The events and heated discussions over the past few months over spending and fees, culminating at times in violence, are not isolated events historically or internationally. Many countries are wrestling with the new austerity brought about by the shift in economic power, ageing population, and over use of debt that have characterised our times – often with much accompanying pain and protest. There have been other occasions in the history of these isles when conflict has erupted and threatened to tear apart the fabric of society. Two occasions in particular brought the country to the brink and caused much concern. One was the aftermath of the French revolution in the late 18th and 19th century, with its bloody unrest, and the other was during the late sixties and seventies around the events of the summer of ’68.
There are many similarities with today’s situation and these key periods in our past, as well as some crucial differences. On each occasion an economic, technological, and demographic discontinuity created divides that threatened to erupt into violence, whether between a landed aristocracy and the urban poor in one case, or between a more confident generation seeking a more liberal open mass consuming society versus the bonded and more authoritarian and austere society that emerged after the second world war. Reform in each case proved to be a pressure valve that avoided outright warfare, social reform in the first case, and economic reform in the latter.
But if the potential conflicts of the early Victorian era were mainly about “class” and those of the Sixties and Seventies about authority and values, the conflicts that will characterise this decade are more likely to be about age. Instead of class or culture war, we risk entering an era of age warfare. As David Willetts eloquently outlined in his book, Pinch, as the baby boomers retire, the future for other generations around them risks looking bleak. As the baby boomers stop working and paying taxes, the fuel that helped them (and us) secure free public services, pensions, and property, will start to run out or peak, leading to much harder times potentially for all until and unless the workforce expands again through another baby boom (which is hard to engineer) or more workers are imported (which is hard to justify when unemployment is high). Public consciousness of this demographic driver of present conflict is not particularly high – much of the debate so far around austerity uses the language of class warfare (people versus the rich bankers) or of authority and values (anarchists versus politicians), rather than age. It is the baby boom that produced many of the conditions for globalisation and high finance to grow to the scale it has today, and it is the baby boom that created the conditions for weaker public finances moving forwards.
As with all conflict there are a number of ways to resolve the situation. The first is to protest and take action accordingly and revolt. The key here is to have a plan for what happens if you succeed in overturning the status quo or disrupting business as usual, otherwise the danger is that you make the situation worse and lose influence dramatically yourself as was graphically illustrated by the aftermath of the French Revolution (the rise of Napolean and European wars) and the Winter of Discontent (which prompted a public backlash against the unions). I’m not convinced that those who are choosing the path of conflict today have a coherent plan yet for what may happen later if they succeed. The second approach is to do nothing and turn in on yourself – note the high suicide rate among young people in Japan over the last few decades. The third – and if you read my blogs at all you will know this is my preferred – route is to embark on reform.
We need intergenerational reform. Many in the wealthier baby boomer generation recognise that they have often benefited hugely from the last sixty years. How can they use their considerable wealth (including an estimated £1 trillion tied up in property, and further billions in pensions) to invest in and donate to the rebuilding of the economy, of society, and the prospects and wellbeing of the other generations around them? We need Gen Xers and Millennials to help Silents and Baby Boomers foster a society of mutual understanding, and support, to face the multiple challenges that we all need to address this century: how to use resources more sustainability, how to redesign services to do more for less, how to promote greater resilience and wellbeing. Instead of turning either to violence or fatalism, we need up and coming generations to feel supported to take more control of their lives, and fashion thereby a society which is more balanced, fairer, and less wasteful.
A Big Society should be big enough to also be a free one – and people should have a right to protest. But the right response in my humble opinion is to seek to address the underlying reasons that underpin what you are protesting about: how do we reshape the welfare state to reflect the times and available resources, how we share more across different sectors and not just rely on government and central funding as a panacea, and how do we encourage responsibility among all of us but particularly among baby boomers to trade their resources – time, money, and assets – for the support they will need from everyone else as they enter retirement in their millions.