The Rt Hon. the Lord Willetts learns from the past – and looks to the future.

Interviewed by Jo Reynolds

How long have you lived here?

Since 1987 and we're very happy here.

After growing up in Birmingham your education took you to Oxford University, where you got a First. Is your reputation for being super-smart flattering or irksome?

It gets a bit tiresome. I occasionally get asked to do radio or TV programmes about intelligence or memory, but I don't think I have any special gifts. The most I'd claim is I'm interested in ideas. I had to work hard for my degree. People underestimate the need for putting in the hours. Especially in sport, what looks like genius is in fact practice.

For a politician, the House of Lords is like methadone
for a heroin addict.

You studied PPE (philosophy, politics, economics), the degree favoured by aspiring politicians. What or who inspired you to become a politician?

Although I was interested in politics I wasn't sure at Oxford I would go into politics. I spent my twenties in the Civil Service. My first job was at the Treasury as Nigel Lawson's Private Secretary. He got me interested in politics. The second person was Margaret Thatcher when I moved to the No. 10 Policy Unit. I realised I didn't want to spend my whole career as a civil servant. I wondered, instead of being a backroom boy, can I do anything front of house? When I was 30 I resigned and became an MP.

After retiring from being MP for Havant (Hampshire, 1992–2015), you were called to the House of Lords. How is it different from the Commons?

The Lords is a fantastic political afterlife. Someone said that for a politician the House of Lords is like methadone for a heroin addict. It's one of the few posts you can take up at 60 where people say, it's great to have some fresh young talent. I'm quite selective in what I do there, things I'm interested in or where I can offer some expertise. I've just spent 7 days scrutinising the Higher Education and Research Bill. I'm in several times a week and when needed for a vote.

You're also chair the think-tank The Resolution Foundation. What do you think about and who pays you?

We have a fantastic benefactor, Sir Clive Cowdery, who made his money in insurance. His charitable foundation allows us to function. We focus on living standards and, in particular since I joined, the prospects for the younger generation and the less affluent. The Brexit vote shows that if the less affluent feel ignored we shouldn't be surprised that they lash out.

The Resolution Foundation claims pensioner households are now better off than working households. Will any government be brave enough to give such a large cohort of voters a pay cut?

With such pressures on benefits, it's hard to justify pension benefits growing more than everyone else's. Elected politicians aren't kamikaze pilots. They respond to the wider environment. I think pensioners are rather susceptible to the argument that you have to do more for your children and grandchildren so if the conversation changes, there could well be a change to the triple-lock.

Your book The Pinch is subtitled How The Baby Boomers Took Their Children's Future – And Why They Should Give It Back. Who are baby boomers and how many are there?

They are people born between 1945 and 1965, the post-war boom which includes two years, 1947 and 1964, when Britons unusually had more than a million babies per year. There are more 70th birthdays this year than any in British history. There are about 16 million baby boomers, a quarter of our population, but they own a jolly sight more than half the nation's wealth, mainly in housing and pensions. We had incredible good fortune.

How were you lucky?

Our houses were relatively inexpensive and they've shot up in value. We had a funded pension and then for 20 years governments passed laws to make them even more generous with inflation protection and rights of widows. Companies have now closed them for the next generation. And life expectancy has gone up. The point is, we baby boomers don't have all this because of some special virtue. When I went into the job market, there wasn't competition from China or Latin America. Globalisation in many ways is a good thing but younger people now are under more pressure, both from goods made cheaply abroad, or equally people who come to London and get that job in a shop, which gets in the way of the starter jobs. Overall, good fortune nationally and globally played to the advantage of baby boomers.

Being a baby boomer and a parent, were you driven to write it by guilt?

Partly. Sarah, my wife, said to me, how are our kids ever going to get on the housing ladder?

Despite money being an awkward subject, should parents discuss inheritance with their children?

Yes. You'd be surprised the number of young people who come up to me and say they gave a copy of The Pinch to their parents.

Should young people rely on the bank of Mum and Dad?

I'm not a regulated Financial Adviser, of course, but the bank of Mum and Dad is increasingly important. A lot of young people do look enviously at the wealth their parents have accumulated and need some help. One's completely torn. On one hand, helping your kids is completely natural and admirable. On the other, we don't want home ownership in the UK to end up being only hereditary – where the only way you can get your own home is if your parents own theirs and use their equity to get you started. We can't look after the next generation one family at a time, we must offer a better deal to society as a whole.

