Setting young against old won’t do Labour any good

28th January, 2013 11:30 am

A vast pool of young first time voters will be up for grabs at the next election. On the opposite end of the demographic spectrum, millions of pensioners will become electoral unknowns as Coalition attacks on social security begin to bite. Two generations that could seal Labour’s fate. Can One Nation square the circle of intergenerational justice and bring both together?

The statistics prove that polarising young from old won’t do any party any good. The percentage of the population aged 60-74 is projected to grow to 15% in 2015 (up 0.3% from 2010), while the youth share of the vote will drop as the percentage of those aged 15-29 falls from 20% to 19.5%. Championing the young at the expense of the old is no path to victory.

While young people have a right to be aggrieved at the disproportionate costs they’re bearing for the mistakes of their parents and grandparents, older people too are often the target of political games and struggle with a pace of change that threatens to make them strangers in their own country.

The solution is to bridge the divide, not deepen it. While David Willets attempts to stoke up populist anger from the young about the maldistribution of public goods in ‘The Pinch’, cooler heads must recognise that such rhetoric is propaganda designed to deflect attention from the real divide in society. John Denham, speaking at the launch of One Nation: debating the future, argued that the idea that the older generation has ripped off the younger is a false one, pointing out that “the biggest inequality is between the very rich and everybody else.”

Creating opportunities for young and old to interact and share experiences is one practical step Labour could take to alleviate intergenerational tensions. Lord Glasman advocates the involvement of the elderly in teaching the younger generation:

“What [One Nation] can offer is some contact with old people. We’re not going to abandon old people to a lonely desperate state, and one of the ways we’re going to do that is [by valuing the old] in terms of lifelong teaching.”

How could this work in practice? Perhaps by joining this idea with another key One Nation theme- vocational education. Labour is promising to tackle the issue of a two-tier education system (seriously, this time) after decades of half-hearted initiatives on diplomas, apprenticeships, and NVQs. A solution to providing for the “forgotten 50%” who don’t attend university may be to fund a national mentoring network, where older workers and the recently retired are trained and paid to provide vocational education to small groups of students in existing public spaces. This would mobilise a vast untapped resource- the knowledge of a generation- while creating a fresh educational infrastructure that doesn’t require expensive investment in facilities.

The overriding goal should be to create a society where fraternisation between old and young becomes the norm, rather than the preserve of good-natured volunteers. The result would be one nation that isn’t stratified by age or education. That, I think, could be a powerful electoral message for Labour to build on.

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