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Boomers and millennials have each others’ backs

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If you’ve spent any time online in the past few years, you’ll be familiar with the idea that millennials and baby boomers are locked in a ferocious civil war. Boomers are selfish and conservative, millennials altruistic and progressive. With no common ground to speak of, today’s young adults and their parents’ generation are destined to end up in opposing camps on everything from housing policy to the environment and politics.

There’s one problem: it’s not really true. As we move from anecdotes and stereotypes to representative data, we find enormous overlap in attitudes and values between the two generations.

Take policy preferences, for example. According to the received wisdom, boomers are Nimbys. But a new study from researchers at Nuffield College, Oxford, suggests they are not. In fact, Britons aged 60 and above are just as supportive of having new, affordable housing built in their local area as the under-40s. Meanwhile, young adults are almost as strongly in favour of increased spending on social care for the elderly as they are themselves.

The data shows remarkable levels of agreement between the generations on wider economic policy. Young adults are only marginally more in favour of redistributing incomes from the rich to the poor, and while older people are slightly more likely to support raising taxes and public spending than the young, the gap is again very small.

If there is a generational divide, it’s on attitudes to immigration. Here, over-60s generally want to see numbers reduced, but under-40s are happy with current levels, or comfortable with a slight rise. This consensus on economics but dispute on culture may partly explain why millennials in the west have gone cold on conservative politics in recent years.

But the most interesting finding from the Nuffield paper is that not only do boomers and millennials have similar views on most issues, they are also sensitive to the challenges that the other group faces — particularly when they considered family examples. The study, led by political researcher Zack Grant, asked people whether they had younger or older relatives who were struggling financially, and then explored whether these connections mediated their views and policy preferences on age-specific issues.

The findings were striking. When the over-60s were asked whether the government should prioritise spending on young adults (below 40) or older people (60-plus), 60 per cent who either had no young relatives, or whose young relatives they perceived to be doing well financially, said spending should prioritise the old. But only a minority of those with young relatives in financial stress agreed.

On affordable housing, only 33 per cent of older people without struggling relatives said this should be a priority for increased government spending, but that figure shot up to 46 per cent among those with struggling young family members.

Unsurprisingly, this bleeds into electoral choices. In Britain, the Conservatives may currently trail Labour by about 16 points overall, but they continue to enjoy healthy leads among the over-60s. However, this masks a wide variation beneath the surface. Older Britons whose younger relatives are living comfortably support the Tories by almost 20 percentage points, but among those whose sons or daughters, nieces or nephews are struggling, it’s the Labour party that has the 20-point lead.

And this isn’t just a case of people whose relatives are badly off being more likely to struggle themselves. Even after controlling for older people’s own financial situations, those whose young relatives are feeling the pinch are much less keen on the Conservatives, and much more likely to say the party does not look after young people.

All things considered, the data shows there is much more solidarity between generations than is often assumed. With the younger generation in the grip of a housing affordability crisis, the number of older voters who are worried about the prospects of a young relative may yet rise.

Any party that acts on the assumption that you can ignore the young and pile up votes among the old may discover it’s not that simple.

john.burn-murdoch@ft.com, @jburnmurdoch

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