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Page last updated at 12:31 GMT, Monday, 29 March 2010 13:31 UK

Did the over-45s ruin life for the rest of us?

Portly man
Bloated tum and bum - that's the boomer generation

By Neil Boorman

The richest, most powerful generation that ever lived is embarking on a comfortable retirement. But why does it feel like they've pulled up the ladder with them?

The demographic model of the UK population looks like the side profile of a middle-aged man stuffed into a pair of drainpipe jeans - scrawny at the top and the bottom, with a muffin top in the middle. The skinny chest is the "Silent Generation", born before 1946.

The weedy legs at the bottom are Generations X and Y, the people born after 1964. And the bloated tum and bum in the middle represents the baby boomers, the population explosion that began after World War II.

Baby boomers don't dominate the country in size alone; living through various employment and house price booms, they are the richest and most powerful generation that ever lived.

Generation born from 1945/6 - early 1960s
These years saw a sharp increase in birth rate in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Western Europe
Targeted by marketers from the beginning - 40s/50s baby equipment and toys; 50s/60s cars and records; 80s technology
Last boomer is predicted to survive until about 2070
Sources: Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology, Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia

They account for 70% of MPs in Parliament, they populate the chairs of company boardrooms, and they head up the majority of the country's civil and cultural institutions. Boomers, to put it simply, run the country.

It's not surprising then, that fingers are starting to point at boomers in the aftermath of the Credit Crunch, Copenhagen and the MP expenses scandal. After all, it all happened on their watch.

As the first wave of baby boomers approach retirement age - it's 65 years since the first were born, in 1945 - the bill for clearing up these disasters will be paid by their children. The charge from an increasing number of commentators, politicians and pressure groups, not to mention young people themselves, is that baby boomers mortgaged their children's future for their own short-term benefit. Comparing the lifestyles of these generations, it's hard to disagree.

Baby boomers collectively own close to £500bn of the UK's assets, which is four-fifths of the entire nation's wealth. They've turned into micro banks, loaning sometimes huge sums to their children each year. The majority of boomer wealth comes from the sale of houses. As first time buyers in the early 70s, they would have borrowed three times their annual income to purchase a two-up-two-down for £60,000 in today's money. They're selling them on for £160,000 in 2010. Young adults need to borrow 6.5 times their salary to afford those prices.

Pollution boom

For many young adults, mortgages and pensions are unrealistic aspirations as they sink into debt just trying to keep up with the basics. On average, young people owe £9,016 in personal debts and that's excluding mortgages or their share of the national debt, which is currently £2.2 trillion.

Young people in the 1960s
Already enjoying the fruits of free education and near full employment

As young adults, baby boomers had a fantastic start in life, with free education, paid apprenticeships and work contracts that lasted an average of 10.4 years. Today's youngsters become adults with an average of £20,000 in student debt and struggle to find jobs that last an average of 15 months.

Undergraduate Lauren Cambridge is one of many who feel they've turned up to the party of ever-improving living standards, only to find it over.

"I'm in my first year at Uni, and already I'm in debt - my parents are quite poor, so I get money loaned to me for tuition fees and living costs by the government," she says.

"But after the interest, I'll end up owing 40 grand when I graduate. I try to be optimistic about it and push it to the back of my mind but I know this degree probably isn't worth the money. I don't know anybody that isn't in debt in some way or another. I've just got to hope that my degree gets me a good job so I can pay it off."

But the greatest consequence, according to the environmental movement at least, is a legacy that cannot easily be quantified.

"The same generation which let the economic system collapse, is now knowingly setting us on another disastrous course towards ecological collapse" says 24-year-old Greenpeace campaigner Joss Garman. "The baby-boomers have failed to take action to cut carbon pollution. Our parents' generation will be remembered for having left it up to us to deal with the climate crisis."

'Self-entitled whingers'

Of course while boomers may control most of the country's wealth, money isn't everything. It would be unfair to say quality of life has nosedived for younger people. In some areas, it has certainly improved.

Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain - posterboy for the follow on Generation X

Today's flexible workplace allows people to try new skills and professions. Equal rights in terms of sex, race and maternity have transformed working life. And while higher education may have a hefty price tag these days, access to it is wider than before, according to Calum MacKenzie, associate dean of the University Of Creative Arts.

"It might not be free any more," says Mr MacKenzie, "but education is much less a middle-class pursuit. Thirty-five per cent go to university now as opposed to 5% in my day.

"We were more relaxed in the 70s," he says. "We felt comfortable leaving university and living in a squat. I sometimes wonder if today's students are tough enough to cope with real life; we didn't consume all the cars and clothes that they have now."

A recent study concluded that those born in the late 1980s expect to "have their cake and eat it", encouraging one newspaper to label Gen Y as "self-entitled whingers". But not all boomers are so defensive. Life, according to Graham Andrews of the boomer forum, is more informal now, but the greater divide between rich and poor cancels it out.

