‘Thatcher’s children’ and intergenerational inequality

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Intergenerational inequality is a problem that has gained recent prominence, especially arguments surrounding the generational fairness of the Government’s decision to increase National Insurance tax. In all ways political, socioeconomic, and cultural, statistics show that the two ends of the age spectrum are divided. The generation that came of age in the Eighties, lovingly dubbed ‘Thatcher’s children’, may have had an outsized impact on the generational differences we see today. Although Thatcher’s children have presided over widening inequality, are they necessarily to blame? This article tries to find the roots of the difference in generational experience today.

“A perennial lack of respect and attention paid to the young.”

MARK LEONARD, DIRECTOR OF THE EUROPEAN COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS

“There is no such thing as society”, the famous quote from former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, encapsulated the hyper-individualistic attitude that became dominant in the 80s. People in Britain who came of age during the Thatcher years were instilled with a new moral attitude that was disdainful of state help and Victorian in its commitment to putting yourself first and helping others after. But what impact does the change in political culture during the 80s have on young people today?

Mark Leonard, Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, claims that there is “a perennial lack of respect and attention paid to the young”. His remarks followed the resignation of the Government’s former education tzar, Kevan Collins, over the Treasury’s refusal to finance education catch-up for students who could not attend school during the pandemic. Decisions like these supposedly reveal the disdain held for students today by ‘Thatcher’s children’.

As a result, the stereotypical perspective among the young is commonly assumed to be resentful towards older people. However, research finds that young people are not resentful, but instead “know they’ll be old someday” and “don’t blame them”. So, despite Mr Leonard’s assertion that the young are perennially disrespected, there does not seem to have been a tangible backlash thus far.

The media does not help matters, with certain outlets slandering students as ‘snowflakes’ and ‘woke’. The negative effect is on an older audience, who may be more likely to take these stereotypes seriously. Although regiment and social convention have been quietly replaced with relativism and celebrating difference, there remain aspects of modernity that many students dislike. Many of us, for instance, oppose the emergence of ‘cancel culture’. Young and old both have this in common. However, It may be too optimistic to suggest that meaningful cultural consensus exists.

‘Thatcher’s children’ presided over a great generational divide, which still permeates our politics today

Take Brexit, for instance. Politically speaking, the intergenerational gap has widened significantly. Until the 1980s, age wasn’t a defining factor in those who voted Labour. However, age has now become the greatest electoral predictor, and it is statistically twice as likely that young people will vote Labour, rather than Conservative. Culture wars like Brexit worsened this divide, as over 65s were twice as likely to vote leave as under 25s. Brexit was the epitome of generational divisions, with polls clearly indicating that age was the strongest political dividing line. For many young people, the vote to leave the European Union felt like an assault on their futures. Looking at the electoral map of 2016, an interesting observation can also be made. Polly Toynbee of The Guardian notes how generations are geographically divided, since young people often reside in cities whilst older people retreat to the countryside. This difference in geographical location means that young and old live and socialise in different spheres, and besides within families, the two rarely interact with one another.

‘Thatcher’s children’ presided over a great generational divide, which still permeates our politics today. There are areas of consensus that do exist between the young and old – on the NHS and tackling climate change, for instance. Perhaps the starkest legacy of the Iron Lady’s children was to create a political generation which is totally opposed to everything she stood for.

Image: Rosie Bromiley via Palatinate Illustrations.

One thought on “‘Thatcher’s children’ and intergenerational inequality

  • “There is no such thing as society”

    There a second bit of that quote that always gets left off, that makes her tin-eared opinion on the subject even worse, “…there is only the individual, and the family.”

    What is society other than the most extended of families? Humans are essential tribal. The thing that is more obvious than ever is the way that many of us can selectively choose which tribes we want to belong to, who shared your values, your beliefs, and our experiences. What binds in families across generations is the family link. Outside, it is harder to foster, because life experience differs so widely.

    That said, I’m now 51, and remember arriving in Durham 33 years ago this very week. To hear myself, and people like me described as “People in Britain who came of age during the Thatcher years were instilled with a new moral attitude that was disdainful of state help and Victorian in its commitment to putting yourself first and helping others after” is a sweeping and mistaken generalisation. Many of benefitted from an education system that not only didn’t charge us fees, but actually paid us to do it. We grew up in a benefit system which, although hardly beneficent, was certainly much less hostile than it is now. We grew up in an era where we were becoming increasingly more European, and embraced it. Many of us have children who are now your age, some of you even coming to University around now. And we worry for you, because we see the advantages our parents worked hard to give us, being “spaffed up a wall” by a political class that has weaponised stupidity, atavistic individualism, and greed for its own ends. It has succeeded in the legerdemain of abdicating themselves of all responsibility and getting too many of us pointing at, and blaming each other. Thatcher’s Children are cynical, because we are used to being lied to, and used being screwed over by a political system that sees us as little more as collateral. We are not necessarily the enemy, and many of us see just how hard the world you are emerging into is becoming. Unlike our parents, many of us will be here for a fair bit longer.

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