We’ll start with views of welfare – and specifically whether government should increase benefits for the poor, even if it leads to higher taxes. The overall trend is very clearly against this, as we can see in the chart above. Agreement has halved and disagreement has nearly doubled between 1987 and 2011.
But it is how this varies among cohorts that is vital to understand. This is shown in the chart below, where each generation is a separate line. So, for example, the “pre-war” line represents everyone aged 43+ in 1987, everyone 44+ in 1988 and so on until it represents just those aged 66+ in 2011.
There are a number of fascinating insights and finer points to take from this, but three major trends stand out.
Firstly, over the period, all generations show a downward trend in their support for more welfare spending. There is a clear period effect, where the general mood has shifted. There are many possible explanations for this, but they are likely to include a perceived increase in the generosity of welfare benefits, a similar shift in mood against the tax burden falling on people or changes in views of how deserving or otherwise benefit recipients are.
But second, the chart shows that generations mostly stay different from each other – there is hardly any crossing of the lines, and the gaps remain fairly consistent (although there are various interesting points where they do come together). This suggests that attitudes to welfare do have a very important generational aspect: the context you grew up in is really important to relative views of redistribution.
And thirdly, building on this point, there is a clear, consistent generational rank order: the pre-war generation are the most supportive of further redistribution, followed by baby boomers, then generation X then generation Y.
It clearly raises important questions about future support for the welfare state as the demographic balance changes.
The very practical point here for policy-makers is that the younger generation seem to have a different view of welfare, even after allowing for the general shift in attitudes across society.
We are exploring this further in a project for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, jointly with Demos, including conducting qualitative research with different cohorts to unpick reasons and explore hypotheses.1
It clearly raises important questions about future support for the welfare state as the demographic balance changes. It also echoes Robert Putnam’s work in the US, which suggests that successive generations have lower levels of social trust. Putnam puts this down to changes in the contract between generations, and in particular, that less support is available for more recent generations. For Putnam, the decline in social trust in the US is almost entirely generational, and that has many knock-on effects for the relationship between citizens, and citizen and state.2
As Willetts points out, our debate about welfare policy in the UK is easily muddled, because unlike most other countries we’ve lost sight of its contributory nature and confuse social security for the large majority with welfare for the poor. Older groups are net beneficiaries from welfare spending, and therefore widespread support across cohorts can only be maintained if younger generations believe that a similar contract will remain in place when they’re old. This seems likely to prove increasingly difficult, given that younger groups seem to have a much weaker perception of the contributory nature of welfare.
1 To be published May 2013
2 Putnam, RD. (2000) Social Capital: Measurement and Consequences, OECD International Symposium report