Jan 212013

I prefer to stay out of on-line warfare. But sometimes you just have to stand up and be counted.

These are two people within the freethought communities who for some reason have been attracting unbelievably vicious on-line attacks. Not from people who might be expected to be inherently opposed to the concepts of “freethought”, but from apparent insiders.

I’m not objecting to the particulars of any disagreement. If you are on-line some people will disagree with you and criticise your position, and they have a right to do so. (I don’t claim to agree with everything these victims say). But there are many very personal attacks which are clearly intended to silence or inhibit people like Ophelia Benson and Natalie Reed, and others such as Jennifer McCreight and Rebecca Watson that I’ve posted about earlier.

Why? Is it retaliation for vicious personal attacks the other way? No! (And tit-for-tat would not be the best response anyway). Is it because their body of work is harmful to humanity in some way? Once again, no! It has been characterised as “hatred”, but that leads to the question “why hate these people?” (And another question is “how can anyone even consider writing such vicious attacks?”)

I think it is “rage against the enlightenment”.

The Enlightenment overthrew the previous order. It replaced theocracies and monarchies with democracies, and replaced revelations with evidence-based reasoning. But it also set in motion the trend towards acceptance of all sorts of people and behaviours that were once suppressed. It even led to women (women!) being able to speak their minds, and even criticise patriarchal attitudes!

This sort of unsettling of the old ways of thinking and doing things led to fundamentalism in religion. Fundamentalism is like a stake in the ground: “this is what we believe in and we will not budge from this”. But it isn’t confined to religion. It applies to any attitude of the form “this is how things have been done and we must defend this position”.

The “dimension of enlightenment” that appears to be the sticking point is “Empathy”. This involves seeing others as ends in their own right, not as means to ends, and naturally or deliberately examining things from their point of view (although not necessarily agreeing with them afterwards):

  • Summary: Attitudes and views towards other beings, human or otherwise.
  • Enlightened views: Peers. Equality. LGBT-acceptance. Pluralism. Meeting of minds. Sympathy. Compassion. Autonomy. Great apes.
  • Unenlightened views: In-group only. Belief in sub-humans. Patriarchy. Intolerance. Slavery. Property. Racism. LGBT-intolerance. Misogyny. Misandry.

Lack of empathy is both an explanation for why these attacks happen, and for the vicious nature of the attacks. This may be related to the following inquiry:

Amy Davis Roth tweet

Perhaps they are simply not intended to help skepticism or atheism. Not everyone who pursues those “isms” is enlightened in a rounded way. They may be good at evidence-based reasoning, but that is only one aspect of enlightenment. These accounts (etc) are intended to inhibit some other aspects of enlightenment.

This sort of post is unfortunately one of a set:

Jan 192013

I’ve just finished watching the 3 Swedish-made movies in the Stieg LarssonMillenium Trilogy“:

I was gripped by the character of Lisbeth Salander, and not only because of the mesmerising acting by Noomi Rapace.

I couldn’t help wondering what her Myers-Briggs Type Indicator would be. And I suspect INTP. Others think INTJ. But INTJs “tend to plan their activities and make decisions early; they derive a sense of control through predictability”. Yet I think she “tends to withhold judgment and delay important decisions, preferring to ‘keep her options open’ should circumstances change”, which is INTP.

This probably appears to be a strange analysis to be making when watching some movies! But in 2000 I tested as INTP, although not far from INTJ, and when watching these movies I kept thinking: “yes!” (I wonder if only INTP and INTJ people analyse movie characters in this way?)

(I also felt a connection with the character of Saga Norén in the Danish/Swedish TV series The Bridge. But her pedantry arose because she lacked empathy, and Asperger syndrome was assumed).

Jan 182013

I’ve just read a super article by Valerie Tarico about the challenges that the Internet (and especially the Web) poses for religion: Religion may not survive the Internet.

One of my themes was similar. Global communication undermines a number of the methods that religions rely on to sustain the ignorance and delusions of their existing and (more importantly) their future followers. Here are some quotes from my article (there is a lot more about other themes):


Global communication

Future generations will grow up exposed to global information sources which will challenge the beliefs of their parents and local communities. This process has already begun, with the rise of services on the web starting in the 1990s. A recent example is YouTube Atheism.

Evidence about the nature of religion in general, the origins of specific religions, and the nature of the universe continues to be made available globally.

It becomes harder each decade to sustain ideas about “the one true religion”, with consequential assumptions about the characters (eg. morality) of people (religious or not) who refute that religion. This is because of increased contact with other people, and increased exposure to global information sources.

Science continues to reveal the similarity and continuity of human beings through history and across the world. Global communications shows how many of the problems people face are the same across the world.

“New Atheism”

There has been a lot of talk about “new atheism”, as though this is something that they can try to understand and learn how to combat. Here is a hypothesis that could be a topic for study:

There is no such thing as “new atheism”.
Instead there is a “new context” (“new audience” and “new media”) which has changed the perception of “existing atheism”.

Examination of Jack Huberman’s “The Quotable Atheist” shows that nearly all the themes in the latest set of books were present in earlier works. Also, the language of many of those earlier expressions were at least as disrespectful of religion.

Here is a thought experiment:

Suppose that Richard Dawkins had had an outline of “The God Delusion” in earlier decades – 1996, 1986, 1976, …. Would there have been sufficient incentives for Richard to expand that outline to its current comprehensive version, rather than release it in more limited form? Would there have been sufficient incentives for a publisher to publish it as widely and as well-translated? What would the reception have been?

For example: 1996. The web existed, but was not widely used. There were no web forums, no video-viewing such as YouTube or video downloads, little or no on-line publication of news articles, etc. There were fewer TV stations available to most people in the UK, probably less need to find material to fill the air-time, and perhaps less need for controversial material to attract viewers.

Another factor in 1996 was “this was pre-9/11″. That influenced some of the content of the book and surely changed the audience.

Given all of this, how far would people have taken an interest in even the comprehensive version? Surely far fewer people would have been aware of it, and there would have been fewer opportunities to debate it? Would people even have been talking about “new atheism”?

This sort of analysis could be extended to earlier decades, and to all of the current set of books.

Rather more speculative, how will the current books be viewed in 2016, 2026, …? And what will new books about atheism, perhaps written by a new and less restrained generation, be like in those years? Will the “conversational climate” have changed so that the current books will be seen as quite mild, with new books being more aggressive?

<End of quotes>

There are religious people alive today who will still be alive and religious at the end of the century. Religions will be around for centuries.

Although there is discussion about how effective atheist literature is in de-converting people from their beliefs and religions, this is not the main effect of that literature. It is valuable for the sake of the people concerned, but the main effect becomes more apparent over decades:

We are engaged in a war for enlightenment being fought over generations.

The main effect will be to disrupt the two techniques that religions rely on to ensure they continue to have believers and followers:

  1. Indoctrination of children who do not have the knowledge and maturity to resist.
  2. Reinforcement of that indoctrination by daily, weekly, annual, and life-stage events.

Religions don’t have the means to convert most mentally competent adults, hence the need to start with children. Global communication can disrupt or reverse both of these techniques. A better measure of the effectiveness of atheist literature than whether it de-converts religious adults is whether it prevents children growing up to be religious adults.

