Without a doubt the pick of my summer reading has to be The Pinch by David Willetts. Although I struggled to get enthused about it during the summer term, a good stretch of time spent on it proved extremely worthwhile, and my enthusiasm for the book increased the further I went through it.
The scope of the book is to look at the way that different generations have fared in the UK through the latter half of the 20th century, and the first few years of this. Counter-intuitively Willetts demonstrates that it is a great good fortune to be born in a ‘bulge’ – rather than creating extra competition for a static number of jobs, it creates extra wealth, much of which is shared, not least through taxation and public sector. Those born in lean years (for population growth) have particular problems if they follow a bulge – they end up paying for the retirement of more people, who live longer, and the cost of whose retirement is spread across fewer workers in the generation which follows them.
So far, so good – but we all knew the dependency ratio was heading in unfavourable direction, didn’t we? Well, yes, but the clever part of Willetts’ book is to trace so many different strands to the relative impoverishment of those born after the mid-1960s. Not only are they poorer in income terms, but in assets, and in quality of life.
Most fascinatingly, Willetts charts the changes in time spent by adults with their children. Despite working harder, and despite so many more two-earner households, the average primary age child now spends more time with their children than the boomers did. This is thanks, mainly, to the time gained from the use of technology in the home. Teenagers, on the other hand, spend less time with their parents than used to be the case, and they spend less time with adults compared to teenagers in other developed countries. Just as we trust other adults with our younger children too little, we also trust adult influence on teenagers insufficiently, with the result that they are more peer-influenced that the young people in other economically prosperous nations. It's all a result of a breakdown in trust between the generations - the old are suspicious of the young, and the young are suspicious of the old.
It’s not a tremendously encouraging book, but it is well worth reading – and it’s made me question how many of our problems with teenagers as a culture arise out of the suffocatingly intense adult contact very small children have, and the relative independence we afford teenagers. Perhaps received wisdom, or is it just evolved practice, on this front needs further consideration. So, it made me think, and I wholeheartedly endorse it to others.