It seems even Mel and Sue can't save The Generation Game. The irony is, though, that intergenerational conflict is a becoming a hot topic for politicians just as the cuddly toy, the rotisserie and the fondue set enter the light entertainment scrapyard.

Intergenerational conflict, of course, isn’t new. Concern about “the youth of today” probably has existed since time immemorial. And where would a teen movie be without stuffy elders who just don’t get it?

The contemporary take on this has a younger generation (“Millennials”) who are (take your pick) slackers, entitled, over-protected “snowflakes” and an older generation (“baby boomers”) that’s never had it so good, going from one cruise to the next between buying life insurance policies for the over-50s that don’t need a medical. But there’s a twist to this tale which goes as follows. Through ownership of assets, principally houses, older generations have ensured economic power remains in their hands. Younger generations face flat or stagnating incomes and much less chance of accumulating wealth except through gifts or inheritance from older generations. And, because there’s more of them than there used to be – partly because they’re living longer – and because they’re more likely to vote, older generations have ensured that politicians make sure their interests are protected. The pensions triple lock is a case in point.

What started as journalism then coalesced into the Resolution Foundation’s Intergenerational Commission. And now the House of Lords has set up a Select Committee to investigate the issue, which has issued a call for evidence.

How the Committee judges whether or not the current state of affairs is fair to different generations is anybody’s guess. There are so many imponderables. Not least that the economic prospects of today’s younger generations depend on what happens for decades to come, when we have factors like artificial intelligence and Brexit to consider. Of particular relevance is whether the UK’s productivity slowdown turns out to be temporary or permanent; if the latter, and we’re in for decades of little or no productivity growth, this would disrupt the assumption that future generations will always be richer than the current one, an assumption that underpins many of our current policies such as the "pay-as-you-go" model of state pensions.

Nevertheless, there are some trends affecting the working lives of people of different ages that can be picked out. Young people are entering the labour market later than they used to, mainly because more of them stay in further and higher education. But whereas the employment rates of those aged under 25 have fallen for at least the last quarter century, the employment rate of those aged 50-64 has risen steadily from 56% in 1992 to 72% by 2018, so working life is being deferred rather than shortened. And older age groups account for more of the workforce: nearly a third of all those in employment are now over 50, compared with a fifth in 1992.

Older people, though, are more likely than those in so-called “prime age” categories (25-59) to work part-time or work for themselves, and the control this brings them over their working lives and how they spend their time might help explain why employees aged 55 and over are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs than younger employees. Indeed, a comparison of the CIPD’s Job Quality Index shows that older employees think their jobs score best on health and well-being and on work-life balance – because they’re least likely to be overworked and least likely to be stressed (or, at least, that they are better equipped to cope with work-related pressures).

But it’s not all good news for older workers. Their jobs score less well on pay and benefits than those held by younger people. And they are less likely to think their job offers prospects to develop their skills or build a career. Furthermore, it seems that if someone over 50 loses their job, they find it more difficult than younger people to get another job – any job, let alone one as good as the one they lost.

So far, the main government response to the ageing population has been to encourage people to work to a later age and to encourage employers to enable them to do this, through a combination of sticks and carrots – outlawing age discrimination and the default retirement age, increasing the age at which the state pension is paid – as well as encouragement and exhortation. But CIPD research suggests many employers haven’t made any plans to adapt to an older workforce, preferring instead to do nothing or deal with problems as they arise – an attitude likely to be more dangerous if, as some fear, labour supply dries up post-Brexit.

Employers may need to redesign flexible working options and their training and development opportunities so they are suitable for, and appeal to, a broad range of age groups.

About the author

Mark Beatson

Mark Beatson, Senior Labour Market Analyst

Mark's respected labour market analysis and commentary strengthens the CIPD’s ability to lead thinking and influence policy making across the whole spectrum of people management and workplace issues.

Prior to joining the CIPD, Mark was an economic consultant and for over 20 years worked as an economist in the Civil Service, latterly at Chief Economist/Director level, in a range of Government departments including the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and HM Treasury.

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