I noted with interest in the media this week that MPs have launched a major enquiry into inter-generational fairness.
This follows concerns about whether the state pension and welfare system is unfairly favouring pensioners at the expense of younger workers. Frank Field MP, a recent guest at the Rutland BIZ Club and Chair of the House of Commons Works and Pensions Committee is chairing the investigation. Apparently, over a long period, we pensioners have been too effective in lobbying government on social and economic policy, with the average income of pensioner households now said to be above those of working households. Worryingly, the Centre for Policy Studies has warned that the pot of money which funds state pensions will run out 20 years earlier than expected. Hence the concern that national policy is being forced in the direction of loading future costs onto our young people.
The fact that the UK now has an Inter-Generational Foundation suggests that researchers are taking the matter seriously and has set me thinking about how we can do more to avoid such ageism in the planning of Rutland’s future. Now that a number of villages and towns in the county are preparing or updating strategies to sustain their communities up to 2036 (the end date of the new County Council Local Plan), are we all doing enough to engage the middle aged and younger electorate when gathering views on what is required for their future? Experience here in Uppingham suggests that, to move forward, we need to think more deeply about who is responding to policy consultations and how we ensure a balanced age profile among respondents. Put simply, how do we encourage younger families to tell us more about what they want for the future? It is not as easy as it sounds.
An excellent response rate to a recent questionnaire on the future of Uppingham Town Centre distributed to every household revealed the nature of the problem. Of the 200+ replies, over 90% were from pensioners. A second questionnaire was sent via primary schools to secure a younger perspective on our planning. Although the response rate was poor, the content of the replies revealed the value of the second approach; a very different set of answers raising appropriate suggestions to make the town more family friendly.
Part of the problem, of course, is how we have been communicating. Technology is changing lifestyles and the town halls are trying to catch up. Just as we have persuaded most folk to communicate via e-mail, the approach has become old hat. The younger generation are using social media to exchange ideas and opinion. Paper surveys now seem positively yesteryear with the advent of Survey Monkey and other similar online means of asking questions. I guess we increasingly need to think more deeply about how we gather opinion in the future. But there is another problem.
Young families seem so much busier these days and less able, or inclined, to input into long term strategies or volunteer focus groups. My generation was encouraged to plan for the future and 20 or 25 year financial and social strategies underpinned our lives. Remember low cost endowment insurance policies? House prices were achievable for many and interest rates rewarded prudence.
Now the opposite is true. Education, health and social care policy appear to penalise anyone foolish enough to preserve significant assets. It becomes almost understandable that living for the moment is a practical point of view. This perceived interest in the present can work against planning for the future. Certainly, life as a pensioner and a parent will be very different in 2036. Policy makers need to explore new ways of engaging our younger electorate. It may be self-interest but, after all, they will need plans to house and care for us oldies now that more of us are living longer.