That is the importance of supporting and helping children and young people to make their own informed decisions rather than having their decisions made for them:

Jan 142013

I have just bought and read “What Did The Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?” (subtitle “Why the Children of the Sixties Lived the Dream and Failed the Future”) by Francis Beckett.

I’ve reviewed it at Amazon.co.uk, giving the book 1-star, the minimum. Here is that review plus 2 diagrams and Further reading.

“This is an autobiography in a historical context, not about baby boomers!”

The author makes it clear from the start that the baby boom he is discussing is not what others talk about, and that his sources are very narrow and unrepresentative. This book says much more about the author than about baby boomers as a whole.

The author states that this book is about people born from 1945 to 1955. There isn’t a good demographic reason for this. In the UK there was a spike in births between 1945 and 1950, then a longer boom from about 1955 to 1973 peaking at 1964. But in the period between 1950 and 1955 the birth rate was pretty constant with no justification for extending the definition of the first baby boom beyond 1950.

Baby boom summary 02

The author’s own circumstances are illustrated by “I was one of the blessed: born in 1945…. I went to a new state grammar school at the age of eleven, and to a new university in the sixties”. Only 25% went to grammar schools. Only 5% went to university (unlike about 35% nowadays). He did not share the experience of the other 95% of people born in the decade or two after the war.

He “tells the story partly through lives of individuals”, including Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Hitchens, Paul Mackney, Marianne Faithful, and Greg Dyke. Perhaps this is why the author defines the baby boom as he does: Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Hitchens were all born after 1950, between the two booms, and so were not in the real post-war birth-spike.

The lives of these particular people are not representative of the people born during the post-war years! Yet he still claims to speak for the rest of us: “At some level we baby boomers know we have squandered the inheritance our parents worked so hard to give us”. No we didn’t! (I was born in 1947). But perhaps the author did.

Some of the author’s criticisms are off the wall: “And the penalties for truanting are growing …. one of the arguments used in favour of school uniforms is that they help the police recognise those who ought to be at school. We are forcing our children into prison uniform so they will be instantly recognisable when they scale their prison walls”. Is it really so bad that children should be persuaded to make the most of their one chance for school education?

Some statements he uses to support his thesis are clearly the opposite of the truth. He says “Opinion polls show that the now elderly baby boomers will use their increasing voting power – for they constitute a growing segment of the electorate …”. A moment’s thought tells us that every cohort gets smaller over time as its members die. And as the population increases so does the electorate. His baby boom cohort (like all cohorts) is becoming a smaller fish in a bigger pool year by year. From 1979 (Thatcher) to 2010 (Cameron) the 1945-1955 cohort shrank from about 19.5% of the electorate to about 15%, a fall of nearly a quarter. (It has never been more than 20% of the electorate – hardly a dominant political or economic force!)

Various groups in the electorate

The percentages of various groups in the electorate

He appears unaware of how lots of other people in his 1945-1955 cohort lived.”Many of the baby boomers grew up in Bevan’s council estates. If they had been born … a generation later, in terrifying tower blocks”. I lived with my parents in a concrete block of council flats through school and university. And where he says “my grant gave me enough to live on and I did not have to work in term time, or beg from older relatives”, my parents delayed buying their own house and my mother went to work to help me through university, and I had 3 jobs over the 3 years. He does not speak for me.

Much of the book describes how various features of society arose; who the players were. This is valuable for making a point that the author appears unwilling to accept: there were very few players, and they were active within politics. “Normal citizens” had relatively little power or influence, even in large numbers. Only a fraction of a percent of any cohort gets their hands near the levers of power. The rest of us struggle with our lives in a country where things happen that we don’t full understand and have virtually no control over. Many things that happened were caused by international forces (especially the USA) or chance. Those under UK control were caused mostly by politicians, not “baby boomers”. (He points out that Blair went to war in Iraq against the wishes of his own people. I never voted for Blair, in fact I pretty well had contempt for what he and Brown did, and I am not responsible for what they did). “Baby boomers” are just people to blame for things other people don’t like.

But most of the history he presents really has nothing to do with the subject and subtitle of this book: “Why the Children of the Sixties … Failed the Future”. It appears to be just an excuse to write an autobiography in the context of political history! (I really didn’t want to know what plays he had seen in theaters or what songs he remembers). He adds notes about baby boomers almost as an afterthought. For example: “While the baby boomers were demanding new freedoms, Wilson was providing them. There was the Abortion Act ….” Reminder: the Abortion Act was 1967, when the voting age was still 21. So only people born in 1946 and earlier were in the electorate at the time! Not a significant part of the 1945-1955 cohort, and less than 3% of the electorate. So how did we “demand”? Correlation is not causation! (It was 1973 before all of his cohort could vote. Which makes chapter 8 of the book rather strange: its title is “How the baby boomers destroyed the trade unions and made Thatcherism: 1969-79″).

One trick he plays is to quote other people talking about baby boomers without pointing out that they are talking about a different group. When he quotes the think tank Demos saying “Future generations will have to do a deal with the baby boomer generation”, they were talking about the 1945-1965 20-year cohort, (as they normally do), not the author’s fairly insignificant 10-year cohort. And perhaps Demos also forgot that any baby boom cohort is relentlessly becoming a smaller fish in a bigger pool year by year. Elsewhere he switches to talking about “… the fifty-plus group …”; that is vastly larger than his baby boom cohort!

People talking about baby boomers have a dilemma. If they include all the periods of high births rates between 1945 and 1975, few generalisations can be made. At any date, for example a general election, the youngest and oldest of them are at different life stages, and have contradictory attitudes and influences. If they talk about a narrow range of birth dates, as this author does, the total population within that range is too small to have had a big influence on the nation. It is simply unsound to write books about “baby boomers”!

This book doesn’t credibly describe the people born from 1945 to 1955, nor adequately describe their real influence on the world. And it doesn’t offer any remedies for current ills or lessons for the future.

Further reading

Zoë Fairbairns:
“A book by Francis Beckett entitled “What Did The Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us? Why the Children of the Sixties Lived the Dream and Failed the Future” puts forward the curious argument that since Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were born in 1953 and 1951 respectively, it follows that the entire baby boomer generation is responsible for everything they did. That’s irrespective of whether or not we voted for the governments that Blair and Brown headed, or supported their policies, or indeed actively campaigned against them.”

John Clossick:
“It is a substitute for analysis to say that a generation looked at their freedoms and decided they were too good for their children. His accusation is misplaced and misconceived…. Current struggles cannot just be simplified into a battle between youth and age. An infuriating book.”

Jan 102013

Lots of people talk about “the baby boom”. Lots of people make claims about “the baby boomers”. Here are some of the myths held by lots of people.

I have written this article as though I am having an informal argument with you about these myths. I accept that you may not believe them all, or indeed you may not believe any of them! Please forgive my style.

Myth 1: There was a baby boom from about 1945 to about 1965

Here is the UK population at 1985, showing people born in the years 1935 to 1985. It is ridiculous to choose the range 1945-1965 as a “baby boom”. 1965 was obviously near the peak of a baby boom!

