17 October 2011

Perhaps Willetts Has Only Got One Brain

demography, n. That branch of anthropology which deals with the life-conditions of communities of people, as shown by statistics of births, deaths, diseases, etc. [Oxford English Dictionary]

David Willetts is a British Conservative politician who currently holds the post of Minister of State for Universities and Science. He attends the Coalition Cabinet and would probably have been given a higher-ranking post if the Tories had achieved an overall majority at the 2010 election. Wikipedia states:
Due to his careful intellectual approach, ties to academia, his unusually policy-heavy background and his high hairline, he has acquired the nickname "Two Brains”
for which the Guardian’s Michael White claims credit. In February 2010, Willetts’ book, The Pinch, was published, and, after a last-minute delay, appeared in May as a paperback and supplemented with an Afterword. Given the subtitle, How the baby boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back, I was expecting to find it uncomfortable reading (yes, I am one by Willetts’ reckoning, see below). But to my surprise, given the credentials of its author, I also found it to be flawed and I will try to explain why (page references are to the paperback edition).
Willett’s thesis is given in the Introduction:
The boomers, roughly those born between 1945 and 1965, have done and continue to do some great things but now the bills are coming in; and it is the younger generation who will pay them. We have a good idea of what at least some of these future costs are - the cost of climate change, the cost of investing in the infrastructure our economy will need if we are to prosper, the cost of paying pensions when the big boomer cohort retires, on top of the cost of servicing the debt the government has built up. The charge is that the boomers have been guilty of a monumental failure to protect the interests of future generations. (page xv)
and the book then consists of a tour of modern Britain, guided by the author’s well-furnished mind, seeking to justify his proposition.

Some of it undoubtedly is thought-provoking. For example, Chapter 9, Time for Childhood, reveals a deplorable neglect of their teenage children by British parents. The microeconomics of the housing market with regard to Eastern European immigrants is explained very clearly (page 225 et seq), and David Aaronovitch’s recent article in The Times (£) in defence of immigration would have benefited from giving it some consideration. Willetts also makes some interesting points (pages 206-208) about the consequences of the expansion of participation in higher education by middle-class females, one of which is a negative impact on overall social mobility. (The extent to which the female majority of university graduates will have repaid their student loans after 30 years is not an issue the Universities Minister seems to address).

But there are also some meanderings. Chapter 1, Who We Are, is an essay about the British family and the British political tradition:
I believe this great tradition can be revitalized and renewed by enriching it with the insights of the Cambridge school of family history whose leading thinkers such as Peter Laslett and Alan Macfarlane offer a serious and empirically grounded account of our social structure, focusing on our nuclear families. It shows what is distinctive about England: it is our family structure which is the key. (page 22)
all supported by statistics about land transactions in Leighton Buzzard 1464 to 1508, and the like. Fascinating stuff, but perhaps of limited relevance to modern Britain, where 11.6% of the resident population in 2010 was born overseas - a third of the population in London. One gets the feeling that, if in doubt, Willetts does not care to leave it out. Chapter 7, Why Bother About the Future, cites Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Human Mind, William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population, Moore’s Law, Nicholas Stern and Margaret Thatcher in its first four pages (135-138). The preceding Chapter 6, Ages and Stages, had made more of a concession to lesser intellects, with references to Absolutely Fabulous, The Simpsons, Sex in the City, and Friends, and for readers, Lord of the Flies.

But where are the flaws? In my view, these stem principally from Willett’s interpretation of British 20th century demography:
… not many people were born in the 1930s. … Then, in the 1940s, contrary to all the official forecasts, the baby boom got underway. The first surge had already started during the War, with births rising from the early 1940s to reach an exceptional peak of more than one million in 1947. Four key factors led to this dramatic rise in fertility rates. First, after the low fertility of the 1930s, women faced the choice of either not having children at all or getting on with it even in the unpropitious circumstances of the War. Think of the decline and surges in birth rates as like someone playing an accordion. Births can be low and spread out as people put off having children, but then births get compressed together in a few years. Second, high wartime employment for women (as well as men) provided financial security that encouraged more children. Third, the Second World War saw a sudden and enormous increase in government-funded local authority nurseries on a scale not to be seen again for at least fifty years. Fourth, there was a direct financial incentive as a soldier's pay was increased if he had children. Britain had a pro-natalist policy, without even realizing it. After the first baby boom there was then a modest decline during the early 1950s before the baby boom reached a second peak in 1964 and 1965, declining steadily over the next decade. These twin peaks are very different from the American post-War baby boom which grew steadily to one sustained high plateau in 1957-61. (pages 37,38)
Being a techie I found this description of demography without a graph (or chart) slightly disconcerting. But charts then are not really Willetts’ style, as for example when making a very significant point about social mobility on page 201/202:
… Imagine two curves with the performance of the high-ability low-income child declining over time while the performance of the low-ability high-income child improves. The two curves cross over long before the age of 11: bright children from modest backgrounds have already fallen behind less intelligent children from more affluent social economic backgrounds.
rather than “Imagine two curves”, wouldn’t it have been better to plot them?

