Photo: KOOL N' THE GANG from ALL CHROME flickr photostream

Older people are costing us money.  They are using disproportionately more of the NHS, social care and welfare budgets, and expenditure on prescription drugs is significantly higher for the over 65s than their younger peers.  Older people are costing the NHS up to £4.6 million a day by falling over and it’s not just ageing itself that is causing excessive NHS use amongst this age group.  Lifestyle factors are also an issue with the charity Alcohol Concern suggesting that Middle-Aged drinkers are costing the NHS over ten times more than binge drinking amongst young people.   The Office for Budget Responsibility warned us last week that health spending will become an increasing ‘burden’ on the country because of the ageing population and that tax rises or spending cuts will be necessary to counter the pressure that older people are putting on the system, pressure that will only get worse as the ‘baby boomer’ generation retires.  The Telegraph ran with the headline: “Minister: NHS will collapse if elderly bed-blocking continues”, following a story last year entitled “The NHS can’t go on being free if selfish baby boomers consult GPs for the slightest aches and pains”.

And it’s not just the NHS that older people, and the baby boomers in particular, are accused of destroying by living longer and expecting good quality care.  The destruction of the economy and resulting austerity are also the fault of the baby-boomers.  As is the destruction of the education system, the inflated housing prices, and the introduction of student loans.  The rhetoric goes that not only were this generation lucky in their time of birth, they also continue to hold significant power (much more than previous generations) because they insist on continuing to exercise their right to vote, and by doing this they have ensured that future generations would not enjoy the benefits that they received!  This is not just a British phenomenon though, as American Economics Correspondent Jim Tankersley explained:  “I am accusing him [a baby boomer] and all other parasites his age of breaking the sacred bargain that every American generation will pass a better country on to its children than the one it inherited”.   This line of argument resonates with the title of David Willets 2010 book “The Pinch: How the baby boomers took their children’s future and why they should give it back”.

But is it really this simple?

The baby boomers in Britain grew up with the NHS and welfare system, they had grammar schools, higher education grants and the promise of upward mobility.  They did not have national service or live through world wars, and benefitted from house price inflation and relatively mild economic recessions.  This created a situation in which they are better off than any other generation and this can still be seen in recent figures from the Office for National Statistics on wealth which shows that wealth is highest among 45 – 64 year olds and that the over 65s remain well off on average while families with young children and young adults are hit hardest by the recession and the number of children living in poverty is rising.  But the families with young children who are struggling are the children of the baby boomers.  Figures suggest that as many as 2 million older people are looking after their grand-children so that their children can work.  Research by the charity Grandparents Plus suggests that as many as half of low income families rely on grandparents for childcare, putting financial strain on younger grandparents who are, themselves, on low incomes.

Furthermore, this attack on the baby boomers can be seen as another diversionary tactic.  We have already seen the government and media promoting the idea that the unemployed are lazy, benefit recipients are scroungers, those in receipt of disability benefits just do not want to work and people are coming to this country simply to use the NHS.  All this deflects attention from the impact of government policies on some of the most vulnerable people in our society and erodes the social contract.  ONS figures for April 2013 show 503,000 job vacancies recorded between February-April 2013, with official unemployment figures standing at 2.52 million.  The government’s own figures suggest that 0.5% of Disability Living Allowance claims are fraudulent, and there appears to be some confusion over the amount that health tourists cost the NHS.  Cameron suggested the figure was £20 million, whilst Hunt quoted £200 million and yet the Coalition government’s own figure stands at £7 million.  Whichever is correct, it is a drop in the ocean of NHS yearly £104 billion expenditure.

Whilst there is little doubt that the baby boomer generation were lucky in many ways, they bore the brunt of all sort of social inequalities and subsequently challenged enduring sex and race discrimination, fighting for the rights of disabled people and bringing in equality legislation.  It is also worth noting that this group  is not a homogenous group.  Even amongst this relatively advantaged sector of the population almost 1 in 5 people aged between 45 and 64 live in households with income below 60% of median income after deducting housing costs (DWP 2010).  But perhaps most importantly, laying the blame on one sector of the population, whether that is the ‘greedy’ baby boomers or the ‘lazy’ unemployed, plays in to the hands of the government.  Neither the NHS nor the welfare system are unaffordable, whether and how we choose to pay for them is a political/ideological decision rather than purely an economic one.  The minimum wage is not a living wage and the government subsidises low paying employers.  There is not sufficient low cost housing and housing benefit subsidises private landlords charging unaffordable rents.   Rather than playing the blame game and submitting to the divide and rule tactics of the government we should be fighting for the kind of society we want to live in because without it, in the words of Hobbes life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

About the co-author:  Blánaid Daly is a dentist working at King’s College London Dental Institute. She is interested in improving access and delivery of dental care to special needs groups, and critical public health. She aims to bring a perspective to dentistry which moves beyond ‘ filling and drilling’ to one that considers the dental team and patients in a wider context of integrated health and social care.