Baby boom summary 03

(All graphs in this article use the female half of the Population Pyramid. This slightly exaggerates the size of older groups because on average women have longer lives. They have linear Y-axis with origin zero so they accurately indicate the relative populations at different birth dates).

If you really need to talk about baby booms, (but why?), it makes more sense to talk of two baby booms in this period, as below. The ranges are somewhat arbitrary, although the 1946 peak is unambiguously the start of a short post-war baby boom.

Baby boom summary 02

Although people call these “booms”, the peak at 1946 was less than 28% higher than the value at 1945, and the peak at 1964 was less than 30% higher than the value at 1954. This caused problems for maternity wards in hospitals and classrooms in schools, and puts a strain on housing. But the overall political influence once they could vote is small and diffused.

(For interest, there was a baby boom in the USA from 1946 to 1964. Apparently lots of people think the same happened in the UK. It certainly didn’t!)

Myth 2: The weight of numbers of the baby boomers gave them undue political influence

What weight of numbers?

When viewing a graph showing the whole population the baby booms become less significant. It wasn’t until 1983 (Thatcher’s 2nd general election win) that the 1945-1965 cohort could all vote. It wasn’t until 1992 (Major’s general election win) that the 1965-1974 baby boom could all vote. (And older people are dying off, for example only about 81% of the people born in 1946 are alive today). Here is a graph showing John Major’s electorate:

Baby boom summary 05

There were about seven 10-year cohorts in the electorate to be satisfied. There was no cohort that simply had to be appeased at the expense of the others. Even every 24-year cohort was a minority! And the same applies to every other general election.

  • From 1983: The 1945-1965 electorate as a percentage of the total electorate has been decreasing because they are dying and the total electorate is increasing.
  • Up to 1998: The pre-1945 electorate was larger than the 1945-1965 electorate.
  • 1998 to 2003: The 1945-1965 electorate was larger than both the pre-1945 electorate and the post-1965 electorate. The only election in this period was 2001.
  • From 2003: The post-1965 electorate has been larger than the 1945-1965 electorate.
  • From 2013: The post-1965 electorate will be most of the electorate.

There appear to be cases where being in a large cohort is a disadvantage. Some improvements can’t be afforded because too many people would have to be helped. The expected rise in the tax threshold for pensioners was not provided in the last budget. A new higher flat rate state pension is proposed, but it won’t apply to existing pensioners. The Dilnot proposal for a cap on pensioner’s long-term care is floundering, and if implemented at all will probably be inadequate.

Myth 3: The baby boomers manipulated political and economic factors in their favour

This is like a fart in a lift; it is wrong on so many levels!

First: even if baby boomers could manipulate political and economic factors, what is “in their favour”? At any election, the oldest and youngest people in a 20-year cohort have reached different life-stages and want different and often contradictory things. The wider the age-range of a group, the less they will have in common.

For example, consider the 1945-1965 cohort at the 2010 election:

  • All the women born in 1950 and earlier were already entitled to their state pensions. They wanted favours for pensioners.
  • The oldest men in the cohort were just starting to be entitled to their state pensions. They didn’t want any disruption to their entitlement date, and also wanted favours for pensioners.
  • But the youngest men and women in the cohort were in their mid to late 40s, and wanted lower taxes and favours for working people. They didn’t want to pay a lot towards older people’s state pensions.
Election Born 1945 – possible life stages: Born 1965 – possible life stages:
1979 (Margaret Thatcher) Age 34. Working. Living in first house with mortgage. Raising a family. Age 14. Still at school. Not old enough to vote.
1992 (John Major) Age 47. Working. Children leaving home. With mortgage. Age 27. Working. Buying first house with mortgage. Starting a family.
1997 (Tony Blair) Age 52. Working. Children left home. Probably with mortgage. Age 32. Working. Living in first house with mortgage. Raising a family.
2010 (David Cameron) Age 65. Retired. Collecting state pension. Mortgage paid off. Age 45. Working. Children leaving home. With mortgage.


From 1979 (Thatcher) to 2010 (Cameron), general elections have been at 4 or 5 year intervals. So a 20-year cohort corresponds to at least 4 general elections. Whatever the older people in the cohort want in a particular general election, the younger people in the cohort will probably want the same about 4 general elections later, by which time the older people will want different things. (When they have all become pensioners they will want some of the same things, but they will still have differences in health and wealth which will influence them in different directions).

Second: Obviously the political views of any cohort will be spread from left to right. They will have a spread of health, education, wealth, housing, region, family connections, and lots of other relevant parameters. They will have different degrees of political and social awareness and activism. These are likely to be at least as important as their cohort, partly because there is typically no loyalty to a cohort.

Third: how did baby boomers manipulate political and economic factors?

Even had they all wanted the same things, they couldn’t manipulate things simply by voting. The Party Election Manifestos didn’t offer options designed to appeal specifically to baby boomers. Scattered among all the other promises were occasional nuggets, for example the promise of free travel for the elderly in the 2005 Labour Party Election Manifesto (PDF). But most of the people who voted Labour in 2005 were young; older people mostly voted Conservative, which didn’t make such a promise! And even if free travel still exists in future, it will be 1925 before all of the 1945-1965 cohort are qualified, so the younger people in the cohort had no reason to want free travel in 2005. This promise was really directed at people born before 1945.

There weren’t lobby groups specifically for baby boomers. Baby boomers didn’t conspire to manipulate the outcomes of elections. Probably fewer than 1% of them ever had their hands near the levers of power. Nearly all of them were living in a country where things happened that they didn’t fully understand, doing the sort of things that other generations do. They weren’t doing things they shouldn’t have done, or failing to do things they should have done.

Conspiracy theories

This topic spawns conspiracy theories – people want to “blame the baby boomers” without bothering to do a reality-check. Here are a few:

  1. “The baby boomers caused Wilson to provide the Abortion Act”. The Abortion Act was 1967, and the voting age then was 21. Only people born in 1946 and earlier had a significant influence on the government. NHS abortion wasn’t provided because the baby boomers wanted it; it was provided for humanitarian reasons, to reduce deaths and injuries in women resulting from back-street abortions.
  2. “The baby boomers caused Thatcher to break the pensions index-link in the early-1980s”. When Thatcher was elected in 1979, only baby boomers from 1945 to 1961 could vote, only 33% of the electorate. Pensioners were about 23% of the electorate, so the pre-1945 non-pensioners were about 44% of the electorate. Why not blame them instead (or as well as)?
  3. “The baby boomers caused Blair to provide free travel in about 2006″. Free travel for people at least 60 was in Blair’s 2005 manifesto. In 2005, the people at least 60 were those those born in 1945 and earlier. This was an electoral promise for the pre-baby boomers!
  4. “The baby boomers caused Cameron to remake the pensions index-link after the 2010 election”. Most of the baby boomers were still working, and years away from being pensioners. The youngest baby boomers were in their mid to late 40s! And the post-baby boom electorate was significantly larger than the total baby boom cohort.

Myth 4: The baby boomers stole their children’s future

This is perhaps the silliest myth of all! What does this statement mean?

