The UK economy has become skewed. Rapid and sustained rises in house prices have concentrated wealth in the hands of those who own property. Far too many young people cannot afford homeownership and instead have to pay costly private rent. Life expectancy has risen faster than anticipated at a time when the large baby boomer cohort, born between 1945 and 1965, are reaching retirement. As the taxes of working people support the retired, the ageing population places strain on those in work. Pensioners have been protected from public spending cuts that have largely been felt by younger groups. Pensioner poverty has been drastically reduced and average pensioner household incomes now exceed those of non-pensioners after housing costs. The millennial generation, born between 1981 and 2000, faces being the first in modern times to be financially worse off than its predecessors.
The welfare state has long been underpinned by an implicit social contract between generations. The provision of benefits and public services to the current pensioner population is funded by the taxes of the current working-age population. In turn they expect to receive similar benefits and services when they retire, and so on. The skewing of the welfare state has placed the intergenerational contract under strain.
The triple lock, which was introduced in 2012, annually uprates the state pension by whichever of price inflation, average earnings growth or 2.5 per cent is highest. It has made a valuable contribution in increasing the relative value of the state pension. Its retention would, however, tend to lead to state pension expenditure accounting for an ever greater share of national income. At a time when public finances are still fragile, this is unsustainable. Accelerated increases in the state pension age, an alternative means of making the state pension more fiscally sustainable, would disproportionately affect the young and those socio-economic groups with lower life expectancies in retirement. Allied to the introduction of the new state pension, which in future will see the vast majority of pensioners on a flat rate, the triple lock will by 2020 have achieved the Government’s objective of securing a decent minimum income for people in retirement to underpin private saving. The retention of the triple lock would not be intergenerationally fair. We urge political consensus before the next general election on a new earnings link for the state pension.
We recommend the Government benchmark the new state pension and basic state pension at the levels relative to average full-time earnings they reach in 2020. The triple lock should then be replaced by a smoothed earnings link. In periods when earnings lag behind price inflation, an above-earnings increase should be applied to protect pensioners against a reduction in the purchasing power of their state pension. Price indexation should continue when real earnings growth resumes until the state pension reverts to its benchmark proportion of average earnings. Such a mechanism would enable pensioners to continue to share in the proceeds of economic growth, protect the state pension against inflation and ensure a firm foundation for private retirement saving. The new state pension and basic state pension it replaced would track average earnings growth in the long term. That is more fiscally sustainable and more intergenerationally fair.
Universal pensioner benefits have been deployed by successive governments for reasons of short term expediency. Such measures, which do not tend to be subject to indexation, lead to ill-targeted support, further complicate the benefits system and are politically and administratively far harder to put right than to introduce in the first place. The Winter Fuel Payment is one such example. There is no case for future governments to contemplate any increase in the value or range of universal pensioner benefits. They should also not be off limits when spending priorities are set in future Parliaments.
There is a dearth of reliable and comprehensive information about the intergenerational distribution of public and private resources. Greater awareness of the intergenerational implications of decisions would make for better informed policy. We recommend the Government make available the necessary information and resources to enable updated research estimating the balance of fiscal contributions and withdrawals by different generations over their entire lifetimes to be carried out.
The intergenerational fairness debate should not be conducted in divisive or adversarial terms. Each generation cares deeply about their children, parents and grandparents alike. It is not the fault of baby boomers that the economy, or certain asset prices, have become skewed in their favour. But the absence of fault does not obviate the need for policy action. The recommendations in this report are intended to strengthen the implicit contract between generations that is at the heart of our society.
4 November 2016