Jonathan McHugh illustration of Camilla Cavendish column ‘Claims of intergenerational warfare over Covid-19 are overblown’
© Jonathan McHugh 2021

The writer, a former head of the Downing Street policy unit, is a Harvard senior fellow

“Tomorrow is a good day” was a favourite saying of Captain Sir Tom Moore, the lockdown hero who trudged laps of his garden to raise millions for the NHS. While some of the outpouring this week over his death at the age of 100 has been a bit mawkish, he exemplified the attitude of many older people whose voices have been drowned out in this crisis.

Pensioners have been routinely portrayed as hapless victims of Covid-19. Yet many in our neighbourhood were the first to start delivering groceries and prescriptions to those in need. Having long been the backbone of volunteering schemes, they saw no reason to stop. More recently, others have offered to donate their jabs to working adults, to get the economy going.

Such efforts have failed to alter the caricature of older people as cuddly relics who need protection. In October, broadcasters didn’t know how to react to a Barnsley shopper, who went viral when she attacked Covid lockdowns for their impact on the young. “I’m 83,” she said. “I don’t give a sod. Millions of people are going to be unemployed and you know who’s going to pay for it? All the young ones.”

It’s worth remembering this, as the spring brings the prospect of vaccinated baby boomers jetting merrily off to foreign climes while the rest of us languish at home. The scope for resentment is considerable. Just look at the deeply unpleasant Covid-related hashtag #boomerremover. A recent global survey of 16- to 30-year-olds by the Financial Times found a heightened sense of anxiety and growing anger at older generations who are wealthier and have more political power.

The picture was already skewed before coronavirus struck. The under-40s owned less than their parents had at the same age, with climate change and government debt creating an additional burden. The pandemic has layered on the pain. The Resolution Foundation says that young adults have been the most likely to fall behind with housing payments.

The reality is nuanced, though. It seems to be both the youngest and oldest workers whose jobs have been hardest hit in this crisis. In future, the biggest gap may be not between young and old but between those with degrees, many of whom will also inherit wealth, and the less skilled, whose prospects are being eroded by automation.

Simultaneously, the generations have become more intertwined. The Bank of Mum and Dad was the UK’s tenth biggest mortgage lender before the pandemic, vaulting offspring into their first home. The lockdown landscape is dotted with Hotels of Mum and Dad as the generations huddle together. The average age of leaving home is now 26 in the EU, and 30 in Italy.

This is perhaps why there is, in fact, much good will on both sides. I was inspired by a 22-year-old student neighbour who built a website and postcards offering help to elderly people living on their own; a teenager who printed 3D masks for a local care home; and a group of over-70s making large donations to food banks.

We ought to come out of this crisis with a strong sense of pulling together. In the UK, thousands of retired doctors and nurses have returned to help the NHS. The former headteacher and chief schools inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, 74, has called on retired teachers to join him in the classroom helping children who have lost out. We should find ways to harness the talent and energy of the old to mentor, plant trees, volunteer and fix social problems which affect every generation.

We must also be careful not to squander the good will. My blood recently boiled in a socially distanced queue outside the Post Office, when I rashly attempted small talk. An older woman declared smugly that Covid was all down to selfish teenagers who should be locked up, and that “we had rationing in the war”. As the mother of teenagers whose parents actually lived through the war — I wasn’t convinced she had — I struggled to remain polite.

While the virus has taken a hideous toll on the old, lockdowns have crippled the young. If one thing is likely to stoke intergenerational conflict, it will be the government pledge to maintain the triple-lock on pensions. This policy, introduced in 2010, ensures that the state pension rises by whichever is higher — wages, inflation or 2.5 per cent. As a result, the state pension bill has grown by about £8bn more than if it had tracked earnings since 2012. By 2017, the average pensioner household was better off than the average working household for the first time.

Although the UK state pension is still lower than many in other countries, the triple lock doesn’t look sustainable as the population ages. There could be substantial rises in payouts in the years ahead if wages bounce back after the pandemic after the ending of the Covid job retention scheme.

The Treasury may be expecting inflation to resume, eroding savings and squeezing bondholders, many of whom are older. Certainly, low interest rates have not been kind to people reliant on savings. But rather than focusing on the triple lock, it would be better to look at pensions and social care in the round, and create a comprehensive policy offering a secure old age and a fair settlement to the young. In appearing just to chase the Tories’ core vote, ministers have misread the mood.

“We shall all get through it in the end” was another of Moore’s uplifting phrases. Yes we will — but it would be better if we acknowledged that all generations have suffered, all have talents, and that the old — like Moore — stand ready to do their bit.

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