What one policy would improve the social mobility of those whose parents aren't bankers?

Building more houses in the places where people want them, which means London and the southeast. I'm encouraged when we look around here because there are more houses going up. Should retired boomers sell and downsize to free up housing?

No doubt families around here are thinking about it, but the high rate of stamp duty is a problem because it impedes the flow of transactions. We don't need bed-blockers getting in the way so it's a shame if stamp duty reduces mobility.

Your research notes that in Japan, Spain and Italy half the elderly live with their adult children whereas here it's less than 15%. Should we invite granny to move in?

England has never been a place for great extended families and multi-generational living. My mother, since my father sadly died a couple of years ago, lives alone in my former constituency. They retired down there when I became MP and she's still very happy there. You can't force it.

You think we may be better parents than we are citizens, that modern parents over-supervise their kids because they trust others so little. How do we stop worrying about stranger danger?

I'd appeal to the evidence that stranger danger is much less of a threat than people imagine. And anything that creates more relaxed and human interactions between the generations. Living round here, one of the things that Sarah and I love about Ravenscourt Park is seeing so much going on with kids being coached in football and other school sports activities. When we had our dog, a lovely golden retriever, the park offered a complete social network of people walking their dogs. The more relaxed we can be about that sort of intercommunication, the better.

While doting on the young, you fear we're abandoning teenagers, 'screenagers' hidden behind screens, desperate for life lessons. What's lesson one?

One of the most important ways that school matters is that in choosing your child's school you're choosing their peer group. When you choose their school you're choosing their influences.

What career advice did you give your children as teens?

My advice wasn’t massively successful, but they found their own way. One of the great problems in English education is specialising so early. Despite my objections to specialisation, my daughter followed arts and my son the sciences.

As Minister for Universities and Science why couldn't you change that?

It goes back to the power of universities looking for people who already have prior knowledge of the subjects they apply for. If I may give a plug, my next book deals with a university education.

Your family were craftsmen, gun-barrel makers, glaziers and silversmiths. What's stopping useful apprenticeships now?

It's a long and complicated story but to put it in short order, flexible labour markets like ours and the US don't lend themselves to many apprenticeships other than in long-standing manufacturing industries. Germany is completely different with much more manufacturing. Also, tying yourself to one firm may not be wise. Would it be smart for a young person to tie themselves to being a steelworker at Tata? Is it a good move to be an apprentice automotive engineer in one of the General Motors factories that's just done a deal with Peugeot?

As London is now largely a service economy, how do young people learn the soft skills required for dealing with customers?

We can't expect schools to do it all for us. There's sometimes this pressure for schools and colleges to produce oven-ready workers despite no one having given them a first job. We've got to be realistic. Any kind of job in the service sector, helping out in a pub or shop, gives you those social skills. I appreciate that it's more of a challenge for the younger generation. The Resolution Foundation has found that real wages for workers in their 20s today are no higher than they were 10 years ago. It's partly the decline in the Saturday morning job, those first steps into the jobs market, delivering the papers and helping out on a Saturday morning. And then it looks as if moving on from job to job has also got harder, but the old advice to get a job, any job, is still the best advice.

In all your research, what facts or figures most surprised you?

I wrestled with why migrant workers come to places with the highest house prices.

You'd expect them to go where rents were lowest, but I realised that, as we could see here from Polish au pairs and builders, they're living in more cramped accommodation than Brits will accept. If you have four Australians working in a pub who sleep in bunk beds, the higher the rent goes, the more they can stick at it – if they're just here for a year or two.

What's the best way to get a starter job now?

Although everyone doesn't go to university, a degree is a better preparation and gives you a wider set of conceptual skills that will serve you through a changing labour market.

You've said the sheer dynamism of science and technology is the best single hope we have. What life-changing invention do you hope to see in your lifetime?

Clearly the driverless car is on its way. And I expect we'll see the Star Trek diagnostic device where they point something at you and work out what you've got.

How do you relax?

My wife Sarah is an artist and I like to be her assistant, carrying anything that needs carrying.

Thank you, David, it's been a real pleasure to meet you.

Lord Willetts lectures about baby boomers at 8pm on Wed 26 April at The Upper Room, St Saviour's Church, Cobbold Rd, W12. Admission FREE (Prebooking advised)

His wife Sarah (Butterfield) exhibits her paintings from 29 March – 11 April at the D Contemporary Gallery, 23 Grafton Street, W1.

Interviewed Feb 2017

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