Taking the generational strain

In his book, The Pinch, David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science, claimed that friction would be the defining feature of future relationships across older and younger generations in Britain. Recent research by Ipsos Mori has also been exploring the attitudes and behaviours of different generations, and asking how important generational factors are compared with others such as class and wealth. Professor Shamit Saggar, Director of Understanding Society’s Policy Unit & Professor of Public Policy at the University of Essex looks at the evidence.

Photo credit: The Children's Society

There are numerous angles on this line of thinking: from savings and consumption patterns through to views on ethnic and cultural pluralism. Important shifts are taking place that confirm the idea that younger people are very unlike their parents let alone grandparents. Britain’s composition  is changing and we are experiencing changes that need to be scrutinised in some detail.

What is less clear from this is whether, or how far, these two changes have been affected by the recession that the country underwent from 2008 to about 2013. The anatomy of this downturn has been closely examined by social and economic researchers, many of whom have highlighted the impacts on income and pecking orders, and the muted impacts on particular regions such as London and employment levels in particular low income jobs and services.

How will younger people fare?

But this masks many other forces influencing how younger British people will fare in the economy and society of the future. The most significant of these has to do with the characteristics of individuals and groups that are best (and worst) matched with what will be needed to earn a living in the future.

There are several aspects to this challenge, starting with the education and skills needed to ensure demand holds up for younger workers’ labour. This has always been relevant, of course, but what it takes to keep up is gathering pace and unpredictability.

In particular, the switch to a digital, knowledge-led economy has placed a focus on who stands to be replaced by a robot or other kind of automation. Technological-driven change ensures that a host of current job types will have to compete with computing power and/or mass production. Regular, easily-modelled tasks will be gobbled up. By contrast, in other roles there is substantial new scope to play a complementary role – and this is where job growth and with it job security lies.

A Stanford PhD student has invented a means to tap into the unconscious mind that is set to revolutionise PC gaming and much more besides. And an MIT team are now able to capture a driver’s emotional spirit and prompt their car colour to change perhaps as a warning to others.

Contributing value

The point is that there is a premium on where someone is able to contribute value by deploying skills and insights. In these rare examples, individuals stand to make great leaps that can be commoditised on a massive scale. But in many other examples, the test remains the same.

In contrast, within a single generation, there are likely to be many who are left behind. These people may be the peers of the doctoral student cited above but they will have very little in common. Why? Because they will not be alert to the need to hold and update their human capital. They are already poorly motivated, mostly non-aspirational and bumping along on the edges of a post industrial labour market.

David Aaronovitch has added that they are increasingly likely to be poor whites who buy into a grievance culture and politics offered by UKIP.

Changing technologies

Technological change impacts on individuals in relation to productivity. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times has made the same point, arguing that it is far too early to tell who has and has not shifted to this new reality.

For one thing, most previous technological gearshifts have taken twenty to thirty years (think of electricity networks) to play out in terms of new economic sectors and job types. This means that we are now seeing some of this ‘lag effect’ close up. But it is not clear who will succeed in the new opportunity structures of the economy.

The debate around inter-generational tension is affected by these wider, material changes in the economy and workplace. Specifically, younger people now face significant additional pressures to remain relevant and in demand for future jobs.

In some areas whole job categories are likely to be squeezed out of all recognition – for example, much of the formerly safe and aspirational white-collar world of accounting has been cited as a prime shedder of labour.

Reading a new economic environment

The important question will be the ability of future generations to read this economic environment correctly and respond appropriately. In many cases there will a wholesale inability to do so, possibly accompanied by a cultural reluctance to even try. This opens up a grievance narrative, resenting adaptation and resilience among others.

At the other end there are growing sources of knowledge, advice and support to move with the curve and this will be bring a greater premium of national income and wealth. Overall, growing prosperity is being accompanied with greater inequality right across the western economies, as Thomas Piketty has noted.

The upshot is that there is likely to be as much variance within as between generations for some time yet. Yes, younger generations are, for the reasons already described, operating in a less stable and more challenge world in order to earn a living, as compared with their parents. But it does not mean that they are (within their own generation) equally or similarly able to respond successfully.

Dwelling on intergenerational grit distracts us from the tensions that lie within our own generation. Therefore, the most helpful area of new research would be in better understanding the cross pressures that are placed on younger generations emanating from older generations – alongside their natural instincts to compare themselves with their own-generation peers.


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