Young carry the can for elderly in recessionary squeeze

Analysis: Seniors got more from the boom and have given less back as belts tightened in the bust


Even in the direst shanty town and favella in the developing world, kids are to be seen running about, smiling and laughing. But among the few who make it to old age in those wretched places, outward signs of happiness or joy are rarely observed. The aged are, more often than not, fearful and cowed – if this writer’s experience of those terrible places is anything to go by.

When it comes to quotidian scenes of human misery in our world, there are few sights more awful than an impoverished old person.

It follows that, of the many real and lasting achievements of the Celtic Tiger era, none has been greater than the near eradication of old age poverty. Fewer than one in 50 over-64s were in what statisticians call “consistent poverty” in 2011. Although the proportion of seniors in such dire straits did register a marked increase in the year to 2011, it was still half of the rate in 2004.

Moreover, almost every other indicator of hardship shows that the big declines in old age misery achieved during the good times have been maintained despite the huge economic shock suffered.

That was the good news in yesterday’s survey data. But the figures also raise – yet again – serious issues of intergenerational equity. In short, senior citizens did much better than the rest from the boom and have taken much less pain during the bust.

Start with incomes. In cash terms, the over 64s in 2011 enjoyed average incomes 41 per cent above 2004 levels. For younger adults, the increase over the same period was a fraction of that, at just 11 per cent.

Given that inflation rose by 13 per cent in the seven years to 2011 (it rose by more up to 2008, but then fell as a result of the recession) the average adult under 65 suffered falls in real incomes over the period. By contrast, even when adjusted for the effects of inflation, seniors were a full 28 per cent better off, on average, in the seven years to 2011.

This seems all the more iniquitous given that almost two thirds of the incomes of over 64s came from social transfers, which are paid mostly by those under that age.

Returning to the consistent poverty measure – the most serious and comprehensive measure of deprivation and insecurity – children (those aged under 18) were five times more likely to be in this state than the elderly. And that figure hardly changed over the seven years.

With almost one in 10 children in consistent poverty compared to fewer than one in 50 of the elderly, it is surely time to consider how the State’s annual spend of €29 billion in social transfers is divvied out.

If there is any debate, the lobbyists for the elderly will, no doubt, do what they are paid to do and take to the airwaves claiming this mitigating circumstance and that exceptional issue. But there is no getting away from it: seniors got more from the boom and have given less back as belts have tightened during the bust.

If society is content with that situation, then so be it, but let’s not pretend that it is otherwise.

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