Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Generational conflict, consumption and the ageing welfare state in the United Kingdom


The British welfare state is over 60 years old. Those who were born, grew up and who are now growing old within its ambit are a distinctive generation. They have enjoyed healthier childhoods with better education than previous populations living in Britain. That they have done well under the welfare state is accepted, but some critics have argued that these advantages are at the expense of younger cohorts. The very success of this ‘welfare generation’ is perceived as undermining the future viability of the welfare state, and some argue that the current levels of income and wealth enjoyed by older cohorts can only be sustained by cutbacks in entitlements for younger cohorts. This will lead to a growing ‘generational fracture’ over welfare policy. This paper challenges this position, arguing that both younger and older groups find themselves working out their circumstances in conditions determined more by the contingencies of the market than by social policy.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Paul Higgs, Division of Research Strategy, University College London, Charles Bell House, 67–73 Riding House Street, London W1W 7EY, UK. E-mail:
Hide All
Albertini M., Kohli M. and Vogel C. 2007. Intergenerational transfers of time and money in European families: common patterns, different regimes. Journal of European Social Policy, 17, 4, 319–34.
Annetts J., Law A., McNeish W. and Mooney G. 2009. Understanding Social Welfare Movements. Policy Press, Bristol, UK.
Attias-Donfut C. 2000. Cultural and economic transfers between generations: one aspect of age integration. The Gerontologist, 40, 3, 270–2.
Auerbach L., Kotlikoff L. J. and Leibfritz W. 1999. Generational Accounting Around the World. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Bauman Z. 2007. Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty. Polity, Cambridge.
Beck U. 2000. The Brave New World of Work. Polity, Cambridge.
Beck U. 2007. Beyond class and nation: reframing social inequalities in a globalizing world. British Journal of Sociology, 58, 4, 679705.
Bonin H. 2009. 15 years of pension reform in Germany: old successes and new threats. Geneva Papers on Risk and Insurance, 34, 4, 548–60.
Cahill K. E., Giandrea M. D. and Quinn M. F. 2008. A Micro-level Analysis of Recent Trends in Labour Force Participation Rates among Older Workers. Boston College Working Paper 2008-08, Center for Retirement Research, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.
Carvel J. 2007. Councils turn backs on care for older people. The Guardian, 22 November.
Chakravarty S. and Weisman C. 1988. Consuming our children. Forbes Magazine 14, 222–32.
Chauvel L. 2006. Générations sociales, perspectives de vie et soutenabilité du régime de protection sociale [Social generations: perspectives on the viability and sustainability of social protection]. In Palier B., Hall P. and Culpepper P. (eds), La France en Mutation 1980–2005 [Changing France, 1980–2005]. Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, Paris, 157–96.
Clark G. 2006. The UK occupational pension system in crisis. In Pemberton H., Thane P. and Whiteside N. (eds), Britain's Pension Crisis: History and Policy. Oxford University Press for The British Academy, Oxford, 145–68.
Costa D. 1998. The Evolution of Retirement. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Department of Health 2007. Putting People First: A Shared Vision and Commitment to the Transformation of Adult Social Care. Department of Health, London.
Disney R. 1996. Can We Afford to Grow Older? MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Esping-Andersen G. 2002. Towards the good society, once again. In Esping-Andersen G. (ed.), Why We Need a New Welfare State. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 125.
Esping-Andersen G. 2009. The Incomplete Revolution: Adapting to Women's New Roles. Polity, Cambridge.
Furlong A. and Cartmel F. 1997. Young People and Social Change: Individualization and Risk in Late Modernity. Open University Press, Buckingham, UK.
Giddens A. 1994. Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics. Polity, Cambridge.
Gilleard C. and Higgs P. 1998. Older people as users and consumers of health care: a third age rhetoric for a fourth age reality. Ageing & Society, 18, 2, 233–48.
Gilleard C. and Higgs P. 2005. Contexts of Ageing: Class, Cohort and Community. Polity, Cambridge.
Gilleard C. and Higgs P. 2009. The power of silver: age and identity politics in the 21st century. Journal of Aging and Social Policy, 21, 3, 277–95.
Gilleard C., Hyde M. and Higgs P. 2007. Communication and community in the third age: the impact of internet and cell phone use on the attachment to place in later life in England. Journal of Gerontology B: Social Sciences, 62, 4, S276–83.
Gokhale J. and Kotlikoff L. J. 1999. Generational justice and generational accounting. In Williamson J. B., Watts-Roy D. and Kingson E. R. (eds), The Generational Equity Debate. Columbia University Press, New York, 7586.
Goldthorpe J. and Mills C. 2008. Trends in intergenerational class mobility in modern Britain: evidence from national surveys, 1972–2005. National Institute Economic Review, 205, 1, 83100.
Harkin J. and Huber J. 2004. Eternal Youths: How the Babyboomers are Having their Time Again. Demos, London.