However, in the paperback Afterword, when Willetts returns to defining the baby boom, this time there is a graph to support the demography:.
… There is [, however,] no authoritative definition of baby boomers, but neither is it just a transient cultural label. It rests on incontestable demographic facts and serious analysis of what happens to an economy after a surge in the birth rate. And now I can correct a very serious omission from the book - a chart showing the number of births in the UK since the 1930s ('Baby Boom and Bust', p.271). This chart is probably the single most valuable data set in understanding our post-war economic and social history. You can see the youthful turbulence of the 1960s comes from that first surge in the birth rate after 1945. There is a second peak, too, that lead [sic] to a second and rather more hard-edged surge of youthful turbulence with the poll tax riots and raves. There is a dip between these two peaks of the birth rate in 1947 and 1964, but it is not a deep dip. Indeed, for the twenty years after World War Two, the crude birth rate - literally the number of babies born in the UK - never fell below 800,000 per year. Since then it has never reached that level. That was the baby boom: if you were born then, you are a baby boomer. (pages 266, 267).
To me, two peaks with a dip do not constitute a sustained boom. A different chart, and one which would have been readily available to Willetts, was provided in a Research Paper published in 1999 by the House of Commons Library, A Century of Change: Trends in UK statistics since 1900.

This tells a rather different story of British 20th century demography. The two World Wars were both followed by short sharp surges in live births soon after demobilisation of the men who had been conscripted to fight. The children born after the First World War in the 1920 surge were, as it turned out, destined to fight in the Second. Then, after victory in 1945, those who survived were able to return home to start their own families. Thankfully, those who were born in that second 1946/1947 surge never had to be conscripted and were able to spread their family-building over a longer period, but nonetheless the concentration was enough to cause a further bump in the birth rate in the 1960s.

To underline this interpretation, the next pair of charts show the numbers of men and women being demobilised from the Armed Forces in 1945 and 1946, and births in England and Wales in the final years of that decade. That there was a lag of about three quarters (nine months!) between demobilisation and maternal deliveries shouldn’t come as a surprise. Probably nor should the drop in births in the last two quarters of 1945. This reflected the lower number of young males present in the UK after D Day in June 1944!

The UK experience was not the same as that of the United States which did have a sustained “baby boom”. This also started with a higher birth rate after GI demobilisation, but then continued more or less unabated through to the 1960s, as can be seen in the chart below.

Having committed himself to the notion of US-style ‘baby boomers’ here, Willetts starts hammering US square facts into round UK holes, for example:
[The UK] sent soldiers to Korea and stayed out of Vietnam. But Vietnam happened during the formative years of the baby boomers and so casts a far longer shadow than Korea, which was only a decade earlier, and actually saw British soldiers fighting and dying. (page 61)
Certainly, and deplorably, in the UK Korea is largely a forgotten war (though not in Gloucestershire, SW England), but Vietnam surely casts very little shadow except as a US import in the form of films and music. Ironically, the most frequent reference to Vietnam in recent years has been as a foreign policy counterpoint to the UK’s involvement with the US in the Iraq war.

Willetts is also convinced that “our culture is weighted towards the baby boomers” and takes pop music as an example, again relying on the US experience to support his argument:
Albums from the boomers' adolescence do extremely well, even on a demographically adjusted basis. … big cohorts enjoy far deeper musical markets with much greater diversity than do their colleagues in other cohorts. As a consequence, a big cohort may actually deliver a genuine improvement in performance that is more than proportionate to its size. So the baby boomers did have something special going for them and this may have magnified their cultural impact. Another survey, on the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock in 2009, shows how the boomers' musical tastes have spread to other generations of Americans. The great bands of the sixties have an extraordinarily wide appeal - the Beatles in particular are in the top four of most popular musical performers for every age group, with the Rolling Stones not far behind. (page 62)
Of course, the Beatles, born 1940 to 1943, and the Stones members in their 1965 heyday, born 1936 to 1943, all arrived well before the end of the Second World War. (The only Rolling Stone born after the war is Ronnie Wood (b 1947), who joined in 1975).

