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The generation gap is deep: here’s how we bridge it

Alex Smith

‘Generations at war”, “young ‘screwed’ by older generations”, the prospect of a “permanent” chasm that “could split Britain for good”. If you believe the headlines, Britain’s generational divide has never been wider.

On housing, pensions, job security, education, how we vote, on the culture we consume, it’s a narrative that’s taken hold since former Tory MP David Willetts published his book The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future in 2010. It was quickly taken up as a cross-party concern: my old boss, Ed Miliband, warned in 2011 that the “British promise” – that every generation would do better than the last – was in jeopardy.

Seven years later the Willetts-Miliband analysis is as relevant as ever. Young people were left on average 7% worse off after the 2008 financial crash; the over-60s 11% better off. Meanwhile, the proportion of 25-year-old Brits owning their own home has virtually halved over the past 20 years; just 18% of the UK’s property wealth is now owned by people under 50. Andwith the tuition fee cap having tripled in 2012, people will now be leaving university with an average debt of more than £50,000. Our social mobility – that basic “British promise” – is now among the worst in the developed world.
Two polarising general elections and one hostile EU referendum later, that generational opportunity gulf has found loud expression at the ballot box, with the political outlooks of young and old apparently diverging sharply. In 2010, there was an 11 percentage-point gap between levels of Conservative support in the over-65s and those aged 25-34; by 2017 that gap had risen to a whopping 34 points. This has further fuelled the narrative of Britain’s divided generations.

Of course the era in which you were born and came of age matters. If you fought a war or lost family to the Blitz, that impacts your world view. And if you were born into ubiquitous technology, from the 90s onwards, that also shapes how you behave. But while there is clearly a growing generational gap, commentary that paints a picture of different generations economically pitted against each other lacks the nuance of real life. While many intergenerational differences persist, there are also areas of commonality.Both groups aspire to good relationships, health, learning and independence. Older and younger people feel equally overwhelmed by the dominance of new technology. Almost eight in 10 of those aged 18-24 and the over-65s want life to slow down.

Social care for older people is the second highest consumer concern of 18- to 34-year-olds. And I regularly hear older people express sympathy for how tough younger people have it these days. We all understand that progress is not zero-sum – a trade-off in which one group succeeds and another necessarily fails. It’s not the case across generations within families, and it’s not the case more broadly either.
Yet there’s another, very real intergenerational divide that gets far fewer headlines and should worry us equally. There’s evidence that our society is becoming increasingly segregated by age. Just 5% of people living in the same neighbourhood as someone under 18 are over 65, compared with 15% in 1991. This geographical divide helps to perpetuate misunderstanding and division, and is ultimately corrosive for our society.

It also contributes to a common problem that’s increasingly afflicting both older and young people: loneliness. We hear a lot about the isolation of older people. A million people over the age of 65 say they often or always feel lonely; 17% see a friend or relative less than once a week, and two in five say the television is their main form of company.

But loneliness is not just a later life problem. While the over-75s are the loneliest age group in the UK, those aged between 21 and 35 are the second loneliest. At 35, men feel more isolated than at any other time in their lives. One in five young mothers feels lonely “always”. And with loneliness found to be as bad for people’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day – and being associated with depression, strokes, heart attacks and dementia – it is a serious public health challenge.

The nature of the isolation older and younger groups face is very different. For many older people, retirement, the loss of social networks, bereavements, single living and failing health all play a role. For younger people, professional expectations, social media, FOMO (fear of missing out), and living and working with people largely from similar backgrounds and world views, can all bring a sense of being unfulfilled.
It’s in our fast-changing cities where the crisis is most pronounced. Globalisation, gentrification, migration, urban transience, digitisation and housing bubbles have all contributed. The multiplying effect is that many older people have deep roots in their communities but few connections, while many young people have hundreds of connections but no roots in communities.

But this disconnection is fixable. Mixed-age housing developments and public services could make a difference. And it’s a problem we all have some capacity to solve. By spending time with people who are not like us – people whose age, life experiences, class and views on the world may differ substantially from our own – we can show that people from across perceived divides have so much to gain from one another.

My organisation runs intergenerational networks that bring older and younger people together for mutual companionship. And there are other civil society initiatives, such as GoodGym, which combines running and visiting with providing practical support to help isolated older people. The uncomfortable cross-generational conversations that I hear tend to be less about economics and more about changing social customs and attitudes in a rapidly shifting world.

That’s not to say that the economic gulf is unimportant: of course it is, and the housing crisis is partly responsible for the increasingly age-segregated society we inhabit today. But if we want to close the economic gap between generations, we also urgently need to address the growing social gap.