16 March 2016

A Budget that puts the next generation first?

On austerity, sustainability and intergenerational fairness. INTERSECTION's UK Research Associate Kristina Diprose reacts to Chancellor George Osborne's "Budget that puts the next generation first".

Picture of parliament at sunset, with flowers in the foreground

Dr Kristina Diprose, INTERSECTION UK Research Associate

As well as posting our latest research news, the INTERSECTION blog is intended as a space for comment and topical coverage of intergenerational issues. Blogs are the personal views of contributors, not the project team.

George Osborne’s 2016 Budget is “a Budget that puts the next generation first”, or so he would have us believe. There were no fewer than 13 references to generations in the Chancellor’s Budget speech, as he announced a raft of measures from incentives for savers and entrepreneurs to a tax on sugary drinks. His budget for the next generation is one in which personal health, fiscal responsibility and economic stability are the pillars of a country “fit for the future”.

This is not the first time that Osborne has touched on the issue of intergenerational fairness. In June last year, The Telegraph and others reported that his proposal to enshrine budget surpluses in law was primarily motivated by concerns that high levels of debt “disadvantage future generations”. At that time Osborne warned: “With our national debt unsustainably high, and with the uncertainly about what the world economy will throw at us in the coming years, we must act now to fix the roof while the sun is shining.”

It is curious that the Chancellor chooses to frame his pursuit of austerity as a commitment to fairness for younger and future generations (e.g. “the next generation doesn’t have to pay our debts”, “the next generation inherits a strong economy”). There have been prominent public debates about intergenerational fairness over the past few months, but these tend to focus on issues more immediately connected with people’s everyday lives – affordable housing, living wages, employment opportunities, pensions, access to health and social care, and generational inequalities in public spending. We are more used to hearing (in)justice and fairness deployed on the Left to protest against austerity and its impact on the most vulnerable in society, including the young and elderly who rely most on public services.

These contrasting ideas about intergenerational fairness are at the heart of our research about sustainability as we speak with people of all ages in Sheffield, Jinja and Nanjing. Is the pursuit of economic growth the be all and end all, the measure of our responsibility to younger and future generations? Or do we ask, as Doreen Massey so eloquently advocated, "What is an economy for?", "What do we want it to provide?"

In our research we are looking at how people talk about and differently prioritise personal, environmental, economic and social aspects of sustainability in their ideas about saving for the future. In my experience so far in the UK, people share some principles that the Chancellor might applaud like looking after your health, supporting family members and taking financial responsibility for your future. But their ideas about intergenerational fairness sometimes run contrary to his, for example protecting the NHS and other public services, resisting austerity, and rebalancing our economy to support sustainable relationships between people, communities and the planet. If the economy is for all of us and for the next generation, then we need to better integrate environmental and social values at its core.

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