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Millennials need help — not cheap insults

12 July 2019

They have it harder than previous generations, says Simon Cuff. Bold policies are needed to make amends

NETGENERATION, Trophy Kids, Generation Me, Snowflakes. All these labels have been applied to the generation born between 1980 and 2000, known as millennials. In common with historical attitudes to the “young”, millennials get a fairly bad press. In a recent survey, four of the top five words to describe millennials were negative: materialistic, selfish, lazy, and arrogant.

Looking at the data, however, a picture emerges of millennials’ working longer than previous generations, having a less realistic prospect that their labour will afford them the security of home ownership, and diminished spending power.

This disparity between the generations has raised the question whether some of the behaviour of the generations immediately preceding millennials — Gen X (those born between 1965 and 1979), and baby-boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) — might be contributing to the conditions that have led to this generational shift.

IN HIS important book The Pinch: How the baby boomers took their children’s future — and why they should give it back (Atlantic Books, 2010), David Willetts highlights that the house-price boom has benefited baby-boomers at the expense of millennials. He notes that “approximately 100 per cent of GDP transferred to current houseowners from future houseowners.”

He also identifies a broader problem: “We are not attaching sufficient value to the claims of future generations. This is partly because a big, disruptive generation of baby boomers has weakened many of the ties between the generations. But it is also an intellectual failure: we have not got a clear way of thinking about the rights of future generations.”

Previous generations have reaped the rewards of unearned income as a result of the house-price boom, while inflicting on millennials, and the generation that follows, increased costs of living, tuition fees, a lower minimum wage, and diminishing opportunities.

We are witnessing the breakdown of what the Resolution Foundation called the “intergenerational contract”: “the principle that different generations provide support to each other across the different stages of their lives.” What is needed is a renewed commitment to the intergenerational contract, a reassertion of “intergenerational fairness”.

THE Resolution Foundation has suggested several policies that are aimed at restoring intergenerational fairness and renewing the intergenerational contract. The most eye-catching of these for millennials is the suggestion of replacing inheritance tax with a lifetime receipts tax. This would provide for a £10,000 citizen’s inheritance: “A restricted-use asset endowment to all young adults to support skills, entrepreneurship, housing, and pension saving.”

Should this ever be adopted, the Foundation says, “the effects would be profound. A £10,000 boost today would at least double the wealth of more than six in ten adults in their late twenties. It would be enough for half the typical first-time buyer deposit in half the regions and nations of the UK; enough to fund a master’s degree or significant retraining; and would add an estimated £45,000 to retirement-savings pots if immediately invested in a pension.”

Few would turn down such a windfall. It is, however, small change compared with the windfall that some baby-boomers have enjoyed during the housing boom.

One solution to this is a radical reconceptualising of home ownership. In Reimagining Britain: Foundations for hope (Bloomsbury), the Archbishop of Canterbury proposes such a fundamental redefinition, in which houses are seen as a means of “creating communities”, not merely as buildings or investments. “The revolution would be more profound if the incentive for housing was to have good and safe shelter in a safe and convenient location, not principally an investment (or two),” he writes. In short, houses should be homes, not assets.

This has long been the argument of the Christian groups involved in the setting up of community land trusts, such as the first one in London, in Mile End. A community land trust is a series of homes built on land held in trust. Residents buy a home at a rate linked to a percentage of local earnings; the house is bought as a home, not an asset. They do so on the condition that the house is then sold on at a rate linked to local earnings, not for profit, with the original investment protected.

Intergenerational solidarity could extend this principle further: those sitting on large windfalls could lower their expectations of the price that their house will achieve, or think of creative ways of unlocking that income for the benefit of the whole of society, without burdening first-time home owners with an unreachable deposit or mortgage.

Homeowners could, for example, actively seek to minimise their profit — or, more probably, sell their houses to existing land trusts with a guarantee of a home of their own. Such schemes are being piloted in some London councils to free large houses with relatively few occupants, while improving access to social care.

Whatever the solutions, boldness and creativity, set in the context of intergenerational solidarity, will be necessary.

The Revd Simon Cuff is tutor and lecturer in theology at St Mellitus College. His book Love in Action: Catholic social teaching for every church, is published by SCM Press (Books, 3 May).

This is an edited extract from a longer article published in the July 2019 edition of Crucible: The journal of Christian social ethics.


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