was more than double that of the main unemployment benefit.
Pensioners in 2022 are also better-off compared to pensioners from previous generations. The average weekly pensioner benefit income of baby boomers aged 70 is 42% higher in real terms than that received by the Greatest generation – people born in the first 20 years of the 20th Century – at the same age.
The proportion of workers in part-time or temporary jobs has reduced since 2017 in all age groups apart from 18 to 29 year olds.
A recent survey by the Royal Society of Arts think tank found that almost half of 16 to 24 year olds were unable or just managing to make ends meet each month, or had an income that varied significantly from pay-check to pay-check because they were on zero-hour contracts or working in the gig economy.
Younger generations are also more likely to be overqualified for their jobs: in 2017, 22% of those who graduated before 1992 were overeducated, while 34% of graduates from the class of 2006 onwards possessed more education than required for their job.
Children born between 2016 and 2020 are facing the highest rates of child poverty since the 1960s, with more than 35% of children estimated to be living in poverty by the time they turn two.
The number of children living below the breadline – classed as below 60% of the median household income after housing costs have been paid – has surged in recent years: 100,000 more children lived in relative poverty from 2018/19 to 2019/20.
Elderly people have been most at risk of dying from COVID-19 throughout the pandemic, with more than seven in 10 registered deaths among those aged 75 and older.
Both young adults and pensioners experienced the greatest decline in their mental health during the crisis. The share of adults with mental health problems increased by 80% among 18 to 29 year olds, and by 68% for 65 to 79 year olds.
Additionally, according to a 2020 Age UK survey, a third of people aged 60 and over reported feeling more anxious since the start of the pandemic.
Unemployment also increased for both the youngest and oldest working-age adults. In the first 15 months of the pandemic, more than half of those aged 18 to 24 and over 65 had either been furloughed or had lost their jobs.
However, younger workers have bounced back better than their older counterparts: the employment rate rose fastest among 16 to 24 year olds than any other age group between the winter 2020/21 lockdown and July 2021, although a third of these new roles are atypical and insecure – including zero-hours contracts and agency work.
This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.