New research highlights how young have borne the brunt of cuts across Europe – while pensioners have been protected

David Kingman looks at the findings of a new piece of research from Professor Jonathan Bradshaw at the University of York which examines how the impact of government cutbacks has been distributed by age across the ContinentChild Poverty

Since the global financial crisis began in 2007, governments across Europe have been forced to cut public expenditure to make up for declining tax revenues and reduce the burden of government debt. Public anger over the impact of spending cuts has been relatively muted in the UK compared to the scenes which have been witnessed in some other European countries, where they ultimately toppled the government in Greece and have fuelled the growth of anti-austerity populist parties such as Spain’s Podemos (“We Can”) and the Front National in France.

Much of this anger seems to have been targeted against the political and business elites, who are seen to enjoy unfair wealth at everyone else’s expense. However, another interesting question to ask is whether the cuts have been distributed fairly between different age groups, especially as many of the protestors joining these movements are young people facing an uncertain future.

Protecting pensioners

A new piece of research by Jonathan Bradshaw, Professor of Social Policy at the University of York (who spoke at the intergenerational justice conference which IF co-organised in September 2013), suggests that there has been a stark divide by age in terms of the distribution of government cutbacks across Europe.

The paper, entitled The outcomes of the crisis for pensioners and children, was co-written with Yekaterina Chzhen and will shortly be published in the Belgian Journal of Social Security.

It takes as its starting point the fact that there is already considerable evidence to suggest that older generations have been systematically protected from government austerity measures in many European countries while children and working-age families have borne the brunt of cutbacks. However, they correctly identify that “very little attention has been paid to this evident unfairness. Analysts of social policy seem reluctant to trade the interest of children against the interest of pensioners…Protecting pensioners more than children seems the reverse of what one might expect from a social investment strategy, especially given the proven costs of child poverty.”

The two key conclusions which the paper makes are that, firstly, their analysis confirms children in the UK have been hit much harder than pensioners by the impacts of government austerity. Secondly, expanding their analysis to cover 31 European countries shows that this trend has been widespread: spending on pensioners has risen across all of them since 2008 while spending on children has fallen in more than a third. As a result, child poverty has increased since 2008 in 19 of these 31 countries, and by more than pensioner poverty in all but three of them.

Political motivation

The most likely explanation for this unfairness in the distribution of government cuts is that pensioners are much more likely to vote than working-age families who have children. An analysis of voting patterns from the 2015 general election prepared by pollsters Ipsos MORI, How Britain voted in 2015, revealed that this trend was in full force at the recent general election: their data suggests that almost 80% of over-65s turned out to vote, compared with just 43% of people aged 18–24 and 54% of 25–34 year olds.

Given that they are also growing as a share of the total population because of demographic ageing, the elderly enjoying power through the ballot box appears to be becoming a characteristic feature of advanced European democracies. The new research from the University of York suggests that this is already having a negative impact on young people, but unless the political calculus changes, politicians will have few incentives to change tack.