“A politician thinks of the next election,” a wise man once said. “A statesman thinks of the next generation.”
On that score, the U.K. has been short on statesmen, according to a book by Conservative Member of Parliament David Willetts, “The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future -- and Why They Should Give It Back.”
In housing, pensions and other assets, postwar baby boomers grabbed the biggest chunk of the national wealth, borrowed and consumed massively, failed to invest in the future, and allowed the environment to go to hell, the Tory legislator says.
The year 2030, he forecasts, could be the “pinch-point” of the pressures he describes -- the moment when public debt, environmental costs, falling real pensions and demographic pressures threaten to come together.
I don’t warm to intergenerational debates. They’re too generalized and encourage the young to pose as victims. Yet Willetts’s analysis is clear-eyed, if sometimes paradoxical.
In some quarters, for instance, the boomers are cast as selfish hedonists whose sexual revolution and high divorce rates have left a legacy of social damage. Yet the origins of sexual promiscuity, Willetts shows, lay as much in the 1950s rush to early marriage as in the sinful Sixties.
Wave of Divorces
By 1965, 22 percent of brides were pregnant. Then came the divorces: Between 1970 and 2005, the population increased by 8 percent yet the number of households rose by 30 percent, putting a massive strain on housing, not to mention on the children of broken families.
Other startling statistics include those on demography -- a pinch-point in many senses, though one that has more to do with the failure of politicians to stem immigration than with the alleged recklessness of boomers. In recent years, the population of the U.K. has rocketed to 61 million, and the European Union projects that our cramped little isles will hold 77 million by 2060, overtaking France and Germany.
Immigration has always existed, mostly to the country’s benefit, but for these figures there is no precedent. Millions have squeezed into the nooks and crannies of U.K. cities. Some legacy for the young, immigrants included.
Fear of reviving the Tories’ reputation as “the nasty Party” inhibits Willetts from making simple demographic connections. Education will be crucial to paying off our national debt, he writes. Yet what are the prospects of children in bloated inner-city schools, where 50 languages are spoken?
Four to a Room
Yes, there has been little foresight in transport planning. Yet how can any infrastructure keep pace with demand in London, where the number of mothers born abroad is now 30 percent? Then there’s housing: Only the readiness of young immigrants to tolerate Third World conditions, four to a room, allows them to live in this grotesquely expensive city.
And what of the National Health Service, which Willetts mentions only briefly? Moralizing baby boomers assured us, grandiosely, that it would treat all comers -- rich or poor -- free of charge. The NHS is now buckling under the strain.
Thoughtlessness about the future extended to culture, and Willetts sighs over the trashing of the canon. Yet Tory leader David Cameron used to be a PR man for Carlton Communications, a down-market TV company selling raunchy programs like “A Woman’s Guide to Adultery.” Today Cameron laments our broken society and exalts the sanctity of marriage. Nauseous cant would be a restrained description.
Baby boomers lived for the day, Willetts writes: The unwritten contract between generations was broken and must be reinstated. How, he doesn’t say. Politicians exist to change the world, not just analyze it, even if it means upsetting people.
Their unwillingness to call for sacrifice and restraint was part of the problem in the first place. Even Margaret Thatcher, a non-boomer, stoked housing prices to produce an illusory “cascade of wealth,” as the Tory slogan had it, from one generation to another. A Niagara of mortgage debt, more like it.
Willetts says his book isn’t an attack on the boomers, but an appeal for the generations to behave unselfishly, as humans are wired to do. Not very precise, but then hiding behind pious generalities to dodge the issue is what baby boomers did -- and do.
“The Pinch” is published by Atlantic in the U.K. (336 pages, 18.99 pounds).
(George Walden, a former U.K. diplomat and Conservative member of Parliament, is a critic for Bloomberg News and the author of “Time to Emigrate?” The opinions expressed are his own.)