This is my article for Bright Blue’s Centre Write Magazine on why I feel that attempts to pit the young against the old are destined to backfire.
The generational divide is a hot topic in politics now. Generally, there is a view on the political left, and from some in the centre-ground, that younger people have been unfairly disadvantaged, or even discriminated against, by older generations. Our policies should focus on how we grow the pie for everyone to benefit from, and not squabble over how the pie is divided up. A divisive approach to generational resource sharing will alienate all generations of voters. A new approach is needed if Conservatives are to successfully appeal to a younger generation.
“You cannot win votes by promising to take things away from one generation or social group to give it to another.”
Though I have long left behind any claim to be part of the younger generation, I am the parent of four children aged between 20 and 26, as well as a veteran of a decade of doorstep campaigning in marginal constituencies across the West Midlands.
I know that older voters care as much about the prospects of the next generation as their children and grandchildren. They are acutely aware that the world is different to when they grew up and worry about the future.
As the Conservative Party faces the huge challenge of renewing ourselves from within government, while grappling with Brexit, much of the thinking at the moment is explicitly around bold new policies to attract younger voters. We know that younger people are reluctant to vote for us, but that they share many of our values. We know broadly what young people care about and the legitimate reasons they have to feel the system is unfairly stacked against them as they seek to get a start in life.
However, I take issue with the ‘generational war’ narrative promoted by some commentators. Even well-meaning contributions – for example to the social care funding problem – have generated ideas suggesting differential age-related taxation.
I don’t think this approach is the right one for Conservatives. We risk creating further division and alienating voters of all ages. Crude age-related indicators alone cannot be the answer. There is a huge diversity of wealth and income among older age groups, and older people must grapple with declining health and vitality, their own mortality and existential questions of their own as they plan for the end of their working lives.
It is a natural human response when faced with perceived injustice to look for blame. And it is true that the distribution of wealth between generations has been shifting unfavourably away from the younger generations to the older generations for some years now, especially when housing wealth is taken into account.
Various policy suggestions to tackle inter generational inequity, from both the political left and right, would have the effect of redistributing wealth from older to younger generations. My challenge to this idea is based on some basic human social psychology.
You cannot win votes by promising to take things away from one generation or social group to give it to another. The result of this is that both groups perceive it as unfair.
“Our policies should focus on how we grow the pie for everyone to benefit from, and not squabble over how the pie is divided up.”
Why? Let’s delve for a moment into some deep-seated psychological truths. As a veteran of two psychology degrees, I often think that we lack insight into the interaction between politics and psychology. We would do well to apply some ‘Psychology 101’ to political views. We constantly compare ourselves with others, both above and below us. And we are programmed to believe the best about ourselves.
So if we are part of a relatively well-off generation, we tell ourselves it’s because we worked hard, paid in all our lives, made sacrifices. If we are part of a relatively badly-off generation, we wouldn’t label ourselves feckless, lazy or stupid. Instead, we make sense of this with a narrative that it’s someone else’s fault – the system, the government, or the older generation.
Linked to this is another basic piece of psychology – the theory of cognitive dissonance. Imagine you have worked hard all your life and have been rewarded with success. You are likely to hold a belief system which prizes hard work and believes it will be rewarded. Imagine, then, that there is objective evidence to demonstrate that your value system could be wrong. For example, your neighbour somehow becomes successful without doing any work. This causes cognitive dissonance.
Since you cannot explain this state of affairs, the only way to reduce or avoid this unpleasant mental state is to find an alternative explanation. It cannot be that hard work does not equal rewards, so it must be that the neighbour got lucky somehow. Perhaps they inherited the money. Perhaps they are a criminal. And so on.
These psychological principles explain why an older person will instinctively and unconsciously resent and reject policies that attempt generational redistribution.
The ideas at the heart of such policies will set off unconscious processes of social comparison and the associated cognitive dissonance. Older voters will instinctively reject the policies, because of the implied challenge and comparisons implicit in them – even while ostensibly appearing to say that society should support the next generation. And younger voters will relate policies to their own family and conclude that their own parents and grandparents aren’t personally at fault.
These are unconscious processes, so it will be difficult to draw this out in focus groups or on doorsteps. They involve people facing up to uncomfortable truths about how our brains work and what we believe. For us politicians, the upshot is that voters of all ages will be uncomfortable with such generational re-distributive policies, will not find them credible, and will be unlikely to vote for them.
Creating solutions to the very difficult challenges of paying for social care, our health services, and an ageing population, without penalising older people, is an enormous challenge. To rise to it we need an honest conversation about government spending, the wealth tied up in property assets and pensions, and the cost of social care and the NHS. These questions go to the heart of fundamental values held by voters about fairness and justice. Unfortunately, simply sharing out a pie with demands from all corners won’t be enough.