It is based on the subtitle of David Willetts’ book “The Pinch: how the baby boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back“. Imagine:

April 31 1973: “Bought a gun, went out and stole our children’s future”

If someone told you to steal your children’s future, what would you do? If someone told you to stop doing it, what would you stop doing? What have those children lost? Years of their life? Modern medicine? Modern technology? Greater education opportunities than baby boomers? Ohthey still have those!

It is valid to blame someone only if they did something they shouldn’t have done, or didn’t do something they should have done. And “should/shouldn’t” implies knowledge of the consequences and the ability to change those consequences. It obviously doesn’t imply simply “living in a country where, in retrospect, unwanted things happened” nor “living in a country without power to change things for the better”.

This myth is a unjustified slur by people who should know better, presumably as a cynical way to sell books. It confuses “correlation” with “cause and effect”, and so fails to describe why things happened, therefore is of little use in solving problems.

Further reading

Myth 1: There was a baby boom from about 1945 to about 1965

John Macnicol:
“In Britain, the total number of births averaged 800,000 per annum between 1941 and 1981, and peaked at just over 1,000,000 in 1947 and 1964. There are therefore ‘first wave’ and ‘second wave’ boomers. In 1953 the number of UK births was 733,000 – a mere 10 per cent above the average for the ‘baby bust’ 1930s and as low as in 1991.”

Myth 2: The weight of numbers of the baby boomers gave them undue political influence

Zoë Fairbairns:
“As we have seen, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were of baby boom age, and if the rest of us are to take the blame for the things they got wrong, we must also be allowed to take credit for what they got right. At last a minimum wage was introduced. There were improvements in childcare, and paternity leave. There was some cancellation of third world debt, and there were advances in equal rights for women and gay people. The Working Time Directive reduced the number of hours people could be required to work, and some peace and resolution was brought to Northern Ireland…. Above all, there is no need for us to apologise for voting…. A lot of my talk has been about privilege, but voting isn’t a privilege, it is a right. My message to anyone who has the right to vote but doesn‘t use it, and then complains that the government pays more attention to the needs and demands of people who do vote, is, MORE FOOL YOU.”

Myth 3: The baby boomers manipulated political and economic factors in their favour

Frank Field to David Willetts:
“I didn’t think that you could read the book and think that somehow the baby boomers had engineered this set of special circumstances that they are protecting. I think that they neither engineered them nor are they protecting them…. Another area where, in a sense, I don’t think your rational politics theory quite works, David, is that although as a group the baby boomers have been so well placed, within the group there are those who have not had the benefits showered on them. And they have more in common with the poor of other generations than they do with their own baby boom generation.”

Zoë Fairbairns:
“The pressure group Shelter … found that in addition to the 19,000 families officially recognised as homeless, a further 3 million people in Britain were living in damp, overcrowded slum conditions. Many of them were baby boomers too, as were the children of employed women whose average wage was £12 per week, while for men it was £23…. But the point is that the baby boomers were not, as some of our detractors seem to think, all living off the fat of the land…. The same applies to the privileges enjoyed by some – but not all – baby boomers. Free grammar school education, free university education, were only for the minority. Many from this minority are now in a position to write books and newspaper columns about baby boomers – but they should not make the mistake of universalising their own privileged-minority experiences. “

John Macnicol:
“But what has caused this – intergenerational inequity or the catastrophic failure of neoliberal economic policies over the past thirty-five years? The former explanation masks the latter and, in its most extreme version, argues that one particular ‘welfare generation’ has manipulated the public policy agenda in its own favour – covertly, concertedly and conspiratorially. In this form, it is a human agency explanation reductio ad absurdum, with little cognisance taken of structural economic factors. It remains unsupported by any convincing evidence from policy-making case-studies…. Third is the claim that the baby boomers comprise a uniquely selfish ‘welfare generation’ which has gone through life at every stage absorbing a disproportionate share of public resources, and has ended up in old age with ‘over-generous’ provision (particularly in regard to state pensions). However, complaints of this nature were not made when the baby boomers were younger….

“Even at the level of averages, a quick glance at the baby boomers shows that their path through life has not been all gain. Maria Evandrou has made the simple yet effective point that the first wave boomers were born into austerity but reached maturity in times of relative prosperity; with the second wave boomers, it was the reverse. Just taking those born at the peak of births, in the late-1940s, we can see that they experienced higher infant mortality, lower average family incomes, large class sizes in school and much poorer results in public examinations compared with schoolchildren today. Only five per cent of this birth cohort went to university. These peak boomers were becoming established in the labour market in the late 1960s, when unemployment was low, but they then experienced rising unemployment and inflation in the 1970s, when membership of occupational pension schemes was beginning to decline; and from 1980 the state pension fell in value relative to average earnings. They are now entering retirement at a point when returns from savings are lower than inflation: little wonder that increasing numbers of them have had to postpone retirement and continue working past state pension age. All in all, they do not seem to have been very adept at manipulating the public policy agenda in their own favour….

“To argue that current policies have been the result of the machinations of one particular ‘welfare generation’ is to trivialize history, and almost reduce it to conspiracy theory.”

Myth 4: The baby boomers stole their children’s future

Frank Field to David Willetts:
“But there is no evidence to support your assertion that the baby boomers are careless about that. Everything from the polls suggests that they actually want tough action quickly, which means that they would be paying the debt, or at least some of it, rather than passing all of it over to succeeding generations…. I’m defending them by saying there’s no evidence that they took any action to land themselves in this privileged position…. But I’ve never seen a demonstration of baby boomers with banners, saying, “Push up the price of our houses.” It was we who did it. It’s the political class that ought to be in the dock, not the baby boomers…. But what I’m trying to argue with you is that you can’t put chance in the dock. I’m saying the baby boomers are innocent.”

John Macnicol:
“Despite some pioneering work by John Rawls, Bruce Ackerman and a few others, moral philosophers have given surprisingly little thought to the question of age as a social division and the problem of distributional justice between age cohorts, tending instead to assume fixed populations over short time periods…. Allegations of intergenerational inequity thus lack a clear theoretical underpinning….

“On a philosophical level, there is the interesting question of whether such corrective justice really requires collective human agency to be demonstrated (just as, in law, intent is everything): arguably, a generation can only be ‘punished’ for monopolising a disproportionate share of public resources if it has acted deliberately and concertedly. If, on the other hand, unequal generational outcomes have been caused by structural economic factors over which human beings have had relatively little control then remedial action would be morally unjustified. Even if collective human agency could be proved, the problem is that corrective justice could only be applied at the very end of a lifecourse, and by then it would be too late. Can one really envisage an eighty-year-old ‘baby boomer’ having his or her accumulated savings confiscated by the state on the grounds that he or she was a member of a generation that had been ‘over resourced’ in the past?”

Jan 092013

I have been gradually adding to an earlier article “Baby booms in the electorates of the last 6 Prime Ministers“. The latest addition warrants this article of its own. The context is that the above article shows the population and electoral graphs for Prime Ministers from Margaret Thatcher in 1979 to David Cameron in 2010. One objective was to show that the 1945-1965 cohort didn’t dominate politics and elections over the last few decades.

This is simply an exact copy of that latest addition:

Electorate percentages of various groups

Here is another way of looking at the same information, once again using the animation published by the Office of National Statistics. (The graph was plotted using values at intervals of 5 years). Percentages after 2012 are estimates.

