The generation game is getting personal, according to Glynne Williams and Vanessa Beck. ‘Generation gap’ once referred to the gulf in culture and understanding between teenagers and their parents. Now that the baby boomers are approaching old age, however, it is made to refer to a pernicious economic divide.
What began in 2008 as a financial crisis now looks like a state of permanent austerity. The battle over taxes and public spending is rapidly turning into an inter-generational war with politicians doing much of the mongering. David Willetts’s The Pinch, for example, tells younger people that the baby-boomers have ‘stolen’ their future and that they should be made to give it back. It wasn’t the bankers or the politicians who got us (you) into this fix – it seems that your mum is to blame! By voting for a decent health service and universal pensions, her generation has bankrupted Britain, thereby condemning an entire generation (yours) to depend upon another (theirs) for food and board while working through one zero-hour contract job onto another.
The assumption underpinning calls to arms like this – for Willets isn’t alone here – is that the standards which we have become accustomed to are now unsustainable. Working harder, working longer and reducing our expectations – both as employees and as citizens – these are now presented as economic and moral necessities. This is very much how the extension of working life has been presented. By removing fixed retirement ages we will be given the opportunity to continue as productive members of society. This is called an opportunity, but it is also a duty. At the same time, though, workers are accused of hogging younger peoples’ jobs! This isn’t a one-way argument, of course. For while older people are berated for draining NHS resources and blocking the housing market, young people are accused of being high-maintenance individualists who are unrealistically picky about jobs even though their options are so obviously limited.
This debate has a poisonous influence on employment relations, since the vocabulary of age equality is too often used to reinforce the need to worsen entitlements, not improve them. Most of us – if we are lucky – will grow old, and attacks on the rights and entitlements of today’s older workers and pensioners undermine any chance of young people inheriting such benefits. In other words, inter-generational conflict directly plays into the hands of austerity’s main advocates.
Our research aims to identify how employers and unions have dealt with these challenges. The workplace is where the young and old meet as colleagues and, hopefully, as equals. It is in the workplace, then, that the generation gap can be bridged. But equality considerations in bargaining rarely extend to the question of age. Employers facing genuine financial difficulties do not have such a luxury, while for unions, negotiation is often unavoidably defensive and reactive. In these circumstances, collective bargaining can all too easily become a zero-sum-game where gains for those nearing retirement translate into worse conditions for new entrants. Although younger and older members have a voice, this tends to be offered as two distinct and competing constituencies, obscuring the fact that age equality affects everybody.
Is destructive competition inevitable? We focus on what we call inter-generational bargaining: a more integrated approach, where unions and employers attempt to address the concerns of both old and young, in order to arrive at age-neutral outcomes. But is this possible in difficult economic conditions? Are the results sustainable? And does a focus on formal equality make this sort of outcome more, or less likely?
We are keen to hear from employers, unions, or other groups attempting to promote age equality at work. If you have been involved in inter-generational bargaining – at whatever level – please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org