The generation of poverty: Poverty over the life course for different generations

Published on Incomes and Inequality, Intergenerational Centre

Poverty is an age-old problem, but its prevalence has shifted greatly over time. As inequality grew rapidly throughout the 1980s, relative poverty grew with it, peaking at 25 per cent in the mid-1990s. At this time, poverty was the hot-topic issue. However, attention had since begun to decline as shifts in the economic and policy backdrop meant that circumstances were improving. But today, with expectations of rising child poverty, and a broader debate about inequality gaining traction, the issue has re-entered mainstream public discourse.

The Generation of Poverty – a report funded by the Nuffield Foundation – examines how poverty has changed over the course of people’s lives over the last six decades. It notes that while, on average, people have been most likely to face poverty in early childhood or late retirement, patterns of lifetime poverty have changed considerably for different generations.

  • The relative poverty rate (after housing costs) for pensioners in their late 70s rose sharply in the 1980s and early 1990s, reaching almost 45 per cent at its height for the “greatest generation” who were born between 1911 and 1925.
  • Pensioner poverty has since fallen rapidly, with relative poverty rates at age 70 more than halving to below 20 per cent for the next generation of pensioners – the “silent generation” born between 1926 and 1945.
  • The poverty rate for the post-war “baby boomer” generation who are now entering retirement has fallen to 15 per cent – the lowest on record.
  • Relative child poverty has been rising for those born over the last decade compared to their predecessors. Children born between 2016 and 2020 are facing the joint-highest rates of early years poverty in 60 years, with more than 35 per cent expected to be living in poverty at age two.
  • The “millennial generation” born between 1981 and 2000 are on course to face record rates of working-age poverty