Various groups in the electorate

The percentages of various groups in the electorate

  • From 1983: Since the last of them got the vote in 1983, the 1945-1965 electorate as a percentage of the total electorate has been decreasing because they are dying and the total electorate is increasing.
  • Up to 1998: The pre-1945 electorate was larger than the 1945-1965 electorate.
  • 1998 to 2003: The 1945-1965 electorate was larger than both the pre-1945 electorate and the post-1965 electorate. The only election in this period was 2001.
  • From 2003: The post-1965 electorate has been larger than the 1945-1965 electorate.
  • From 2013: The post-1965 electorate will be most of the electorate.
  • Pensioners have been a steady 23%-24% of the electorate until a rise to 25%-26% after 2005. This will be changed by the new pension-age rules by 2020.

Further reading

Jan 042013

In the UK there wasn’t a baby boom that started about 1945 and ended about 1965. Yet the belief that there was is embedded so deep in the nation’s psyche that people casually assume it in conversation without needing to justify it. The people they are talking to probably also believe it.

(If you also believe it, have a look at “Further reading” at the end of this article. The evidence to the contrary from credible sources such as the Office of National Statistics is overwhelming. And I am not the only person to have pointed out this error).

These are links to sections below suggesting some possible reasons for this widespread error:

The baby boom in the USA

This must surely be a major influence!

In the following diagram I’ve superimposed (accurately enough to make the point) the birth rates (per 1000 of the population) of the USA and the UK from 1910 to about 2010. The USA values are in blue & red, and the UK values are in green. The most important region is the yellow rectangle.

Birth rates USA and UK

Birth rates in the USA and the UK from 1910 to 2010

The United States Census Bureau defines the USA demographic birth boom as between 1946 and 1964 (the region in red). It appears reasonable to do so. Much of the literature about baby booms has been influenced by the USA, and Wikipedia (where the USA graph came from) concentrates on the USA. Most articles about baby booms found by Google are about the USA, although they often don’t bother to say so. The birth rates in this diagram are to the same scale for the USA and the UK – imagine the impact of this baby boom in the USA!

But the birth rate for the UK was very different! After the immediate-post-war spike, (which never rose as high as in the USA), the rate dropped dramatically by the early 1950s. Then (while the USA birth rate was dramatically dropping from the late 1950s) the UK rate rose from about 1956 to a peak at about 1965 (which is near the end of the USA birth rate boom), before slowly dropping away.

Confusing “birth rate” with “population”

The above section shows birth rate values. The surviving population (where obviously the death rate also matters) is rather different. Older populations had a higher early-age death rate, and even those who survived to adulthood have had extra time to die. So birth rate is not a match to the population that can be discussed and influence political and economic trends. Those births were noticed at the time, and those who survived to childhood were noticed in school. But that is now totally irrelevant! Only the surviving population at any date of interest matters.

In the following diagram the line in green is the same as the above diagram, while the line in blue is the actual population (in 2010) rather than the birth rate. They have a different vertical scale so their relative vertical position is irrelevant. What matters is the shape from left to right, (that is, by birth year), showing the contribution of the birth rate to the population. This diagram makes it even more obvious that it is nonsense to think of a large baby boom cohort from about 1945 to about 1965, because lots of people born in the decade after the war are not alive today. For example, only about 81% of the people born in 1946 are alive today.

UK birth and population 600c

Superimposed UK birth rates graph and 2010 surviving population graph

As with all graphs from the Office of National Statistics, it is seen that the main baby boom cohort is from about 1955 to about 1974 with a peak at about 1964-5, while the 1945 to 1965 cohort is not very distinctive except for a short spike from 1946 to about 1948.  See also “The myth of the UK baby-boom“, which shows the equivalent of the blue line.

The early impact of the the 1946-7 spike in births

In 1946 and 1947, nursing homes (this was before the NHS) had to cater for a sudden and unprecedented increase in the number of babies. It was perfectly reasonable for those dealing directly with births to see it as a boom! Then as those children went to school, they put a strain on classrooms and teachers which had never handled that many children in a year.

Nursing and early education are both cases where the exact year of birth is directly relevant. And for these 2 years (and to a lesser extent 1948-9 too) there is no doubt about the significant  spike in the births in each of those years.

When those children became adults, their exact year of birth became increasingly irrelevant. They are just part of the electorate. (Maximum about 3% but declining). They are just part of the working population or just more pensioners. (Entry to work was spread over 6 years; about 75% left school at 15, about 20% left full-time education from 16 to 18, and 5% went to university and mostly entered work at 21. Reaching State Pension Age was also spread because it was 60 for these women and 65 for these men).

That spike of a few years has become “noise” in the population as a whole – but the memory lasts! Everyone already alive when they were born remembers the sudden increase and its impact at the time. But that says nothing about any broader influence. (This is apart from the fact that only about 81% of people born in that “spike” are alive today).

Conflating “baby boomer” with “post-war generation”

Some articles want to talk about “the elderly” or “the generation older than me” in general terms, perhaps to describe their lifestyle or wealth or poverty or attitudes, etc. Unless the article is tightly focused, it is likely not to care about a precise definition of the people being talked about.”Baby boomer” is a term which “everyone” understands, and lots of other articles use, so it is natural to use it. Even though few if any of these articles get it right!

I suspect that for many people the meaning of the term has been lost, and it just means “the immediate post-war generation”, without thought about birth rate, which may even be irrelevant to the article.

There may be a “memory error” when being casual. Each cohort becomes a smaller percentage of the electorate over time. The population is increasing, and older people are dying, so each cohort becomes “a smaller fish in a bigger pool”. Memories from years ago of the size of the 1945-1965 cohort may ignore the fact that (for example) a particular year such as 1946 will have shrunk from about 1.7% of the population at the time of Thatcher’s election to about 1.3% at the time of Cameron’s election, a drop of nearly one-quarter in 31 years.

Someone to blame

Many people seek people to blame for their woes, and it easier to blame a group of people if they can be given a simple name:

“Surely the baby boomers, with their huge numbers and their wealth (and now with lots of time on their hands) were the cause of these problems? Here they sit in their posh houses, driving expensive cars, having holidays abroad, getting lots of money from the taxes paid by workers trying to raise their own families. How dare they?”

Daniel Kahneman describes in “Thinking, Fast and Slow” the idea of  “What You See Is All There Is”:

“… when the mind makes decisions, it deals primarily with Known Knowns, phenomena it has already observed. It rarely considers Known Unknowns, phenomena that it knows to be relevant but about which it has no information. Finally it appears oblivious to the possibility of Unknown Unknowns, unknown phenomena of unknown relevance…. humans fail to take into account complexity and … their understanding of the world consists of a small and not necessarily representative set of observations. Furthermore, the mind generally does not account for the role of chance….”

The ideas that there actually wasn’t such an influential cohort, and that many older people don’t live in posh houses, or don’t have expensive holidays, or don’t even get a full pension, can be invisible and so not be considered when assigning blame. Even worse: the possibility that there is no blame, but the state of the nation is largely formed by chance or external global influences, is not a desirable outcome. The mental comfort of a concept is more important than its truth.

