A Flawed View of Generational Struggle

Posted on October 21, 2011

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The Intergenerational Foundation, a Think-tank that ‘promote(s) fairness between generations’, has just launched a press release headed 25 Million Unoccupied Bedrooms. It claims that ‘each generation should pay its own way’, and that ‘British policy-makers have given undue advantages to the older generation at the expense of younger and future generations’.

The press release promotes a report the Foundation has just published: Hoarding of Housing: The Intergenerational Crisis in the Housing Market. This recommends that policy makers use the tax system, by exemptions from Stamp Duty for those over the age of sixty and replacement of the council tax with a land tax, to encourage what the report styles the ‘downsizing process’. Whilst the Foundation has not actually proposed any forced moving of the elderly out of their homes, its approach to remedying the housing shortage is still worrying.

Karl Marx is well-known for viewing society, historical and contemporary, through the prism of class-war. In the Communist Manifesto he wrote, ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’. The Intergenerational Foundation – admittedly replacing class with generation group –seems to be assuming a not dissimilar outlook.

The viewpoint has manifest flaws, notably in its circumscribing of the perfection and telos of man within a materialistic framework. Such limits have already been well articulated in numerous responses to Communism. It is also of serious concern that the home should be regarded in merely utilitarian terms, and that society is viewed, as so often today, largely on a nationwide rather than a local scale.

A home can be legitimately – with all due safeguards – considered a ‘human right’. The well-balanced person normally has a suitable place to call ‘home’. Scale alone cannot define appropriateness, for, as has previously been argued in this blog, the quality of the locale in which it is situated also counts for much. Essential to the well-being promoted by ‘home’ is a sense of permanence. Of course, it can be countered that there are, and certainly have been in the past, many who live and prosper in a nomadic way of life. They, however, have their own ‘permanence’ in the peculiar arrangements they put in place for a life of continual, if punctuated, travelling.

A home, therefore, is not simply the utilitarian good of a place in which to live. It is rather where we put down roots and anchor our life in this world. That is surely not to be considered forsaken when children leave that home to form their own, or when an unmarried person inherits a home from parents. The physical building continues to sustain rooted well-being, until a reasoned decision is taken to transfer elsewhere.

Society is experienced and lived locally, and hence the sense of neighbourhood is vital. Without rootedness and a – relative – sense of permanence this is difficult to achieve. Any attempt made to shift people about, whether by force or incentive, undermines this sense of ‘belonging’. The outcome will be that rootless and atomic individuals will not involve themselves in local society.

The Intergenerational Foundation’s report does indeed recognise such good reasons for persons not moving:

‘Home’ is more than an economic good. It has significant personal and cultural resonances, particularly if one has raised a family in a space that has come to mean a great deal. ‘Memories’, the space for grandchildren to visit, remaining in one’s local community and the desire to keep a garden may all exert a powerful set of reasons for not downsizing.

It does not, however, adequately address such reasons and objections to moving. Rather, it chooses to view housing and the home as a consumer product, an object of mere utility – one used and afterwards discarded. The rooted person is not at the heart of their thinking. That is the fundamental reason why the report, Hoarding of Housing, is so flawed.

‘Photo by Chalmers Butterfield.’

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