Middle class families face a triple whammy
You don’t usually expect radical neo-Marxism from the International Monetary Fund – the last great bastion of capitalism, spreading the gospel about the free market to the furthest reaches of the world. And yet, hidden away in an obscure IMF report a few years back is a short sentence that explains precisely the problems that Britain, and the rest of the Western world, have been sleepwalking towards for years.
The claim made by the IMF’s Financial Stability Report in 2005, in a seemingly throwaway remark, was that households had become the financial system’s “shock absorber of last resort”. In other words, whereas in previous eras, much of the pain of recession and financial crisis was borne by businesses or governments, with families afforded some degree of protection by the pensions system or welfare state, it was now households who were far more likely to face the music.
At the time, the idea received little attention. But it has truly radical implications for economics and politics around the world. This is not merely about the financial crisis, but something more deep-seated: the way in which wealth is distributed around society. It is about the middle classes, and why they have become the biggest victims of all.
The problem is that families face a threefold threat to their prosperity. The first issue – the one that the IMF was originally focusing on – is pensions. Not so long ago, households were lucky enough to receive gold-plated pensions that would guarantee a certain pay-out upon retirement. Most companies have closed their schemes after realising they are simply unaffordable. The public sector at last looks like following suit, if the BBC’s decision this week to reduce the generosity of its pension plan is anything to go by.