Other sources of blame are rich baby boomers (or near baby boomers) on guilt trips. Some of the errors about the demographics come from them. After all, the main baby boom population, born from about 1955 to about 1974, are aged from 38 to 57, and people in that range may not yet feel guilty. It is more likely people older than them, and perhaps not real baby boomers at all,  who have had the time so far to become wealthy and have a chance of feeling guilty.

(For interest, in the 2005 election the post-1965 electorate was larger than the 1945-1965 electorate. From that date onwards the difference becomes greater year by year).

Confusing politicians with their whole generation

When assigning blame, there is a tendency to claim “baby boomers are to blame” when what is meant is “baby boom politicians are to blame”. For example “What Did The Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?” by Francis Beckett is really a book about baby boomer politicians, especially Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and not about a whole baby boom cohort. But readers are left with the impression that those politicians are representative of a whole generation, which obviously they are not.

Further reading

This blog
Jan 032013

I haven’t previously thought much about the attitude of NIMBY (“not in my back yard“), except to recognise the term as pejorative. I’m not currently threatened by developments close to my house. (Even the nearby  A6 to Manchester Airport Relief Road proposals which I’ve studied and responded to). Then I saw this on Twitter:

James O'Shaughnessy tweet about hypocrisy

What a nasty attitude! There is nothing hypocritical about defending your own property from deterioration and devaluation. (And I’m sure James O’Shaughnessy would defend his own lifestyle against deterioration; his job once didn’t exist, so is that a reason why young people can take over some or all of it?)

It is important to note what NIMBY is not: it is not the same as NIABY (“not in anyone’s back yard“). It is defence of your own patch, not an attempt prevent developments elsewhere. (Sometimes even NIABY can be good: for example “don’t build wind turbines in areas of natural visual beauty“!).

There was a weird lack of logic in some ensuing arguments:

James O'Shaughnessy tweet about rights to home

It is obvious from its definition that NIMBY is not about thwarting someone else’s rights in general, but only about preventing encroachment on one’s own patch. And it cannot be claimed that other people have similar claims to my property as I do! They don’t have the right to own or even use my cameras; they have to get their own (which I don’t object to) and not interfere with mine. If they want their guests to park on my drive because they are having a party, they ask me beforehand and not just do it.

A problem, of course, is that as resources get increasingly limited there is conflict over any item. Typically at least there is a queue, perhaps waiting for someone to die. I have written about the problems of population growth and the intergenerational problems it will cause. Here is my tweet and James O’Shaughnessy’s ridiculous response:

James O'Shaughnessy tweet about Malthus

When someone responds with ad hominem attacks like that you can assume they have run out of serious arguments. And it ignores the arguments and evidence in my article. The continuation of this discussion invented a bizarre new “right”:

James O'Shaughnessy tweet about rights of unborn

James O’Shaughnessy is just one person, and perhaps he has more nuanced views that he wasn’t expressing. But I am confident that many people really do have the sort of views expressed there. In order to meet objectives that may well be worthy, (perhaps even to me, but especially to them), screwing up others to some degree is considered OK and it is thought wrong (and hypocritical) to resist them.

It is precisely the existence of this attitude that makes NIMBY important; if you don’t defend your own patch, others will damage it or take it, and not care enough about how much that matters to the people concerned. (Perhaps they will do the damage anyway, but at least it is sensible to make the attempt).

Critics of the NIMBY attitude may want it to be easier than it is to achieve their worthy objectives. But however worthy they are, it must always be hard to to screw up other people. The critics are certainly not the best ones to make a judgment about the impact of being screwed up. It is typically inaccurate to claim “there is no alternative”. I’ve seen that claim many times, and it is interesting how often sufficient pressure causes people to find an alternative!

Further reading

Dec 312012

Original suggestion on Twitter

Here are the comments I promised. (I’ve provided a review at Amazon.co.uk too).

This book is unashamedly a polemic rather than an unemotional analysis. This provides the emotional energy to carry the topic, and no doubt resonates with many young people today. It is a rallying cry for “something must be done!” (And perhaps “heads must roll!”)

But more analysis would have revealed that things are not always as stated, and seeking solutions (rather than debating problems) needs a more focused identification of underlying causes so that they can be fixed. The book is better at casting blame (sometimes wrongly) towards the past than at proposing solutions for the future. (I’m speaking as someone who did a lot of analysis of social issues during my career and afterward).

“Jilted Generation: How Britain has Bankrupted its Youth”


The book talks of its generation being cast aside. The word typically means “loved then discarded”. Perhaps that it how it feels.

But was any other generation “loved but not discarded”? I think people in earlier generations had lower initial expectations and so didn’t feel such a loss whenever it was a case of “life’s a bitch and then you die”. This is a problem with any assumption that each generation will be better off than the previous one; why should people assume that? If the life-features of generations are a combination of trends + luck, then “regression to the mean” will typically make some life-features worse in the next generation!


“Generation” really only means much within a family. It is a poor way of talking about a set of people born over some 25  year period (or whatever). There is rarely a fully plausible definition of the generation, nor do all the identified people have much in common.

The generation of this book is the one born after September 1979, because that identifies those who had to pay more to go to university. For a minority of people that matters a lot. But nearly two-thirds of this generation didn’t go to university, so this distinguishing factor is irrelevant to them! This is also the generation of most Premier League footballers and their WAGS, and of most of the Olympians and Paralympians who are the British heroes feted in the recent New Year’s Honours list. Lots of people are fond of some of the members of this generation!


I was born in 1947. See where that lies on the graph below!

UK national debt as a proportion of GDP

It is nonsense to say (for example) that “children are born broke“! (Most people would find it hard to identify what impact the national debt has on their lives). Important questions include “how much interest is paid on the debt”, which in effect is a leakage of tax-payers’ money, and “how much does the size of the national debt constrain the policies of government”, (by internal or external forces), which could be policies relevant to any or all generations. To be fair, the book does discuss those.

“The Next Normal: An Unprecedented Look at Millennials Worldwide”

Viacom has conducted a world-wide survey about “[the Millennial population's] distinctive attitudes, behaviors and aspirations“  and published its (PDF) summary in November 2012. This Millennial population overlaps with the so-called “Jilted Generation”.

  • Question: On a scale of 1 to 10 where 10 equals extremely happy and 1 equals not at all happy, how happy would you say you are in general?
  • Answer: about 76% across the world, and about the same in the UK, responded within the range 7 to 10 inclusive.

Baby boom

The book makes some stereotypical statements about a baby-boom from about 1945 to about 1965. It modifies them, for example using a diagram from the Office of National Statistics to talk about a ‘first-wave baby boom’ between about 1945 to 1952, rising again only between the the years 1956 and 1965 in the ‘second-wave baby boom’. But the earlier spike was actually smaller, and the “second-wave” was from about 1955 to 1974: 1965 was the peak of a baby-boom, not the end of one! Later the book says “by the time the last of the baby boomers retire in 2030 …”. But once again that falsely assumes that 1965 was the end of the baby boom: the last of the 1955-1974 baby boomers will retire about 2040. See:

Accompanying these errors in the demographics is inconsistent blaming of the baby boomers (whoever they are!) For example:

“We know that our parents didn’t want it this way; we know that when they accepted the terms of their society they were only trying to do what was best for themselves and their families. But we also know that they could have done better if more of them had remembered that they weren’t just individuals but citizens too”.