In bolstering his argument, Willetts leaves no stone unturned, for example on page 129:
The two most violent riots in post-War London were the Grosvenor Square riots of 1968 and the Brixton and Broadwater Farm riots of 1985. They occurred around twenty years after each of the post-War baby boom peaks.
This ignores the four days of vicious rioting in London’s Notting Hill in 1958, and as the charts above show, the UK birth rate in the late 1930s was low. The August 2011 riots, (which obviously were after the publication of The Pinch) could be argued as evidence supporting Willett’s theory, given the small birth peak circa 1990, but alternative, and possibly more convincing, explanations may emerge.

I suspect Willetts’ reluctance to use charts stems, despite his think tank credentials, from a deeper disinclination towards numeracy. For example, his interpretation of Table 1 on page 72 is doubtful:
The table shows half of all wealth in owner-occupied housing, £1,030bn, belongs to the baby boomers and only about £330bn or 15 per cent to everyone aged under 44. A separate analysis using different data estimates total net housing wealth in 2009 at £2.9tn. Of this only £550bn belonged to the under 50s, and £2,350bn belonged to the over-50s of which £1,300bn belonged to those aged between 50 and pension age. This is stark evidence of the concentration of housing wealth in the hands of the over-50s, particularly the boomers.
Ignoring the way he has chosen to mix trillions and billions (sums which now seem small beer in comparison with bank and euro bailouts), there are some obvious flaws in this argument, based as it is on Net wealth. Firstly, there is no data on the numbers of people in each age group, but surely there are many more over 65s than in each of the three ten-year groups? Secondly, the variation in the Gross wealth in the groups above 35 isn’t great, but the older groups have smaller Mortgages outstanding – what a surprise! As an insight this ranks with the apocryphal sociological finding that “taller men wear longer trousers”.

If nothing else, the presence of a minor error concerning something insignificant serves as a reminder of the need to keep a critical eye on all material purporting to be factual (including this blog). Game theory is introduced encouragingly on page 86:
Game theory has suffered from some terrible PR. Two geniuses of game theory star in famous films. The inventor of game theory, John von Neuman, was the model for Dr Strangelove, acted by Peter Sellers as a mad Nazi who can barely restrain his arm's indiscriminate urge to give a Hitler salute. John Nash does slightly better with Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind
Certainly von Neuman, like Edward Teller and Werner von Braun, has been seen as part of the inspiration for Dr Strangelove (who came in the film from the BLAND Corporation), but if he was modelled on anyone it was probably Herman Kahn (from RAND, the archetypal think tank). Realistically, Strangelove was a composite caricature and owed much to Sellers’ own inspiration.

So, what of Willetts’ original indictment? Firstly, the idea of a British “baby boom” is flawed. But there was a demographic phenomenon which used to be called “the post-war bulge”, particularly at the time when its members were moving as a cohort through the educational system. In the late 1950s the UK was still in the selective tripartite era when so much hinged on performance in the 11+ examinations. There would almost certainly have been much more competition in the late 1950s for places in the type of elite direct grant school which Willetts attended, than in the 1960s for children a few years younger.

But apart from having made an inappropriate analogy with the US, is the substance of his argument valid – have we taken our children’s future? When attempting to answer this, it helps to bear in mind what are probably the only two certainties of human existence. Firstly, none of us had any say as to the time and place into which we are born. Secondly, we will die. “We brought nothing into this world, neither may we carry anything out of this world”, as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer puts it.

