Oct 312012
 

I’ll give my answer and justify it,  then identify how the Intergenerational Foundation could be something more useful:

The Intergenerational Foundation is an anti-baby-boomer & anti-pensioner advocacy group,
pretending to be concerned with researching and promoting intergenerational fairness and justice.


The Intergenerational Foundation


Up-front statements

The following 3 quotes are from a single paragraph on the home page:

“The Intergenerational Foundation (IF) has been established to promote fairness between generations.”

The above sentence is the pretense. (See “Press releases” below).

“We believe that each generation should pay its own way, which is not happening at present”

From the beginning of the human race, and far earlier, every generation has paid for the younger generation or two. Obviously parents initially pay for their children. Often grandparents pay for their grandchildren. Choosing to have children typically leaves the parents financially worse off for the rest of their lives than if they hadn’t had children. So parents choose to make a life-long ongoing investment in their children in the form of their own reduced wealth.

Taxes on workers pay for services to others of all ages. Before there were nearly as many pensioners as now, workers’ taxes paid mainly for services for people of working age or younger people. Taxpayers pay for Child Benefit for children not yet in education, and pay for education for students not yet working.

What has happened in the last few decades is that an increase in the numbers of retired people and pensioners has complicated the largely one-way flow of money from the old to the young. While the flow from older to younger obviously continues, some money now also flows the other way. In comparison with earlier generations, and especially if the ongoing investment of parents in their children is over-looked, it may appear that the flows between younger and older people have become unbalanced. But the real sums have probably not have been done.

“British policy-makers have given undue advantages to the older generation at the expense of younger and future generations.”

The obvious problem with that statement is that if those “advantages” remain applicable to anyone who becomes old, they will eventually become advantages to those “younger and future generations”. Everyone hopes to live long enough to become part of an “older generation”!  There are examples of government policies that are not this way round, for example changes to tax threshold (so-called “granny tax”) and the new higher-rate state pension which will only be introduced for today’s pre-pensioners, not current pensioners. The government is not simply concerned about the current older generation, but also about people who will be old in future.

By being highly selective, and taking a short-term view, the Intergenerational Foundation presupposes what it should really be researching. It assumes without proof that promoting fairness between generations will involve increasing the flow of money from older to younger people and/or reducing the flow of money from younger people to older people. (And it isn’t clear that it has thought through what it actually means by “older” and “younger”). This assumption colours much of what appears on the website.

Press releases

Until recently Intergenerational Foundation press releases had a more revealing “Note to Editors” that contradicts “to promote fairness between generations“:

“The Intergenerational Foundation exists to promote the interests of younger and future generations in government policy making.”

Now this has changed from “promote” to “protect”, which is a better objective.


Examples of specific articles

A typical Intergenerational Foundation article or research paper is just half of what it should be. It is likely to make a good start then run out of steam once it has made some anti-baby-boomer or anti-pensioner statements. Or it eventually heads off at a tangent that discredits the initial work. These articles and research papers would benefit from a good editor or from peer-review. Here are some illustrations of many:

Example: Hoarding of Housing: The intergenerational crisis in the housing market

This report set the trend for sound initial research and analysis that was then mis-used for counter-productive anti-pensioner policies. Initially the paper usefully documented a whole range of facts and problems within the topic of “housing”. It especially documented the fact that lots of upmarket houses had more rooms in them than their owners / occupiers strictly needed. Here is a quote from that report displaying naked envy: “Policy options include: … ­ ‘nudge’ policies such as the withdrawal of some ‘universal’ benefits for those living in houses worth over £500,000″.

It forgot a vital principle:

The number of “unoccupied bedrooms” is irrelevant unless they are in houses that can be afforded by the people who need those bedrooms!

Older people who “buy down” will be able to out-bid younger people for smaller, cheaper, houses, driving their price up and making things worse for younger people!  Better-off people should be encouraged to stay out of the marketplace for “affordable housing”, leaving that to younger people. Perhaps the real policy should be the opposite to what this report concludes:

People in houses that younger people with families can’t afford should be encouraged to stay there.
Better-off people without families in houses that younger people with families can afford should be encouraged to buy-up to houses that those younger people can’t afford.