What on Earth does “they could have done better if more of them had remembered that they weren’t just individuals but citizens too” mean? Assuming that this is supposed to be about me too, what should I have done that I didn’t do? What did I do that I shouldn’t have done? That statement is abstract waffle, not grounded in the real actions of real people living a real life. I suspect it is based somehow on the assumption that we had at the time at least the knowledge that the authors have with hindsight, plus our hands on the levers of power. Hardly any of us had such power, and none of us had such knowledge.


I found this one of the most interesting parts of the book. It has caused me to revise a statement I have made a number of times that only 1% of us had our hands on the levers of power. That is optimistic; I now think less than 0.1% of us did!

I now see that all government is an ongoing experiment! The situations that have to be catered for have never arisen in the same way before. There is no rule-book that is known to work. Prior ideologies were probably designed (perhaps only in theory) for previous cases. Much of the time, politicians, who don’t really understand one-another fully and haven’t got time to negotiate with everyone concerned, make things up as they go along. Arrogance (or impatience or ignorance) prevents the running of controlled experiments.

Furthermore, things that may have been easy to give are hard to take away later. It is almost impossible to make a fresh start with a particular topic, but instead “course corrections” (hopefully “corrections”!) are made to existing policies, and then sold as new initiatives. It looks like bad management, but the media and the public are partly to blame for this. “U turns” are condemned; programmes on which money has been spent tend to continue too long (the “sunk cost fallacy”).


In the late 1990s I was one of the business analysts studying the welfare state in preparation for potentially replacing its core IT systems. It was obvious to us that the benefits system was dysfunctional and vast simplification was needed. It was also obvious that it would never happen: to be even barely acceptable to voters and lobby-groups it would cost the Treasury lots more; and since the Treasury wouldn’t pay out, it would never be acceptable.

Then Ian Duncan Smith proposed the Universal Credit, which was exactly what we had known was needed! But it would surely still be impossible to get past the Treasury, and anything acceptable to them would fail with the electorate. Yet – it still survives (trimmed a bit), and hopefully will become law! It is the sort of “once in a lifetime” opportunity to sort out the mess resulting from incremental “politically acceptable” evolution that is needed more often. But it is nearly-impossible to achieve these, and typically a kludge gets added to a botch and interacts with a cock-up that has become embedded in society. (I am probably in a very small minority of people who are confident that we really do need the Universal Credit!)

Prospect theory tells us that the negative emotion of losing something is about twice the positive emotion of gaining it in the first place. Things that could have been omitted at first without too much fuss cannot be removed later without lots of fuss. Policy making can never be a purely rational activity, except with hindsight!

Housing & jobs & having children

Why lump housing, jobs, and children together? Because they all involve life-style choices, some of which make life harder for the people who make particular decisions.

Taking myself as a sample of one:
My sister and I lived with my parents in a small 3-bedroom council flat in a concrete council estate in Birmingham until I graduated. (I had 3 jobs in all during university to help my parents pay for my education). My chosen job was a long way away, so for the first year I lived with my parents at weekends then commuted to lodgings near my job, where I shared a bedroom with (initially) strangers during the week. (Once I had finished at university, my parents in their 40s could afford to buy their own house). Then for 6 years I shared rented houses with relative strangers, but with individual bedrooms. Then I stepped onto the housing ladder by buying (with a mortgage) a grotty 2-bedroom semi-detached bungalow on a grotty estate. My ladyfriend moved in with her daughter, and the three of us lived in those 2 bedrooms for several years until we moved up the housing ladder. After many years, we separated and I bought a cheaper house and became childfree (my preference) again. Every house was chosen to be near enough to my job as the latter moved around.

Some people want to live near where they were raised. Some people want to have children and bring them up in a “family house”. Some people struggle to find a suitable job. Sometimes these choices are inter-connected. The more constraints that are placed on the location and quality of houses the harder it becomes to satisfy all the constraints.

There is a theme in this book about being able to live near where people were brought up (even in the South-East!), and wanting a family but having to delay it until a family-house can be afforded.  While those are obviously desirable to those concerned, they are certainly not all necessary. I feel that the authors are setting the bar too high, and getting angry at failing to achieve “modern” expectations that some people in earlier generations never had.

I accept the consensus that there are too few houses. I accept that jobs are hard to find. I accept that this makes having children harder. But my sympathy is limited where people constrain themselves in ways that I didn’t.

It isn’t that the people in this generation haven’t even started with house-ownership: see “Trends in percentage house ownership of various cohorts“. But we don’t know yet whether this generation will ever achieve the 80% ownership of earlier generations.

Warning about simple age comparisons:
The housing problems of younger people are often expressed in terms of their typical ages. But they should be expressed inter alia in terms of the average time since the end of full time education. In 1965, the average end of full time education was a little over 15, while nowadays it is about 19. This would be expected to increase the average “first-house age” by nearly 4 years over that time. It isn’t valid to be concerned about the higher “first-house ages” of younger people without accounting for such factors.


There have been many incompetent PFI contracts. The book rightly condemns those, but it goes too far in condemning the principle of PFIs just because they pass on costs to people in future.

Consider: Robinson, Marc, 1998, “Measuring Compliance with the Golden Rule,” Fiscal Studies, Vol. 19 (November), pp. 447-62:

“from the golden rule perspective . . . intergenerational equity requires . . . that the costs associated with . . . expenditure should be spread over time in accordance with the distribution over time of the benefits that they generate.”

Now ask “how should this be achieved for the 105 contracts for schools that are currently handled via PFI?” In fact, PFI is already a close approximation to this principle! If a school is run under a PFI contract for 40 years, then the people paying for it over this time are likely to include parents whose children are going to those schools. Under this “golden rule perspective” it would be wrong for the cohort that created the school to have to pay for it all.


Just a couple of points:

  1. When I went to university in 1965 only the top 5% of each year got their tuition free. That is because only the top 5% got to university! (My degree was in Mathematical Physics).
  2. I think apprenticeships will prove more suitable for many people like those who currently go to university then struggle to find jobs. I’m not the only one who thinks that some university courses are a waste of valuable resources for all concerned.

Further reading

This blog
Dec 302012

There is a commonly-held (but erroneous) view that:

  • There was a baby-boom in the UK starting about 1945 and ending about 1965, and …
  • The size of this baby-boom had a disproportionate influence on government policies.

To examine this, here are populations-graphs for the years when each of the last 6 Prime Ministers first took office. (I’ve included estimates for the expected 2015 and 2020 elections too!)

  • The graphs were generated from the animation published by the Office of National Statistics.
  • For each year, the height of the graph indicates how many people born that year were alive when that Prime Minister took office.
  • The purple population were those old enough to vote, and the gray ones were too young to vote.
  • The population born from 1945 to 1965 are shown in lighter shades (of purple or gray) for convenience.

Imagine that you were one of these candidates seeking to become Prime Minister:

Which population group(s) do you have to attract (or appease) in order to win?
Is there any group whose votes will decide the election so you can risk other group(s) to get those votes?
Which age-range(s) do you need to attract?