Many of us born in Britain in the post-War years are well-aware of the relatively easy time we have had, at least up until the present, by comparison with our elders. Perhaps the most luckless group in British history were those born between 1890 and 1900, so many of the men dying or injured in the trenches, so many of the women then deprived of husbands and children. The men and women born between 1915 and 1925 had to fight in, or endure at home, a second World War. By comparison we have been very lucky. We certainly didn’t invent the final salary pension systems some of us joined, but they were there. And those of us lucky enough to be able to buy houses (with big mortgages at high interest rates) did so to get a roof over our heads, not in expectation of the enormous house price inflation which we were to benefit from. But we were just borne along on the tide of our times, and luckily for us, so far it has not been particularly turbulent. The 11+, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the three-day week were minor tribulations by comparison with the blitz and Dunkirk, and IRA terrorism and the Falklands campaign were insignificant (although people I knew died as a consequence) in comparison with the Somme and D Day.

But are the forces which are likely to shape the destiny of future generations of our making – Islamic fundamentalism, globalisation, deindustrialisation in the Western economies, the rise of China, India and other new powers? – Hardly. Climate change (one of the bills to be paid which Willetts blames on the baby boomers), if it is man-made, is being driven by the rising living standards of hundreds of millions of people in these countries, not by the past consumption of the million or so born post-War in the UK. Even so, Willetts is wrong to suggest that we are indifferent to the interests of our descendants, as recent UK political history clearly shows. Alistair Darling in Back from the Brink, an account of his 1000 days as Chancellor of the Exchequer up to April 2010, devotes the second chapter to The Election that Never Was in 2007:
When we arrived in Bournemouth [for the Labour party annual conference], it was clear that the pro-election faction in the Brown circle was in the ascendancy. The atmosphere was febrile. By the Wednesday of the conference journalists were being briefed, anonymously of course, that there would be an election. Then there were angry and rebarbative denials. Having spoken to Gordon, I didn't think that there would be an election. The problem was that the spin machine was allowed to run out of control and fed the story.
… The Tories, who had had a bad summer trailing us in the polls, pulled off a theatrical coup at their conference the week after ours. George Osborne announced an inheritance tax break that in any other circumstances would have been seen as unaffordable, as was shown by the watered-down version they came up with following the 2010 election. … So, when it finally came, the announcement that there would be no election was a disaster. (pages 36,37)
So what exactly did Osborne offer?
When inheritance tax was first introduced it was designed to hit the very rich. But the very rich hire expensive advisers to make sure they don't pay it. Instead, thanks to Gordon Brown, this unfair tax falls increasingly on the aspirations of ordinary people. So now well over a third of homeowners in Britain have the threat of inheritance tax hanging over them. These are people who have worked all their lives. People who have saved money all their lives. People who have already paid taxes once on their income. People whose only crime in the eyes of the taxman is that instead of spending their savings on themselves, they want to pass something on to their families. People who feel the most basic human instinct of all: they aspire to a better life for their children and their grandchildren. Our Government will be on their side. The next Conservative Government will raise the Inheritance Tax threshold to £1 million. That means, we will take the family home out of inheritance tax. In a Conservative Britain, nine million families will benefit. In a Conservative Britain, only millionaires will pay death duties. In a Conservative Britain, you will not be punished for working hard and saving hard. You will not be penalised for wanting a better life for your children. [My emphasis in bold]
It was this passage, attractive both to those who ‘can’t take it with them’ and to their beneficiaries, which boosted the Tories’ poll ratings, and postponed the election. If Willetts wasn’t at the conference to hear it, he certainly knew about it and would have appreciated the appeal of the sentiments it expressed. He is also well aware that many parents, happily still in this world, are helping their children, if they are in a position to do so, and, indeed, he refers to ‘the bank of mum and dad’ ( p223). Of course, what politicians choose to deliver is rarely what they offered, and inheritance tax reform was effectively abandoned as part of the coalition agreement.

And it is as the work of a politician, that Willetts’ book is best regarded. If a government wants to redress a perceived general imbalance between different generations, particularly at a time of falling living standards, but regards easing the inheritance of assets within families as inhibiting social mobility, or too expensive, the power to do something about it is in their hands. Back in February I commented here on a paper produced by the Institute of Economic Affairs, Sharing the burden - How the older generation should suffer its share of the cuts. This assessed the savings that could be achieved by the removal of various benefits and allowances totalling £18.5bn pa. Of course, any government which implemented such a package would have to accept the electoral consequences, particularly given the greater inclination of older people to vote.

