Philip Larkin famously said life was never better than in 1963, between the end of the ban on Lady Chatterley and the first Beatles LP. The former poet laureate was wrong. As far as younger people were concerned, it was just the start of a spending boom that went on for the rest of the century.
Then things flipped around. After decades in which young people had consumed more on average than the population as a whole, since the turn of the millennium it has been the older generation who have had the spare cash to flash around. The conventional wisdom is that young people are having a tough time of things, which is why they voted overwhelmingly for Jeremy Corbyn in the general election.
This view of the world has not gone unchallenged. The millennials might not be seeing the same sort of growth in real incomes as their parents and grandparents did, but they are still having a grand old time, streaming their music on Spotify, jetting off for weekend breaks in Budapest and eating avocado on toast before heading off to the movies.
A study of consumption data stretching back to 1963, carried out by experts at Loughborough University for the Resolution Foundation, puts this theory to the test and finds it wanting. There is nothing in the evidence to suggest that the young are spendthrifts frittering away their money.
The real story is that the baby boomer generation have been on the winning side both when they were young and now that they are getting older. Young people are, by contrast, being squeezed in two ways – their incomes are not rising nearly as rapidly as was the case in the past, and more of that income is being spent on housing.
In 1963, those aged between 25 and 34 spent marginally less than 55- to 64-year-olds, but that picture changed markedly: by 1989 those aged 25-34 were spending 11% more. By 2014, they were spending 15% less.
As far as individual categories of spending are concerned, the report finds that those aged 25-34 do eat out more than those aged 55-64, but that is mainly accounted for by the fact that younger people spend less on eating in. Since 2000, the upward trend in eating out has been driven by older working-age adults. There is, says the report, little support for the idea that “avocado on toast consumption in cafes is crowding out more long-term or purposeful spending” among younger people.
Similarly, consumption of holidays by younger people has remained flat since 2000, with the strongest growth recorded by the 55-64 demographic, who enjoy more leisure trips than any other age group. The narrative that millennials are jet-setting more than their predecessors is not supported by the facts.
Nor have the older generations missed out on the consumer products made available by technological developments. Younger people spend £9 a week on their mobiles and internet services, compared with £7 a week for those aged 55-64, and the increase in spending since 2000 has been similar at all ages.
The report the 10th done for the Resolution Foundation’s intergenerational commission and contains both an economic and a political message. The economic message is that young people – especially those on low incomes – are struggling. They are cutting back and often living in grotty housing conditions.
The political message is that the different consumption patterns explain why the Conservatives only secured a majority in the election among those in their mid-40s and older.