Radical ideas for rebalancing Britain's baby boomers and millennials

Proposals from the Resolution Foundation, including a £10,000 citizen’s inheritance, are bold – but will politicians heed outside advice?

The Resolution Foundation is not short of ambition. It believes its new report, A New Generational Contract, can reframe the political debate, shifting it away from free-market, small state concerns towards the new anxieties of voters.

The report underlines how funding for the NHS has become a priority for every generation of voters, while even the older, affluent middle classes are worried that their children will never be able to buy a home.

David Willetts, the former Conservative cabinet minister who chaired the Intergenerational Commission, and Torsten Bell, who was an adviser to Ed Miliband and directed the research for the report, both believe successive governments failed for too long to see how the balance had tilted against millennials – that politicians, like generals, are always fighting the last war.

Bell says the evidence was there before the crash of 2008. Young people were being priced out of the housing market from the early 2000s. “We have wasted 10 years trying to recover from the crash,” he says. “We can’t waste another 10 years on Brexit. We need to act now.”

He says that politics failed to keep up with the questions that voters were asking, while hard choices on spending to keep up with the pressures of an aging population were repeatedly deferred.

Bell says: “Too many young people are left feeling that our nation’s priorities lie elsewhere and not with them. Older generations have more wealth but, despite decades of promises, no social care system adequate to provide the support they deserve, need and expect.”

The final report, the result of two years work and more than 20 separate in-depth pieces of research, outlines a series of radical proposals to rebalance the economy between the baby boomers and the millennials.

From the eye-catching £10,000 citizen’s inheritance, funded by replacing inheritance tax with a new tax with fewer exemptions, to new funding for the NHS and social care, partly raised from ending the exemption on pensioners of national insurance contributions, its programme would do more to redistribute wealth between generations than anything since the 1970s.

But in its attempt to reset the debate, the report goes beyond redistribution and is about more than ownership. It avoids economic management issues to talk about how an active state can intervene to level the playing field. It moves away from the low wage gig economy by introducing new obligations on contractors.

Other bold proposals include wealthier pensioners contributing more to their care needs, but with a clear ceiling set at no more than a quarter of assets. Even more controversially they also include a completely new property tax to replace the council tax, abandoning the planned 1p cut in corporation tax to fund better technical education, improving protections for tenants, and helping low and middle earners save more for their pensions.

Three elderly people sitting on a bench facing the sea
Older generations have more wealth but no adequate social care system to provide the support they need and expect. Photograph: Alamy

Willetts says the Tories – whose vote share among the under-50s has fallen dramatically – should see it as a political opportunity.

“The oldest of the millennials will soon be 40, and they don’t have the kind of stake in society that a 40-year-old would have had in the past,” says Willetts. “They don’t own their own home, they don’t have an occupational pension. We’ve got to make a bold offer to get them part of the property-owning democracy.”

Bell hopes Labour will see it as a way of updating its 2017 manifesto to give the party a wider appeal to the centre.

The commission members came from across the political spectrum, and to underline the urgency of the questions it seeks to answer, the launch will be fronted not by the politicians or the academics who contributed to it, but by the CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn and the TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady.

The initial response from both parties has been positive. A Cabinet Office spokesperson called intergenerational fairness “one of the key challenges of our time”. Labour welcomed it as “useful contribution”.

But the history of thinktank reports making politically awkward proposals without political buy-in at the start is not promising. Since the mid-20th century, outside experts have been used increasingly to shape public policy and influence the debate. But the most successful – like the Thatcherite thinktank the Centre for Policy Studies, which Willetts once ran – fed ideas directly into the party machine. In the 1990s, Labour used the Institute for Public Policy Research to shift the debate on the left.

But partly because Whitehall is overwhelmed by Brexit, and partly because faith in what used to be called the establishment has been severely eroded, there is a new enthusiasm for outside, and often cross-party, thinking.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has teamed up with the centre-right thinktank Bright Blue to publish a series of essays by leading politicians, including seven former ministers and five current select committee chairs on the “burning injustices” that Theresa May talked about when she became prime minister.

But there is some evidence that the growth area in independent contributions to policy-making is coming now as much from fact-checking bodies like Full Fact as it is in from thinktanks.


Anne Perkins

The GuardianTramp

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