Recently I was collecting money door-to-door-for a charity which helps desperately poor people in Africa and I noticed something surprising: less well-off people seemed to be more generous than their wealthier neighbours. They also seemed to think more about their giving – several of them had put money aside for the collection whereas the wealthier households were more reactionary in both senses: they reacted either by sending me away with an empty tin or by reaching into their pockets and giving me any coinage they happened to have to hand.
Maybe this is because less well-off households can identify more easily with people poorer than themselves, or perhaps their greater willingness to part with money explains why they have lower savings and therefore have less money to give. Or is it that poorer people are less independent socially and they feel more intensely the human interdependence driving them to share even what little they have?
Young, poor and generous
We know from the statisticians that in UK society “the young are the new poor”, but they are also generous – and perhaps as a group they are more generous than their parents. Opinion polls show that they are more supportive of the state paying higher pensions than of the state paying increased unemployment benefits. This is despite increasing pensioner property: in the UK the median pensioner income is now, for the first time in history, above the median earned income (i.e. over £26,000 per year).
We can see young people’s generosity in practice, with many of them sponsoring each other to raise money for charity – often charities which are targeting the needs of the elderly. But politicians are ruthlessly exploiting this generosity of spirit: David Cameron, when in office, liked to point out that we shouldn’t worry about the triple-lock increasing the real value of the state pension because young people are broadly supportive of the elderly. He was also, like most politicians, acutely aware that their disillusionment with politics means they don’t vote as much as pensioners.
Give to the deserving
There is little that is more frustrating than giving money to someone and then finding they don’t actually need it. Most of us have done it at one point or another. We hand over our last sandwich only to find that the recipient has a packed lunch of their own which they haven’t even started yet.
While there are of course plenty of poorer pensioners in genuine need, the older generation as a whole may be taking more cash handouts from the young than ever before. If people in their twenties come to that conclusion, their generosity may turn to resentment remarkably fast.
For that reason we need to make sure that welfare payments are well targeted. Young people are not at all amused to read that some recipients of winter fuel payments use this tax-free hand-out to buy claret at Christmas, that pensioner bus passes are widely used by older London commuters to get to work, and that many of those on high occupational pensions schemes use their state pension as pocket money while abroad.
But what of the older generation and their generosity? On an individual level that generosity is clearly alive and kicking and most parents give generously to support their children’s needs, including their college education and often their housing. Parents can see those needs at first hand and instinctively they reach out to help, often making sacrifices themselves. So most of them are generous with the cash that they have and they usually have more of it than their own parents would have had.
But as a cohort the story is very different: older generations have shaped the state around their own needs and have made sure that aspirations for good pensions have become cast-iron guarantees that will be funded by the younger generation.
We, as the baby-boomer generation, have adopted a slash-and-burn approach to the environment and have saddled our children’s generation with liabilities that will ensure they will be poorer than us. As a group we have foisted on them huge student debt at high interest rates, the requirement to pay our pensions, sky-high house prices and a slew of other obligations.
Whilst we have been generous on the family level, we have been hugely selfish and tight-fisted on the societal level. Young people deserve better, and their own generous behaviour makes some of us feel just a little bit guilty.