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This is not about Young v Old

A recently published report of a House of Lords Committee on Intergenerational Fairness included recommendations around cutting or amending a number of key pensioner benefits and concessions. This follows an earlier report by the Intergenerational Commission which made similar recommendations.

The Committee on Intergeneration Fairness is recommending, among other things, the removal of the triple lock on state pensions and phasing out of free TV licences based on age. After the state pension age rises to 67,between 2026-28, the report states that the Winter Fuel Payment and free travel passes should only become available five years after state pension age and that eligibility for the Winter Fuel Allowance should be means tested.

The reference to pensioner benefits and concessions is merely one element of a 100 page report which also deals with issues including housing provision, education and training opportunities and pay and working conditions.  Age Sector Platform however is concerned that even the title of the report, ‘Tackling Intergenerational Unfairness’, implies that there is somehow a ‘Younger v Older’ divide, a zero sum game where one demographic benefits at the expense of or to the detriment of, the other. This is not and must not be allowed to become, a ‘them and us’ scenario. Age Sector Platform fully recognises the challenges facing younger people today.

The recommendations contained in the Committee on Intergenerational Fairness report and indeed previous calls for the removal of the triple lock on pensions, changes in eligibility for travel passes and means testing for benefits such as the Winter Fuel Allowance, are based around a general, simplistic premise that older people are better off and have benefited from more favourable economic conditions than young people today can ever hope to enjoy and should therefore ‘give something back’.  

As with all generalisations, this argument is simplistic and potentially divisive. It takes no account of the fact that a great many older people rely on the state pension as their sole form of income, a state pension that is still one of the lowest of all European countries and which remains, despite the introduction of the triple lock, well below the value of average earnings. 

It ignores the many thousands of older people who live in fuel poverty and often face a choice between heating their homes adequately or feeding themselves. Recently produced statistics issued by NISRA, highlighted that the number of excess winter deaths in Northern Ireland increased from 640 in 2015/16, to 1500 in 2017/18, an increase of 130%. The majority of these deaths occurred in people over 65, with many attributed to the effects of living in cold, damp homes.

For older people at risk of loneliness and social isolation, the free travel concession provides opportunities for social interaction and connections that can be a key factor in maintaining or improving their overall health and wellbeing.

It is an inescapable fact that many young people today are facing real challenges, notably in being able to secure well paid jobs and affordable housing. The ‘Tackling Intergenerational Fairness’ report does make reference to financial support provided within families by older people with the means to do so, which can for example provide that critical deposit to buy a first home or contribute to university tuition fees. We would also point to “in kind” voluntary childminding responsibilities many older people take on that enable their children and grandchildren to go to work free from prohibitive childminding costs.

Many older people are involved in general volunteering, for example in charity shops, which deliver benefits for the community as a whole. In all of this, we believe that the ‘Intergenerational Compact’ remains strong and that in general, far from there being a generational divide, young people recognise and appreciate the support provided by older relatives.

The benefits and concessions that the ‘Tackling Intergenerational Unfairness’ report recommends be abolished or amended, are essential to the health and wellbeing of many thousands of vulnerable older people. They are an acknowledgement of contribution made during working lives and provide some level of security and deferred income in later years. Age Sector Platform does not believe that solutions to the economic and social challenges facing younger generations lie, even in part, in a financial ‘balancing act’ that disadvantages and penalises older people.