Selfish millennials - RSA

Selfish millennials?


  • Economics and Finance
  • Communities
  • Public services

There are two broad accounts of the ‘millennial’ mindset – if you buy the notion that generations can be defined by divergent characteristics.

The first account is that this generation would be civically minded, solidaristic and idealistic. Think about the image of younger supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. The second is that this generation is entitled and narcissistic, individualistic and self-regarding- and in a public and showy way. Think Made in Chelsea or The Apprentice. Our recent survey, conducted with Populus would seem to point to the latter – and quite clearly.

Age groups under 45 years-old in the survey are least likely to back increases in taxes to support higher public spending. This hardly seems compatible with a radical Corbynista generation as some caricatures tend to suggest. Thirty percent and just over of the three age groups below 45 years-old in our survey supported taxes to increase spending on public services. For the 45-54 year old age group, it is 42 percent, rising to 54 percent for those 65 years-old plus. 

Bear in mind the electorate was split along these lines in the election of 2017 but it was the older groups who were more likely to vote Conservative and younger groups most likely to vote Labour. Younger groups are also more likely to want to see cuts in taxes and spending. These findings appear to be both paradox and an open and shut case.

Or is it? Call this a hunch but something more interesting and important could be going on here that points towards a different analysis. Earlier this year, the Centre for Policy Studies posed a survey question which essentially asked survey respondents to choose between targeted Government support and consistent Government support. It was a classic means-testing versus universalism framing. Roughly even numbers of under 39 year-olds support means-testing and a slimmed down state as an approach versus more universalist underpinnings (such as child benefit, the NHS, and Universal Basic Income). And when we undertook a poll on Universal Basic Income in the Summer, the findings similarly pointed towards significant support for universalism. Under 45s were broadly as likely to support Universal Basic Income in principle as over 45s – and by a margin of roughly two-to-one. 

What is going on? Some context would be helpful. Younger generations are facing a very different reality and set of prospects than Generation X and Baby Boomers. They are significantly indebted. They are far less likely to own a home than older generations were at their age. Work and wider economic life for many is insecure, precarious and less likely to lift them out of poverty. Welfare is parsimonious and disempowering – not least because of a highly intrusive and punitive sanctions regime. Expenditure on public services they actually use, schools if they have families for instance, are being cut. Support seems to go to older generations with any additional public spending being ploughed into the NHS rather than wider economic security. And tax increases would be expected to do the same. The support of those under 45 years-old for Labour in the 2017 election can be seen as an attempt to redress the balance.  

This picture is one of a broken social contract. Generational inequalities have become deep. Trust has diminished. Older generations are more likely to fear that cultural change has been adverse. Younger generations see division along economic lines. They fear that ploughing more of their wages into the state will perpetuate generational inequality – to their detriment - rather than help ensure they can enjoy a greater sense of economic security.

If this hunch is right, then there would be two false policy responses in facing the ‘millennial challenge’. One is to pursue a libertarian cause. Whilst lower taxes might be welcome and service cuts go relatively unnoticed for a while, ultimately there will be a backlash. Inevitably, it wouldn’t only be services that older generations benefit from that took the hit. Public infrastructure would be further impaired, in addition to the decade of austerity already endured. Further political destabilisation could be anticipated as well as deep consequences for human welfare.

The second course proposed to restore political legitimacy is to develop the contributory element of the modern welfare state – sometimes termed, not completely satisfactorily, reciprocity. Essentially, this means accruing more supports the longer you have ‘contributed’ to the system – for example by paying taxes over time or by living in an area for a period thereby accruing enhanced access to housing and suchlike. The Basic State Pension operates on this principle. There is a moral appeal within some sections of the electorate for this which is why the idea is floated periodically.  

Yet, once we observe the misalignment between taxes and available support that already has a generational skew, there should be deep caution about contributory approaches. Contribution is often aligned to age and the risk is further generational inequality, thereby further undermining or failing to address to legitimacy of the modern social contract. In other words, the effect could be opposite to that intended, poorly targeting scarce resource in the process- which could be one reason why our polls and others pick up some affinity for universalism. Universalism ensures more certainty and security whilst more evenly spreading assistance thereby providing a firmer bedrock of security.

Far from underpinning caricatures of millennials our survey, therefore, could well be yet another canary in the generational inequality coalmine. This is why in our recent Foundations for a 21st Century Enlightenment and this week’s prospectus on People, Place and Power, we have called for a national dialogue on increasing spending, alongside a new social settlement to support all in and out of work, and a Universal Basic Income. To pull the shell of the universal welfare state down further or to attempt to concentrate benefits would be wrong turns. All may not be lost with millennials after all – far from it.

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