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Postcards from Scotland

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Posted 04/04/2014

Did you grow up in a house where your mother or grandmother saved string, carefully removed wrapping paper for reuse, collected buttons in boxes and had a formidable store of food cans, most displaying their special offer label?

Were the values that ran through your house about being considerate to others, working hard and not getting ‘too big for your boots’?
When I left home at 17, in a typical self-absorbed teenage way, I thought my parents were a ‘one-off’ with a long list of eccentricities. Now I know that they were a product of their generation. They were, in turn, the children of parents who were, for all intents and purposes, peasants. For my parents, growing up took place in the hardship of the 20s and 30s sandwiched between the Wars. They made do, mended, lived within their means, and, if driven to borrow, they sought help from members of the family.
And what are the defining characteristics of their offspring, me and the other baby boomers, who are today in their 50s and 60s? For many of us, our parents had richness of spirit more than spending power but they looked out for us, provided a good loving home, wanted us to have a better life than they had and trusted the local school to help us along the road. When I left school in 1972 I was passionately optimistic and idealistic. Post-war economic growth brought prosperity and vast numbers of us achieved comfort and security at the outer reaches of our parents’ dreams. Along the way we borrow through mortgages and credit cards. Saint Tropez is a more likely holiday destination than Saltcoats. Alcohol is more ubiquitous than chips.
Today’s business leaders, commentators and politicians are largely baby boomers (success is implicit) that grew up in the favourable winds of a stable home life, an expanding economy, free education, a host of job opportunities and when the time came, the means to buy their own home.
How does this worldview, set of experiences and mindset sit against the outlook of people who are today in their 20s, 30s and 40s? Julie, my goddaughter, is in her late twenties, has a 1st in English and a postgraduate degree from Glasgow University. After graduating for a few years she mixed part-time jobs with volunteering before landing a job managing a charity shop. ‘I try not to think about the future’, she tells me, ‘it is too depressing’. ‘We thought that if we worked hard and succeeded at school, and then university, we’d succeed in life. I’ve studied longer than either of my parents, worked harder, and now have a job earning little more than the minimum wage. At this point, I can never see myself being as wealthy as them - two teachers’.
Mark, my nephew in his early 40s, was a chartered surveyor putting together big out of town projects for Scotland’s largest property development company. ‘Who am I?’ he asks and answers his own question – ‘A husband, a father and a fly-fisherman’. ‘But this is the hardest thing I have ever done because I am none of these things now. I leave at 6am on a Monday morning and come back late on Friday, for a job that pays me a third of what I used to get and gives me no intellectual or professional challenge. ‘With two young children and 20 months already spent unemployed, he came to the conclusion that it is a job he has to stick at. His wife has added hours to her part time job and the extended family plays its part.
Are Julie and Mark ‘the new normal’?
Surveys in the UK and America come out with similar findings: parents expect their children to be less well off than they have been. Is this gut instinct correct?
The Institute of Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation estimate that a typical low-income family on £10,600 in 2009 will see their income fall, in real terms, to £9,000 by 2020. This is a contraction of 15%. A middle-income family on £22,000 can expect a 3% fall in their income over the same period. The top 50% of households can expect a 2% growth, and even more for higher earners. Throughout their study they have assumed that the economy will grow at a rate of 1.5% till 2015 and by 2.5% till 2020 (and that looks optimistic to me). The signs indicate that things will become even harder for the poorest people. This is a hollowing out of society.
Across the UK, since 1997, there has been a 20% increase in young adults between the ages of 20 and 34 living with their parents. ‘What time were you in at last night?’ This is a question that takes on a whole new meaning when you are 29 years old. ‘How can you be 26 and not like leeks?’ does not add to family harmony.
In Spain last year, families removed 8,000 to 10,000 elderly people from their care homes. ‘Even though they need the care we provide’, says Jose Alberto Echeverria, president of the private care home association, ‘their families have lost jobs, they can’t afford their part of the payment or they simply need their grandparents’ pension to live on’. As people live longer with multiple conditions and public expenditure tightens, it is not difficult to see this trend in Spain becoming established in Scotland.
A collision of expectations, values and ways of life within and between older and younger generations are already happening. And they are set to intensify.
I can now understand why my mother saved wrapping paper for re-use but I can’t understand why the commentary and political discussion provided by my fellow baby-boomers does not acknowledge the shift-taking place.

I will explore this ground in this series of blogs.

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