Two final points. Firstly, Willetts frets about the cost of the infrastructure that “our economy will need if we are to prosper”. Certainly, the UK, particularly by comparison with France, could be in a better state. But where did that stem from? Denis Kavanagh, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Liverpool, and co-author of The British General Election Series, has remarked:
But the Thatcher era also meant a massive under-investment in infrastructure, particularly railways, roads, schools and universities.
The UK was self-sufficient in oil during the period when Thatcher (b 1925) was Prime Minister and Nigel Lawson (b 1932) Chancellor of the Exchequer. If the proceeds of that considerable boost to the British economy should have been better used, the responsibility is hardly that of the post-war contingent. Secondly, Willetts is concerned about the “cost of paying pensions when the big boomer cohort retires”. This event has been predictable for over 60 years, and the creation of a ‘Sovereign Wealth Fund’ of the Norwegian kind during the oil-rich years could have helped cover it. Alternatively, the Second World War debt to the US may have been paid off in 2006 (page 168; guess out of whose taxes) but some of the indirect costs of the war, like the pensions of the bulge of children born after it will have to be carried for some time. Of course, if there had not been a war, and no mass conscription after 1941, their parents would still have had similarly-sized families, but not in such a short period, and not now all turning pensioners at once.

Which leads to probably the most thoughtless remark in the whole book. After quoting Adam Smith on the virtues of prudence, Willetts observes that
Modern life is full of new temptations. Our self-control is tested in a way that was not possible until Britain emerged from austerity after the War – when one of the first responses was of course a baby boom.
It’s a pity that instead of misappropriating the Americanism ‘baby boomers’ Willetts didn’t give some consideration to Tom Brakow’s ‘Greatest Generation’, meaning those who grew up in the US during the deprivation of the Great Depression, and then went on to fight in World War II. I said at the beginning of this post that by Willetts’ definition I am a ‘baby boomer’, although I prefer to think of myself as part of the ‘post-war bulge’. As it happens, both my parents were born in 1920, in the aftermath of World War I in which their fathers had fought. As a reservist my father was mobilised in September 1939, and was not demobilised until 1946, returning to his wife nearly five years after their wartime marriage. I don’t think my arrival the following year was due to a lack of ‘self-control’ on their part. It is an insult to them, and to hundreds of thousands of other couples with similar stories of wartime separation, to suggest that it was.

Fortunately, the British ‘Greatest Generation’ were a stoical lot, and rather than take offence, would probably just accept, to the tune of Colonel Bogey of course, that “Willetts Has Only Got One Brain” – like the rest of us.


The first chart above, 'Baby Boom and Bust', and the later Table came from The Pinch paperback, and the second chart came from the House of Commons Library Research Paper as cited.

In the third chart, the demobilisation data (men and women discharged from HM Armed and Auxiliary forces in 1945/46) came from Alan Allport’s website which supports his book Demobbed: Coming Home After World War Two.
Also in the third chart, the England and Wales births came from the Registrar General’s Quarterly reports as reported in The Times from 1943 to 1949 and now available on their archive website to subscribers. It was one of these reports that made the comment about the fall in the birth rate after D Day. If anyone can supply the total UK births during this period, I would be happy to replace the England and Wales data in the chart.

The US births in the fourth chart come from data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/statab/natfinal2003.annvol1_01.pdf.

The 2010 voting turnout data are reproduced from a previous post here.


  1. An excellent analysis. But I expect David Willetts will blithely ignore such criticisms, as he seems to have done in the case of a similarly penetrating critique of his higher education policies by Stefan Collini:


    On a minor - but as you note largely irrelevant - point, I believe the 1970s views of Laslett etc on the extended pre-industrial family have now been undermined: the structure of families then was pretty much as nuclear as now, with unwanted children and the aged passed on to foundling orphanages and alms houses.

    David Martin
    23 October 2011

  2. I reviewed This Pinch at Amazon, and made similar comments.

    I have also posted a number of times attempting to destroy the myth of a UK baby boom that ran from 1945 to 1965. (That was the USA, not the UK).

    I have also attacked the myth that the 1045-1956 cohort had undue political influence. For example, I posted the population graphs (from the ONS animated pyramid) for the last 6 Prime Ministers, showing that they had no reason to fear that cohort. (And I've also posted links to the party manifestos to give a glimpse of political concerns at the time).

    I'll link to your pages on this topic.

    1. Thank you for taking the trouble to comment and for placing a link to this post on your blog.

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  3. Thanks for your comment - I'm not sure what the "tips" were. Readers may or may not wish to click on the links you provide - I haven't.