Indebted and Ungrateful: How the elderly stole the future (again)

Anyone unlucky enough to read my tweets will know that I have one or two issues with the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.  People giving thanks to ‘Dishy Rishi’ really get my hackles up: it is not his money, it is ours.  And visiting local restaurants and pubs in Surrey over recent weeks and finding them full (only on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays) of affluent pensioners on fat final salary pensions really does get my goat.  Every single one of them could afford to be there unsubsidised, and therefore not adding to the debt their grandchildren will be repaying in many decades’ time.  But yet there they are, enjoying a jolly good feed and chortling contentedly when they get twenty quid off the bill.

My point is not that we shouldn’t support the hospitality sector.  We absolutely should, and the intentions of the Eat Out scheme are good (although giving consistent advice about how to avoid infection would surely have built up confidence amongst customers just as effectively as bunging them a tenner).  What I object to is people who don’t need to do so taking handouts from the Government.  Because those handouts are effectively subsidies from younger people to older folk, from grandchildren to grandparents.  And that is simply unfair.

Earlier on in the year there was a contretemps about the end of free television licences for everyone aged over 75.  Even now some “furious pensioners” are saying they would rather go to jail than pay up.  But for pensioners who are well-off – which is an awful lot of them – £157.50 is a drop in the bucket, and there is simply no logical reason why they shouldn’t pay if they can.  After all, free TV licences are yet another direct financial support from young to old – which is particularly outrageous when it is the elderly who really like to watch ‘Auntie’ while youngsters consume Netflix and YouTube.

More broadly, the Economist recently published an article noting that the reliance of the Conservative Party on older voters means that choices are made that hold back economic growth and harm the prospects of future generations.  Taken as a whole (of course there are individual exceptions), people over 60 are likely to oppose house building in areas that need houses, immigration in sectors that need brains and brawn, globalisation and trade, deregulation, new infrastructure projects and a host of other things that drive growth.  They favour spending on the NHS over spending on schools.  They don’t much like social change.  As the Economist puts it: “increasingly, Britain is governed in the interests of voters with an insatiable demand for healthcare and pensions, while a sluggish economy struggles to fund them”.

The article features quotes from a focus group of older ‘affluent eurosceptics’ who seem particularly sour about the attitudes of younger generations.  Kathleen observes that “the generation under me just seems to expect everything to be given to them… Everything I’ve got I earned”.  Really, Kathleen?  It is a bit of a stretch to claim that anyone really ‘earned’ the greatest part of the wealth of most middle-class people, namely the gargantuan rise in the value of houses over several decades.  And it’s not really fair to be sniffy about younger people when you are happily cushioned by a final salary pension puffed up by years of strong performance by bonds and stocks; I’m sure your children, let alone your grandchildren, would love to have the chance to ‘earn’ one of those.  But they can’t.

Obviously not all pensioners are the same.  Many would reject Kathleen’s perspective, and of course there are plenty who do not live comfortable lives in retirement.  But those who can afford it should think hard about accepting a subsidised meal or a free TV licence.  They should perhaps reflect too on whether voting for their own short-term interests, for hospitals over schools, for the Green Belt over development, and for Brexit over Remain, is fair on the generations that will come after them.  I’ve speculated before (tongue in cheek) about whether pensioners should be allowed to vote if they persist in doing so selfishly: they definitely shouldn’t accept a national-debt-funded reduction in their bill when they’re in their favourite restaurant.

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