According to doomsayers in policy and media circles, the young have never had it so bad, and the fault lies with their greedy elders.
The allegedly enormous, voracious baby boomer generation, living it up on the golf course with the ill-gotten gains from gold-plated pensions and over-valued houses, is in the firing line for causing a whole range of economic and political problems, from low wages and spiralling student debt to the political turmoil brought to a head by Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump in the US.
On the other side, aggrieved millennials struggling to make it onto the housing ladder and “generation Z”, the lost and disenchanted progeny of an era of austerity, are presented as the victims of this bad boomer behaviour.
They are armed with the moral authority of “the future” to go to war against representatives of the values and interests of “the past”.
But before we get carried away with the idea that we are living in an age of generational warfare, it is worth asking who is really stoking the flames. Talk of a conflict between the generations has become a way for political elites to avoid engaging with the problems of today, by scapegoating the past and all those who happened to live there.
This is a dangerous and divisive approach, which does nothing to help young people.
The idea that older generations are to blame for the predicament of younger ones relies on simplistic prejudices that simply don’t stand up to interrogation.
The first is that members of any generation – broadly defined as a group of people born around the same time – have the same fortunes and values as each other.
They don’t. There are plenty of poor baby boomers and many well-off millennials; not all boomers voted for Brexit, and not all millennials voted to remain in the EU.
To present “generation” as the thing that defines us glosses over the more profound divisions of social class, gender, and ethnicity – not to mention individual differences in experience, opportunity, and outlook.
In talking up the problem of a conflict between the generations, politicians and activists are attempting to drive a wedge between old and young, cynically using “the voice of youth” to push through their own agendas.
We often hear the claim that the voice of young people has been sidelined by the vociferous voting behaviour of a large, self-interested generation, which is exercising undue influence over politics and policy. This is nonsense, peddled by those who want to appropriate the voice of younger generations in order to speak on their behalf.
It feeds off the patronising and anti-democratic sentiment that old people make the “wrong” decisions and that young people can be manipulated into ticking the “right” box – while conveniently avoiding the deeper questions of why people of all ages are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the political status quo.
Elite attempts to popularise the concept of a “generation war” rely on the idea that different generations have polarised interests, and that the interests of younger generations can be served by policies that restore “generational equity” by taking resources away from the elderly.
This mean-spirited argument is becoming increasingly popular among politicians searching to cut the cost of pensions and social care, and curry favour among the voters of tomorrow.
Under the guise of “renewing the social contract between the generations”, proposals to plunder pensioners’ savings and make them pay for their own care are presented as enlightened policy innovations, rather than acknowledged as a desperate act of granny-mugging.
As the “Dementia Tax” furore of the 2017 General Election revealed, most people do not endorse the idea that provision for old and young people is a zero-sum game.
Members of different generations support and care for each other, from childhood through adulthood to retirement – and social and economic problems impact people of all ages.
But it’s not just our elderly who suffer from this narrative of antagonism. As the rhetoric of generational conflict has intensified, young people’s anxieties and complaints about the world are increasingly informed by an outlook of generational grievance.
Tomorrow’s adults are incited to think of their futures in fatalistic terms, as though they have no role to play in a tragedy of their own lives that has already been scripted by their elders. They are stripped of their agency and told that their enemies and allies have been chosen for them.
And in this way, young people’s sense of possibility is perhaps the biggest casualty of the phoney generation wars.
Jennie Bristow is speaking in the debate “Generation Wars: Myth or Reality?” at the Battle of Ideas over the weekend 13-14 October.