(It is possible that those controversial and counter-productive conclusions were left in the report in order to generate publicity for the Intergenerational Foundation. If so, they succeeded!)

Example: Why do so many young people still live with their parents?

This article raised an interesting question, and documented possible answers from the perspective of the young people. Those perspectives inevitably include the problems that many young people have with the housing market. So this phenomenon is presented as evidence of young people’s problems.

But it omitted an equally important question which I then asked:

“why do parents accommodate their children in this way?” (They don’t have to!)

Often, perhaps typically, parents retain concern for their children throughout their lives. They knew that having children was a life-style choice that would leave them worse off financially for the rest of their lives. So in effect they have chosen to make a life-long investment in their children. This appears to be part of the evolution in how parents invest in their children. Both parents and children are adapting to a changing world, and adopting new ways for parental investment in their children to continue.

Asking this question emphasises the fact that parents invest in their children, and may continue to do so for a long time. It is yet more evidence for the flow of money from older to younger people.

Example: A trivial tweet

This tweet from the Intergenerational Foundation was simply a case of not following-through:

It made a case for taking money from older people. The case for ensuring that older people had sufficient money for this purpose was ignored. (There was no further discussion!)

Example: What can we learn about pensions from the Victorians?

This article emphasised how little was paid to Victorian pensioners, with the obvious implication that we should pay lots less now. It advocated means-testing for pensions. (I suspect that the article was an attempt to shift the “Overton window“, in effect softening up opinion towards dramatic reduction in pensions. I wonder if the authors have forgotten that they will be pensioners one day?)

My response included:

“A highest rate taxpayer may get the basic state pension of about £107, and then be taxed at 50%. Hence they will receive about £54 per week.  A person below the tax threshold may get the basic state pension of about £107, and not be taxed. Then perhaps get Pension Credit of up to £137. Hence they will receive about £244 per week.  So the amount of pension received is massively means-related, from £54 to £244 per week depending on income.”

Why wasn’t this obviously important information included in the article? Hadn’t the authors done their homework? Was it inconvenient to their case that pensions are taxed and some pensioners’ benefits are means tested?

Example: Pensioner Millionaires in the UK: Identifying the Numbers

This research paper provides a count of millionaire pensioners at various ages. (It isn’t clear why this matters, other than as an emotive topic). There are about 1 million of 65+, out of about 2.5 millionaire families overall. (It is hard to keep track of whether figures are for “people with at least £1million” or “families with at least £1million”). The paper omits to say that the numbers involve subtracting any mortgage from the values of assets such as houses. This is the trick that David Willetts used in his book “The Pinch: how the baby boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back“, see “The myth of a baby-boom-led housing crisis“. Two families may have ostensibly identical circumstances, with similar houses, but the older family has had time to pay off its mortgage and so has more gross wealth.

An inquiry into how many younger people were on-track to have at least £1million when they reached 65+ would assume that they would have time to pay off most or all of their mortgage by then. The numbers would then be far higher than the apparent 1.5 million people younger than 65 implied by the above figures. But that would show that (current and future) millionaires exist in all generations, including those well under 65!

Summary

Too many of the reports and articles are written through a filter of “anti-baby-boomer and anti-pensioner”. It is as though they have to deliver that message, whatever else they do. If there were no easy responses, then perhaps they would actually be right to do so! But typically there are easy responses which can be seen by someone looking at the system from various perspectives rather than from just one point of view.

If the Intergenerational Foundation really is intended to be “anti-baby-boomer and anti-pensioner” it is doing OK. But that has limited chance of actually achieving anything useful.


Comparison with 2 other social policy think tanks

Here are a couple of other examples of think tanks whose work is/was strongly related to social policy, including the welfare state and benefits systems.

