on 23 July 2011
If this book had been advertised as a description of the importance of inter-generational cooperation, accompanied by useful social statistics, I would have given it more stars. But its real theme is instead identified by its sub-title: "How the baby-boomers took their children's future - and why they should give it back". It is an unjustified attack on the baby-boom cohort as a whole, leading to wrong conclusions about how we arrived at the current state and what the lessons are. Generalized criticisms made about baby-boomers are not supported by the (interesting) facts given, but needed a contorted interpretation of those facts.
Disclaimer: I am one of the older baby-boomers, born in 1947. I retired some time ago when the company I worked for went bust, and I live on my company pension and my savings built up while working. When I claim my state pension next year, it will be significantly less than the taxes I pay, so I claim that I will be paying for my own state pension!
My issue with the book's analysis is illustrated (for example) by a key chapter: "4: Spending the Kid's inheritance". Table 1 identifies the net housing wealth of various age groups. To quote his interpretation: "The table shows that half of all [this] wealth ... belongs to the the baby-boomers and only about ... 15 per cent to everyone under 44". If true, this implies that, as a whole, this huge number of young people just haven't got a start on the housing ladder. But this is a poor interpretation of the table, and the real message is very different. Taking the GROSS housing values (prices of bricks and mortar) for the different age groups (ignoring mortgages), the figures are: under 35 years, 11%; 35-44, 21%; 45-54, 21%; 55-64, 19%; and 65+, 25%. So (perhaps because of his definition of baby-boomers spanning 20 years), the baby-boomers have about 40% and the up-to-44s have 32%. In terms of the values of the houses they own (albeit with mortgages) this appear to be a very high value for the up-to-44s, and even high for the under 35s. My house when I was under 35 was a tiny rubbish house on a poor estate, only worth now perhaps a quarter or less of my current house.
What he has done is subtract the values of the mortgages to produce his quote. What the table is really saying is "there isn't a large difference in bricks and mortar values for the various age groups, (in fact, the 35-44 value is greater than the 55-64 value!), but young people haven't paid off their mortgages, whereas to a large extent the 55-64 and especially the 65+ groups have done so". Wow! So people nearing retirement and after retirement tend to pay off their mortgages, while younger people haven't yet done so! Who would have thought it? (When I bought my current house at the age of 40, I had a 19.5 year mortgage so that it would be paid off by the time I was 60). But this interpretation doesn't support his thesis.
Another problem with this book is that is treats the baby-boom cohort as a sort of "collective intelligence", to which criticism can be applied, injunctions be made, and motives assigned. Apart from the book's sub-title itself, there is "the boomers increasingly came to think of their house as ... their own personal goldmine"; "however, we [the author is a baby-boomer] thought we were richer and ... we all became alchemists, converting paper increases in the value of our homes into extra money to spend". (Etc). Perhaps he and some others did that, but many of us didn't.
The baby-boomers are about 10 million individuals. We span the complete spectrum of politics; of financial state (from rich to broke); of parental and social standing; of education; of health, of aspirations; of number of children. (But we probably don't include rich footballers or WAGS!) We do not share a single agenda, strategy, motive, or degree of activism; in fact, we may sometimes not even be on speaking terms with one-another! Few of us ever managed to influence the resultant (current) society to a measurable extent. Since I gained the vote at the age of 21 my vote has never had the slightest effect on who got elected in local or general elections! And we are only about one-quarter of the electorate - does anyone seriously think that we really significantly influenced where we are now?
It is my last paragraph above that identifies a fault with this and other books on this topic. Any failure to understand that we are actually 10 million individuals, connected only by age, just living our lives while the world changes around us in ways we can't control and sometimes don't even understand, may cause people to focus on imaginary agendas, and make false assumptions that we can act as one to change things for the "better" (whatever that means). Hence my single star, which reflects the failure of this book to understand what happened and draw lessons for the future.
Edit: Since writing this review I've realized that there wasn't actually a single baby-boom! Search for the official statistics document "The UK population: past, present and future", file-name 01_fopm_population.pdf, and look at figure 1.13 on page 11. (Enlarge it to have a closer look). Here are important facts:
There was what I'll call a "baby-spike" immediately after the war. This 2nd highest birth rate of the 20th century peaked in 1946/7, and lasted very few years. The reason for that spike is obvious. (For example, my parents met during the war and I was born in 1947).
Then there was what I'll call a "baby-peak" 19 years later. This highest birth-rate of the 20th century peaked about 1965, and was much greater and longer-lasting than the 1946/7 baby-spike. In fact, the birth-rate during the baby-peak stayed at least at the 1946/7 baby-spike rate for about 10 years, and arguably (make your own choice from figure 1.13) the baby-peak lasted from about 1959 to 1971 or much longer. I don't know what caused that baby-peak, (but see chapter 3 of the book).
This suggests that there are really 2 relevant cohorts rather than one, and the term "baby boomer" masks the truth. The smaller of these cohorts covers births from 1946 to about 1950. The larger, and potentially more important, cohort covers the range from about 1959 to 1971 or longer. (But judge for yourself from the graph of figure 1.13). These should probably be thought of as separate generations, although they overlap a bit. The early lives of these cohorts were vastly different from one-another on average. The baby-spike children of 1946 to 1950 arrived in an immediate-post-war nation. We know the baby-peak children centred on 1965 were born into a different world! (And many of them are young enough to be the children of the baby-spike cohort).