James Callaghan

James Callaghan in Wikipedia. Born in 1912. Came to office in 1976. Never elected to office.

UK population in 1976

UK population in 1976

1976: The UK population was 56.2 million. The old-enough subset (1945 to 1958) of the 1945-1965 cohort was 19% of the population; 26% of the electorate.

(All diagrams in this article use the female half of the Population Pyramid. This slightly exaggerates the size of older groups because on average women have longer lives. All graphs have linear Y-axis with origin zero so they accurately indicate the relative populations at different birth dates).

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher in Wikipedia. Born in 1925. First elected to office in 1979. Conservative Party Manifesto 1979. Conservative Party Manifesto 1983. Conservative Party Manifesto 1987.

UK population in 1979

UK population in 1979

1979: The UK population was 56.2 million. The old-enough subset (1945 to 1961) of the 1945-1965 cohort was 24% of the population; 33% of the electorate.

1983: The UK population was 56.3 million. The 1945-1965 cohort was 30% of the population; nearly 40% of the electorate. This was the maximum percentage in any electorate of the 1945-1965 cohort.

1987: The UK population was 56.8 million. (The graph of the population was not very different from the one below of 1990). The 1945-1965 cohort was 30% of the population; 39% of the electorate. 

John Major

John Major in Wikipedia. Born in 1943. Came to office in 1990, and elected to office in 1992. Conservative Party Manifesto 1992.

UK population in 1990

UK population in 1990

1990: The UK population was 57.2 million. The 1945-1965 cohort was 29% of the population; nearly 38% of the electorate.

1992: Virtually unchanged from 1990.

Tony Blair

Tony Blair in Wikipedia. Born in 1953. First elected to office in 1997. Labour Party Manifesto 1997. Labour Party Manifesto 2001Labour Party Manifesto 2005 (PDF).

UK population in 1997

UK population in 1997

1997: The UK population was 58.3 million. The 1945-1965 cohort was 29% of the population; 38% of the electorate. The post-1965 electorate was 26% of the total electorate.

2001: The UK population was 59.1 million. The 1945-1965 cohort was 28% of the population; 36% of the electorate. The pre-1945 electorate was 33% of the electorate. The post-1965 electorate was 33% of the total electorate. This was the first election with a larger 1945-1965 electorate than pre-1945 electorate.

2005: The UK population was 60.2 million. (The graph of the population was not very different from the one below of 2007). The 1945-1965 cohort was 27% of the population; nearly 35% of the electorate. The post-1965 electorate was nearly 39% of the total electorate. This was the first election with a larger post-1965 electorate than 1945-1965 electorate.

Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown in Wikipedia. Born in 1951. Came to office in 2007. Never elected to office.

UK population in 2007

UK population in 2007

2007: The UK population was 61 million. The 1945-1965 cohort was 27% of the population; 35% of the electorate. The post-1965 electorate was 40% of the total electorate.

David Cameron

David Cameron in Wikipedia. Born in 1966. Elected to office (in coalition) in 2010.

UK population in 2010

UK population in 2010

2010: The UK population was 62.3 million. The 1945-1965 cohort was 26% of the population; nearly 33% of the electorate. The post-1965 electorate was nearly 47% of the total electorate.

Estimate for 2015 election

Electorates of PMs 2015

UK population in 2015 (estimated)

2015 (estimated): The UK population will be 64.8 million. The 1945-1965 cohort will be 24% of the population; nearly 31% of the electorate. The post-1965 electorate will be 54% of the total electorate.

Estimate for 2020 election

Electorates of PMs 2020

UK population in 2020 (estimated)

2020 (estimated): The UK population will be 67.2 million. The 1945-1965 cohort will be 22% of the population; 28% of the electorate. The post-1965 electorate will be nearly 61% of the total electorate.

Electorate percentages of various groups

Here is another way of looking at the same information, once again using the animation published by the Office of National Statistics. (The graph was plotted using values at intervals of 5 years). Percentages after 2012 are estimates.

Various groups in the electorate

The percentages of various groups in the electorate

  • From 1983: Since the last of them got the vote in 1983, the 1945-1965 electorate as a percentage of the total electorate has been decreasing because they are dying and the total electorate is increasing.
  • Up to 1998: The pre-1945 electorate was larger than the 1945-1965 electorate.
  • 1998 to 2003: The 1945-1965 electorate was larger than both the pre-1945 electorate and the post-1965 electorate. The only election in this period was 2001.
  • From 2003: The post-1965 electorate has been larger than the 1945-1965 electorate.
  • From 2013: The post-1965 electorate will be most of the electorate.
  • Pensioners have been a steady 23%-24% of the electorate until a rise to 25%-26% after 2005. This will be changed by the new pension-age rules by 2020.


This article complements “The myth of excessive political influence by the post-war generation“.

It is obvious from all the above graphs that there was not a baby-boom in the UK starting about 1945 and ending about 1965! 1965 was the peak of a baby-boom, not the end of one. There was a baby-pop from about 1946 to about 1948, then a real baby-boom from about 1955 to about 1974. (And another smaller baby-boom from about 1978 to about 1992).

When any of these Prime Ministers first came to power, the 1945-1965 cohort was never more than 38% of the total electorate. Mostly it was much less than this. It has always been in the minority, like every other generation. In the 2001 election for the first time the pre-1945 electorate was smaller than the 1945-65. In the 2005 election for the first time the post-1965 electorate was larger than the 1945-1965 electorate. So the 2001 election was the only one where the 1945-1965 electorate was bigger than each of the pre-1945 and post-1965 electorates.

Obviously this difference increases year by year:
2005: post-1965 electorate 12% larger than the 1945-1965 electorate.
2010: post-1965 electorate 44% larger than the 1945-1965 electorate.
2015: post-1965 electorate 79% larger than the 1945-1965 electorate (estimated).
2020: post-1965 electorate 116% larger than the 1945-1965 electorate (estimated).

Each cohort becomes a smaller percentage of the electorate over time. The population is increasing, and older people are dying, so each cohort becomes “a smaller fish in a bigger pool”. The population in 2010 was about 10% larger than in 1979. About 13% of people born in 1946 died between the 1979 and 2010 elections.  So the 1946 year dropped from 1.7% of the population to 1.3% over this time, a reduction of nearly a quarter.

It is clear from the lighter shaded region of each graph that there has never been this mythical generation whose mere size caused governments to unduly favour them, or which could commandeer national resources at the expense of other generations. That is typically a conspiracy hypothesis propagated by people who are envious of the successes of a minority of the post-war generation, yet weren’t around to see the struggles of much of the generation. But it is also propagated by rich people on guilt trips.

Although Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were born within the range 1945-1965, the average age of members of Parliament is typically about 50. None of these factors appears to have favoured the 1945-1965 cohort.

What about pensioners?

Another group who some people think have had an undue influence on policies because of sheer weight of numbers are pensioners. For most of these Prime Ministers above pensioners have been 23%-24% of the electorate. Then there was a rise to 25% after 2005.

It is estimated that pensioners  will be a little over 26% of the electorate in 2015. After that new pension-age rules will reduce the rate of increase, but new data on life expectancy will probably increase the estimates.

Further reading