Child Support Analysis

In 2001 I called myself “Child Support Analysis – a small independent think tank” and investigated and analysed “child support in the UK and topics related to child support”. (I ceased working on this topic and froze the website in 2007).  The Child Support Analysis website says about itself:

“Its primary audience is “politicians, academics, lobbyists & media”. The secondary audience is “CSA staff, CSA customers & their advisors”. It provides: Analysis, Explanation, Information, Opinion, and perhaps Understanding. It doesn’t provide advice, although it identifies sources of advice. It does not exist for: Advising, Blaming, Campaigning, or Debating.”

I claim that the breadth, depth, and quality of its material is far better than that of the Intergenerational Foundation. Those in doubt should visit the Site map & search and dip into the material. Towards the end of my career I had worked as a business analyst. (Here is the explanation for the above phrase “Analysis, Explanation, Information, Opinion, and perhaps Understanding”).

The website itself wasn’t directly concerned with lobbying and campaigning. I did this in person, sometimes directly but typically in support of other lobby groups. I contributed to the law-making process at green paper and white paper stages, gave evidence to the Social Security Select Committee in Parliament, was a studio guest on the BBC’s News24 channel, and was interviewed for Radio 4′s “Today Programme”.

International Longevity Centre – UK

A think tank whose scope overlaps with the Intergenerational Foundation is International Longevity Centre – UK. Its own website says:

“The International Longevity Centre-UK is the leading think tank on longevity and demographic change. It is an independent, non-partisan think-tank dedicated to addressing issues of longevity, ageing and population change. We develop ideas, undertake research and create a forum for debate.”

Its research papers are more comprehensive and neutral than those of the Intergenerational Foundation. It is a far better funded think tank than the Intergenerational Foundation, while I had no funding at all.

Observations

In summary, the Intergenerational Foundation doesn’t have a coherent research and publication programme. It does have a set of reasonable research projects, but there is little identification of progress against these. There is a lack of joined-up thinking, for example confusion about whether population growth is intergenerationally good (for paying for the elderly) or bad (for the environment). I don’t detect that the Advisory Board is doing a reasonable job.

The flavour of the website is that of an advocacy organisation that assumes “unfairness” without first properly identifying “fairness”. One of the main researchers probably doesn’t have the time or the experience to do a proper job, so much of the material published is amateurish. Some of the sub-topics in the analyses appear to be those that interest the contributors rather than those which can be demonstrated to illuminate the main topics.


Does the Intergenerational Foundation matter?

I’m an optimist, and tend to believe that organisations can be turned round to become more constructive and productive.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of time wasted on such organisations which have not delivered. For example, OpenRAW. It achieved massive recognition, and could have achieved a lot given realistic objectives. But it was based on ideologies that stood no chance of working yet blocked more productive methods. Eventually it died.

It is hard to believe that the Intergenerational Foundation will be very effective while it is so obvious that its reports and articles are very selective and narrowly focused. It is becoming characterised by what it is opposed to rather than by realistic proposals that can generate useful debate. Here are some suggestions:

Identify credible principles
Establish some “easy” agreements

Some suggestions:

  • Leave the country in a sound financial state. Obvious examples include at worst zero deficit, and preferably reducing debt, hence “negative deficit”.
  • Do no long-term damage to the environment. (This is one of my “extra commandments“, to replace the incompetent “10 Commandments” that religions promote).
  • Leave the country in a more enlightened state.
  • Raise age for pensions to ensure that a more sustainable proportion of life expectancy is spent working.
  • Change the law to allow assisted suicide (not euthanasia, of course) for the mentally-capable terminally ill (as currently lobbied for), for mentally-capable long-term-disabled, and also (by prior choice via some sort of “living will”) for dementia and similar cases.
  • Build more houses!
Run reports and articles through a “reality check”

I’m not advocating censorship. I am advocating: offering authors the opportunity to change sections that are easily discredited; and otherwise publish more credible alternatives alongside the original.


Further reading

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