"Baby boomers didn't set out to make the next generation foot the bill," says Mr Andrews. "but I don't see a willingness from boomers to do anything about it either."

Neil Boorman is the author of It's All Their Fault.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I think Mr MacKenzie is being a little unfair with the suggestion that his generation was happy living in a squat while generation Y is not. For one thing, there are very few buildings available for squatting in now. Property laws were tightened in the 1980s to make squatters easier to evict. Councils were forced to sell off council housing, but could not build more houses with the raised money, contributing to the current affordable housing shortage. Slightly later, the assured shorthold tenancy came in, which reduced tenants' rights; I would suggest that some private rented student (and post-student) accommodation I have seen is little better than squat-quality, but the tenant can be quickly evicted if they do not pay rent for the privilege. These changes to the law, of course, benefit landlords, most of whom are from the baby boomer generation, and 1980s council rates payers (ditto).
Ben, Hitchin

So the baby boomers were allowed to smoke pot, take LSD and have full employment. Whereas we are not allowed to smoke pot, not allowed to take LSD and have no jobs. There used to be a time when elders quite rightly deserved the respect of youngsters, but in the UK, that time has clearly passed.
Brian Willmer, Taunton

Yes, my generation has to accept responsibility for todays culture, I agree that there has been too much short term greed and I wonder how and why this has come about considering the anti-war and "hippie" values most of us were influenced by. I believe our biggest "crime" has been to allow the wholesale integration of American culture into our lives and that we are now seeing the worst aspects in the behaviour of the generations that have followed.
Kim Sherrington, Bristol, England

My parents are part of the early boomers - yes their house was worth more but their pensions certainly were not as that generation was encouraged to believe that the state pension would cover it. They have had to sell their house to fund their retirement and are now renting.
Katharine , Liverpool

Oh, how very true. The boomers are all starting to retire and downsize now. They are the ones demanding extortionate prices for their homes so keeping house prices high in order to pay off their mortgages and buy their retirement pad outright. Generation X and Y will never be in that situation and will continually experience a life of debt.
Ed, Taunton

I'm sure there are many school children with basic history knowledge who could name many other generations of humans who have "ruined" life for those following them. In the time we have spent moaning about it we could have made some progress fixing the situation. Stop complaining, and get on with it. Blame is our own generations fault.
Christopher Wood, Woking, Surrey, UK

Each generation leaves its decendents with a disastrous legacy in some form or another. The health of the working class population of South Wales is still suffering from the greed of the 19th and 20th century coal and iron masters. Yet their suffering and foresight gave Aneurin Bevan the concept of free health care at the point of delivery - the NHS. Despite its problems, I have seen it at its best and at its worst, I would not like to be without it.
Stephen, Wales

This is exactly the problem my generation (18-24 year olds) face! We grow up into an economy and society shaped to be beneficial for those in seats of power, and those in power have little or no regard for the people. Everything is about personal gain. MPs will break the rules for personal gain, but when do you hear of MPs breaking the rules while trying to benefit the people?
Conor, Hessle, East Yorks

A lot of old tosh! Just an excuse to produce some cod-journalism not based on any facts but just written to paste an entire "generation" with the same brush. I was born at the end of the boom - mid 60s and find myself struggling to bring up a family - It's about power and wealth and the establishment, not about age. I bet those born immediately after the war had the same moans about their parent's generation.
Tony Privitera, Worcester

Yes - the baby boomers generation have been very lucky on the whole, while my generation (I'm 23) perhaps haven't or won't have some of the advantages they had. In terms of standards of living though I think we're still streets ahead of any previous generation. If I had the choice, I think I'll stick with my £20,000 of debt.
Ann, London

I feel very fortunate to have been born in the middle of the 20th century. A working class girl brought up on free milk, NHS care, a grammar school education and free higher education, I fully appreciate all my advantages. Also as a child I could play outside, go for miles on my bike and wander into neighbours' houses without fear of molestation. I certainly do not take any of this for granted.
Linda Clark, Durham

The upside is, when baby boomer mum and dad pop off, guess who gets all the lovely lolly! Don't forget a lot of what made the boomers tick was that their parents were the returning soldiers, sailors and airmen who managed to survive WWII and who just wanted to create a better life for their kids. Stop moaning and thank your lucky stars that you don't have to go off and do battle.
Meg, Toronto Canada

I was born in 1989 and yes I cannot afford a mortgage or a car however I get on with life I have a job and I'm working my way up the ladder. Yet many of my generation do expect to "have their cake and eat it". They have been bought everything by their parents, yet as soon as they leave the nest they can't hack university or work and quit. The amount of my friends that have left university or work because it is hard is ridiculous. The problem is the Baby boomers have created a generation of work shy kids, who instead of getting on with it moan they don't like working!
James, Hornsea

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