Two announcements were issued from Westminster this week that should strike fear into the hearts of anyone under 30.
On the one hand, the Conservative government has brought forward the rise in the state pension age by seven years, increasing it to 68 by 2038. On the other, the Labour party dropped its commitment to writing off student debt.
Both these policies are sensible in themselves. With life expectancy increasing and the costs of state pensions currently consuming an eye-watering 20 per cent of all government spending, a modest rise in the state pension age due in twenty years time is reasonable. In fact, despite the outrage it has caused over the past few days, it doesn’t go nearly far enough in confronting the growing pension burden.
As for debt amnesty for students, were Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party ever to get into power this would cost the state an estimated £100bn (the equivalent of three times the annual British defence budget), and transfer money from low-income taxpayers to graduates with high earning potentials – hardly the most progressive idea.
But despite their logic, both announcements should serve as a warning to young people. If you believe that this is the only pension age rise we are going to see before the current cohort of millennials retires, I have a bus you can write on.
As Ros Altmann explained in these pages yesterday, the current National Insurance system consists of workers paying to fund the pensions of current retirees, not saving for their own retirement. It is increasingly clear that, regardless of how much those born after 1980 pay into the system, unless some radical changes are made, they can expect next to nothing when – if ever – they come to retire.
The failure of successive governments to do anything bold in reforming state pensions has left an unsustainable system that will collapse long before today’s young workers get anything out of it.
Of course, the argument goes that pensioners turn out to vote, while young people are too lazy and apathetic to drag themselves to a polling station. As such, governments can safely ignore them.
Enter Corbyn, whose success at rallies and utter disinterest in the etiquette of Westminster would – it was hoped by fervent supporters – enthuse millennials and build a movement out of those who had never voted before.
It worked, to some extent. Ipsos MORI data shows that people aged 18-24 voted in record numbers in the recent election – 64 per cent, on par with the 25-44 age bracket. For the most part, they seem to have fallen for Corbyn, and are partly responsible for the hung parliament we are now enduring.
So how has the Labour party – which promised debt amnesty to those who had the “historical misfortune” of going to university during the £9,000 fees era – repaid their new voters? By dropping the whole idea. In fact, shadow education secretary Angela Rayner has rebranded the debt write-off as an “ambition” rather than a policy.
Will such weasel words be enough for students who flocked to Corbyn’s cause? Unlikely. As the Liberal Democrat wipeout of 2015 shows, reneging on promises about tuition fees can have devastating consequences, especially for a party that prides itself on being “authentic”.
I am not anticipating a mass swing of young voters from Labour to the Tories, especially as the latter still have no new ideas on housing or welfare that might appeal to the under-30s. The Lib Dems may be in for a resurgence, with Vince Cable as the new leader, but the party is still toxic from its coalition compromises. It may be that, dismayed by the Labour betrayal, these voters fade back into obscurity and fail to re-emerge until another revolutionary leader comes along in a decade or so.
But there is an intergenerational storm brewing.
Brexit was the catalyst, with sharp divides along age that left many millennials feeling that their parents’ and grandparents’ generations had stolen their future from them. Owning a home continues to be a distant dream (with all the parties refusing to liberalise land regulations). The Tories are kicking the pensions and social care can down the road, racking up costs for generations to come, and their only offer to young people is the lifetime Isa that is useless for buying properties in London and is in no way a replacement for a pension.
Now even the Labour party is abandoning its unworkable but appealing promise on tuition fees.
We need some radical new ideas: phasing out National Insurance and moving to a more flexible pensions model, introducing a graduate tax instead of tuition fees, reforming the rental market rather than increasing demand with tax breaks for homebuyers.
Right now, there’s a pool of frustrated voters who, if they stay engaged and angry, could swing the next election. Politicians: ignore them at your peril.