Heath A. and Payne C. 1999. 20th Century Trends in Social Mobility in Britain. CREST Working Paper 70, Department of Sociology, University of Oxford, Oxford. Available online at [Accessed 5 May 2010].
Higgs P., Hyde M., Gilleard C., Victor C., Wiggins R. and Jones I. R. 2009. From passive to active consumers? Later life consumption in the UK from 1968–2005. Sociological Review, 57, 1, 102–24.
Jones I. R., Hyde M., Victor C., Wiggins D., Gilleard C. and Higgs P. 2008. Ageing in a Consumer Society: From Passive to Active Consumption in Britain. Policy Press, Bristol, UK.
Kohli M. 1999. Private and public transfers between generations: linking the family and the state. European Societies, 1, 81104.
Kohli M. 2004. Intergenerational transfers and inheritance: a comparative view. In Silverstein M. and Schaie K. W. (eds), Annual Review of Gerontology and Geriatrics. Volume 24, Springer, New York, 266–89.
Kohli M. and Albertini M. 2009. Childlessness and inter-generational transfers: what is at stake? Ageing & Society, 29, 8, 1173–83.
Kuhnle S. 1999. Survival of the European Welfare State. ARENA Working Paper 99/19, Oslo, Norway.
Laczko F. and Phillipson C. 1991. Changing Work and Retirement. Open University Press, Buckingham, UK.
Lloyd J. 2008. Navigating the Age of Inheritance. National Care Fund Working Groups Report, International Longevity Centre, London. Available online at [Accessed 26 March 2010].
Lund B. 2004. Housing policy: coming in from the cold. In Ellison M., Bauld L. and Powell M. (eds), Social Policy Review 16. Policy Press, Bristol, UK, 1328.
Mannheim K. 1997. The problem of generation. In Hardy M. A. (ed.), Studying Aging and Social Change. Sage, London, 2265.
Moffat S. and Higgs P. 2007. Charity or entitlement? Generational habitus and the welfare state among older people in North East England. Social Policy and Administration, 41, 5, 449–64.
Musgrave R. 1986. Public Finance in a Democratic Society, ii, Fiscal Doctrine, Growth and Institutions. New York University Press, New York.
Myles J. 2002. A new social contract for the elderly? In Esping-Andersen G. (ed.), Why We Need a New Welfare State. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 130–72.
Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 2001. Ageing and Income: Financial Resources and Retirement in 9 OECD Countries. OECD, Paris.
Preston S. H. 1984. Children and the elderly: divergent paths for America's dependents. Demography, 21, 4, 435–57.
Ransome P. 2005. Work, Consumption and Culture: Affluence and Social Change in the Twenty-first Century. Sage, London.
Sefton T., Hills J. and Sutherland H. 2009. Poverty, inequality and redistribution. In Hills J., Sefton T. and Sutherland H. (eds), Towards a More Equal Society: Poverty, Inequality and Policy Since 1997. Policy Press, Bristol, UK, 2146.
Strangleman T. 2007. The nostalgia for permanence at work? The end of work and its commentators. Sociological Review, 55, 1, 81103.
Taylor-Gooby P. 2004. New risks and social change. In Taylor-Gooby P. (ed.), New Risks, New Welfare: The Transformation of the European Welfare State. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 128.
Thomson D. 1989. The welfare state and generation conflict: winners and losers. In Johnson P., Conrad C. and Thomson D. (eds), Workers Versus Pensioners: Intergenerational Justice in an Ageing World. Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK, 3356.
Turner B. S. 1989. Ageing, politics and sociological theory. British Journal of Sociology, 40, 4, 588606.
Walker A. 1990. The benefits of old age: age discrimination and social security. In McEwen E. (ed.), Age: The Unrecognised Discrimination. Age Concern England, London, 5870.
Walker A. 2002. A strategy for active ageing. International Social Security Review, 55, 1, 121–40.
Walker A. 2009. Commentary: The emergence and application of active agency in Europe. Journal of Aging and Social Policy, 21, 1, 7593.
Walker R. and Wiseman M. 2003. Making welfare work: UK activation policies under New Labour. International Social Security Review, 56, 1, 329.
Willetts D. 2010. The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took their Children's Future—and Why They Should Give it Back. Atlantic, London.
Williamson J., MacNamara T. and Howling S. 2003. Generational equity, generational interdependence, and the framing of the debate over social security reform. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 30, 3, 314.
World Bank 1994. Averting the Old Age Crisis. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
World Health Organisation (WHO) 2002. Active Ageing: A Policy Framework. WHO, Geneva.
Zinn J. 2004. Health, risk and uncertainty in the life course: a typology of biographical certainty constructions. Social Theory and Health, 2, 3, 199221.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Ageing & Society
  • ISSN: 0144-686X
  • EISSN: 1469-1779
  • URL: /core/journals/ageing-and-society
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 26
Total number of PDF views: 89 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 287 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.