In general, people expect the next generation to do better and have more opportunities than the previous generation. But there’s growing concern that this expectation is breaking down, that intergenerational fairness is fracturing.
You can see why this might be. In the aftermath of the 2008 recession, youth unemployment rose more rapidly than overall employment. Today, average earnings are, in real terms, still below 2008 levels. But this masks big disparities: the Institute of Fiscal Studies shows that incomes for the over 60s have risen 11%, but incomes for those in their 20s are still 7% below their 2007 levels.
Overall, this leads some to paint a picture of a ‘battle of the generations’: many baby boomers benefiting from rising house prices, free university tuition, and final salary pension schemes; with many young people locked out of the housing market (home ownership rates for 30 year olds have halved in the last two decades), poorer pension provision, and significant debts from university.
But in truth the picture is more complex. Most baby boomers don’t want the next generation to face bigger challenges, and most young people wouldn’t begrudge their parents the opportunities they’ve had. And of course many young people do succeed: part of the reason so many young people are willing to take on the debt of university is because the evidence shows it will pay off during their career; youth employment rates rose as the economy recovered; and advances in technology and transport open up opportunities unimagined even ten years ago.
Snakes and ladders
I would argue the major challenge is one of social mobility. Education is the key to recognising and fulfilling opportunity; but too often your chances of getting good grades are determined by your background not your abilities. Changes in the economy meaning a rising skills bar to getting a job and building a career; but the OECD found that this is one of the few countries where young peoples’ basic skills are weaker than those of older generations. Getting on the housing ladder requires a good income and savings; but the link between your parents’ income and your earning opportunities is stronger in this country than elsewhere in the world.
So perhaps the fact that opportunity cascades between generations is a bigger challenge than a clash of the generations. If you’re born into a low income family, you’re far less likely to get good qualifications and far more likely to have a low income as an adult.
Delivering social mobility
The good news is that none of this is inevitable. The experience of other countries shows this.
This is a big issue and there’s no simple answer. Here’s three priority areas:
* Delivering the Skills Plan. The Government has announced plans to create a structured, employer-led system of 15 technical education routes. It is vital that those young people who do not take the A Level route (the minority of young people) have the highest quality, world class options;
* 3 million high quality Apprenticeships. At their best, Apprenticeships are a great way to combine learning and earning. Apprenticeships should benchmarked against the best in the world. The Apprenticeship Levy and other reforms offer an opportunity to do this, we set out our ideas here; and
* High quality career education & employment advice. Careers advice can’t be a on-off in a changing world: careers education is the key to long-term success. And employment services such as Jobcentre Plus need to be tailored to individual circumstances. Suffolk’s MyGo, which Learning and Work Institute are evaluating, may provide a model.
Young people leaving full-time education today are likely to have 50 year careers. They are likely to need to change jobs and careers multiple times to jobs that haven’t even been invented yet. This should be an awe-inspiring prospect in a world more filled with opportunity than ever before. But we need to do more so that every young person gets a chance to fulfil their potential: building a country where the only limit on ambition is ability and hard work.
Stephen Evans, Chief Executive, Learning and Work Institute.