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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Polly Toynbee

What happened to us, the children of the 1960s? We have it all: we need to give some back

Tony Blair at a Sure Start centre in 2006
Tony Blair at a Sure Start centre in 2006. There were more than 1,000 fewer in 2021 than in 2010. Photograph: John Stillwell/PA

Bad news arrives from the latest census. My generation has finally overtaken the young, with more over-65s than under-15s in England and Wales for the first time in history. We, the postwar demographic bulge, now dominate the financial and political landscape, and not in a good way. A country growing old that favours its ancients above its young for crude political gain threatens to be backward-looking, unenterprising and afraid of shocks of the new.

We sang that we hoped we’d die before we got old, but instead we live longer than ever. That’s a good thing – longevity is a sign of progress. It faltered in the last decade and fell back among the poorest women, as a direct result of poverty-inducing austerity that collapsed public health, as well as NHS spending per capita.

Whatever happened to my generation? We children of the 1960s burst through every barrier, won contraception and abortion rights, LGBTQ+ equality, equal pay and race discrimination laws – and a lot more. Bliss it was to be alive and so on, as if the dawning of the age of Aquarius would last for ever.

But look at us now. The oldest cohort of voters (70+) are three times more likely to vote Conservative than the youngest (18-24). Every year of life we age, we grow 0.35% more likely to vote Tory. As Prof Bobby Duffy points out in his book Generations: Does When You’re Born Shape Who You Are?, that 0.35% “may not sound like a lot but is very valuable over a lifetime”. The only encouraging fact is that the age at which people become more likely to vote Tory generally rises with each election: the tipping-point age was 47 in 2017 – though it dropped to a shocking 39 in 2019, due to Corbyn-avoiders.

Tories are right to worry that in the long run they are dying out. Only 5% of my generation went to university at 18, but now it’s 38%: no wonder Tories, finding graduates more socially liberal, open-minded and tolerant than older and less-educated groups, want to cut university entry numbers – this year is the toughest for admissions in recent memory.

No wonder, either, then, that Tories stoke culture wars designed to inflame their own older voters against lefter-leaning young people. The latter may never forgive older generations for the damage done to their future by the Brexit vote, a legacy that will last long after those voters are gone: only 28% of millennials voted to leave, compared with 61% of the oldest voters.

But it’s time the woke woke up to the appalling age-gap in voter turnout, with the youngest groups 40% less likely to vote. Only 40% of millennials see voting as a civic duty, compared with 80% of the oldest, Duffy finds.

It’s no surprise that older people are about to be bribed again: while the government damns strikers for resisting a real pay cut of 7% after years of falling pay, pensioners are due a 10% rise with their triple lock reinstated, they alone keeping up with inflation. True, our state pension is low compared with similar countries and there’s a pressing case for hugely raising pension credit and making sure it gets to poorer pensioners. But there’s no case for picking out all pensioners for special treatment, as they are least likely to be poor and most likely to be wealthy.

There’s no need to pit one age-group against another. Families with children continue to be most harshly treated in benefits, and suffer further from the decade of brutal cuts to schools. The only reason is pork-barrel political opportunism from a government with its eye firmly fixed on the past, not the future.

The saddest fact revealed in the census is the lack of babies, as the number of 0- to four-year-olds falls again (except in the Johnson household). Those not expecting £150,000 tree houses can’t afford more children. Birthrates are determined by economics: as the social geographer Prof Danny Dorling always predicted, austere times breed fewer babies, as happened dramatically in the 1930s. Birthrates will keep falling under any child-hostile government.

This week, Labour’s children and early years shadow minister, Helen Hayes, elicited government figures showing that there are 1,342 fewer children’s centres than in 2010. Also this week, Ofsted has reported a net decrease of 4,000 early years providers in just one year, with the number of places falling in 70 local authorities. UK childcare is expensive and scarce.

As an attempt is made to enshrine the right to abortion in law, we are still far from believing every woman is free to control or encourage her own fertility. Blame is heaped on women for having too many (the two-child limit for universal credit claimants), or too few (“selfish career women”), and mothers are accused of being too young or too old. The NHS often refuses the three cycles of IVF that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommends, as the misery of infertility ranks unjustly low in priorities.

Labour was not consciously pro-natalist in government, but its 13 years in power saw birthrates rise, as part of a climate that welcomed babies, making parents’ lives easier with Sure Start centres, child tax credits, the first free nurseries, maternity and paternity rights and above all, a pro-child view of the future. That led to a peak in births in 2012, but since then there’s been a huge drop of 15.9%: the birthrate is now at its lowest since records began in 1938, according to the Office for National Statistics.

In the real world, there is far less conflict between generations than might be expected from all the above figures. Bonds of family across generations are far stronger than birth cohorts. If the attitudes of older people towards their younger counterparts are sour – “snowflakes”, “avocado toast” – Duffy finds young people are much more generous in wanting pensions and care for the old to be better, without resentment. But class, as always, remains the deepest divide.

  • Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist

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