Still OK, boomer? The politics of ageing and some lessons for progressive politics
Age is one of the key cleavages in UK politics, with some arguing it has replaced class as the key determinant of voting preferences. Political support for the main political parties in the UK is shaped to a large extent by age and voter turnout, with Conservatives reliant on the votes of the old and Labour on the votes of the young.
As a result, it has been suggested that the UK is the in grip of ‘generational deadlock’, with the main political parties unable to build the coalitions of support needed to tackle generationally fraught issues, such as the rise in economic insecurity among the young or how best to pay for the growing costs of health and care for an ageing population.
But we cannot assume that all of the factors which underpin generational divides and age-based coalitions will hold indefinitely. The cohort of baby boomers currently approaching later life (those now in their 50s and 60s) is experiencing big societal shifts which affected their older baby boomer counterparts less: the growth of the gig economy; a crisis of housing supply and quality and slower earnings growth.
We therefore need to pay close attention to shifting trends among this age group to understand how political fault lines may change in the decades ahead. Analysis by IPPR and researchers at UCL’s Institute of Epidemiology and Health, commissioned by the Centre for Ageing Better, offers insights into this, with one of the most comprehensive studies to date of those in their 50s and 60s.
The study compares those in their 50s and 60s in 2002 with those the same age in 2018. It shows that the last of the baby boomers are also affected by trends which are contributing to falling living standards for younger people: weak asset accumulation; the slowdown in earnings progress and the transfer of risk from firms and the state onto individuals. On each of these issues, the picture is more nuanced than the stereotype of the affluent baby boomer suggests:
First, there is far greater intra-generational wealth inequality between those in their 50s and 60s today than in 2002. The net wealth of the richest 20 per cent in this age group more than doubled in 2018 compared with 2002, while for the poorest 20 per cent, their wealth fell in value by a third. Alongside this we see a fall in home ownership, with one in five (20 per cent) people in their 50s and 60s today renting their home, rising from just under two million people in 2002 to 2.5 million people in 2018.
Second, progress in reducing poverty rates in later life is faltering. The number of those living in relative poverty in their 50s and 60s is rising - from 2.3 million in 2010/11 to 3.1 million in 2019/20 (which represents a real increase beyond population growth and demographic change). This is a more diverse age group, with a doubling of those from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds in their 50s & 60s since 2002. Those from these groups are far more likely to be living in poverty as a result of lower lifetime incomes and fewer personal assets.
Thirdly, poor job quality is a significant a challenge for those in their 50s and 60s. More than half of today’s cohort (52 per cent) say their work is excessively demanding, up from just 28 per cent in 2002. And there has also been a huge rise in the number stating they feel a lack of control at work - 33 per cent, compared to just 9 per cent in 2002.
These findings do not amount to a shift in the overall picture of declining economic security among the young, relative to older age groups. And social values are an equally important determinant of political preferences. But they do show that in coming decades, so-called generational divides will become more blurred and experiences of those within older age groups will be far more heterogeneous.
The question for progressive politics is whether or not this can help ease deep age-based cleavages, potentially opening up more political choices. There is some evidence here to suggest that wealth and income inequality among this age group will be more extreme into old age. Some experiences of younger people, such as poor job quality - namely lack of control at work and excessive demands on time - are becoming more cross-generational in nature and could become stronger political themes in future. Equally, the challenges of living in the private rented sector for the young will be shared with a growing number of older people.
However, these changes do not in and of themselves mean the political allegiances of older voters will be any more amenable to change. For example, Chrisp and Pearce have shown how older renters swung towards the Conservatives at the 2019 election and were even more likely than young homeowners to vote for the party. It will require political skill to mobilise cross-generational issues and build coalitions across age groups where the opportunity for this exists. But achieving this is far more likely if based on real changes in the lives of young and old, rather than outdated stereotypes.