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doug saunders

Royal babies are not like other babies. They get a bit more attention, to put it mildly. And they're pressed into service, even before birth, as metaphors for the state of their nation.

It's too tempting to resist: The United Kingdom is increasingly a country whose babies are either royal or are royally shafted. What is more British than a baby who is wealthy from birth, guaranteed a job, a house, a university placement and a future, entirely because of its surname?

Chris Giles, the economics editor of the Financial Times, makes that point starkly in his analysis of Britain's increasingly divided outcomes.

"This baby will not enjoy a much better diet, education or healthcare than the 730,000 or so other children born in the UK this year," he writes. "It is also likely to have a similar outlook to most residents. But the harsh fact is that, in a constitutional monarchy, this baby's future is entirely mapped out by the lottery of its lineage. A similar story applies to the other babies popping out around the country. Being born to the right grandparents is more important now than it has been for decades."

This is not because Britain is becoming more unequal in earnings: In fact, it has fared better than many Western countries in this respect, with income inequality remaining largely unchanged despite a troubled economy. Rather, the difference in Britain comes down almost entirely to real estate: House prices are so astronomically high – in part because the middle classes of southern Europe and the BRICS countries have decided that buying UK property is a safer investment than anything offered by their banks – that one's entire life is often determined by the family ownership of real estate.

And the situation appears to be getting worse. On Monday, the National Housing Federation predicted that a "jilted generation" of almost four million British adults "will not have moved out of their parents' homes by 2020, as property prices and rents will be increasingly unaffordable.

In fact, Prime Minister David Cameron's new government program to make it easier for young people to buy houses appears poised to backfire, by driving up prices even further and potentially creating yet another house-price bubble.

This alone has been enough to reverse a generation of progress in social equality. In the 1990s, it was far easier for a Briton on the lower fifth of the wealth spectrum to rise into the middle than it is today, John Hills of the London School of Economics notes. The necessity to save for many more years in order to buy a house has increased the inequality of wealth – thus rendering royal babies rather more typical of the British system than they were two generations ago.

"The importance of having the right grandparents," Mr. Giles writes, "stems from the rise in real house prices. If your elderly relatives are property owners, you can reasonably hope to benefit from a huge leg-up just when you are thinking of settling down because your parents are likely to pass the money down a generation. Education, hard work and getting a good job are less important than having the right ancestors."

Hard work alone is increasingly fruitless in a British economy that appears stalled. Behind the property boom is a lack of any other source of economic optimism. As The Economist noted this month, the recovery of the British economy from recession is built almost entirely on private-sector debt and government consumption, with shockingly little investment taking place in either the private or public sectors, real wages plummeting and debt rising fast. If you don't own a chunk of land, there's little other way to earn a living.

"After almost a century of gradual social progress and narrowing of wealth and opportunity gaps, Britain is slowly recreating a rentier society, where a family's property ownership matters more than anything else," Mr. Giles concludes. "I want the royal baby to remain an anachronism. The fact that its future is not so different from lots of other little princes and princesses who will be able to lord it over their less fortunate peers points to a profoundly dystopian vision of Britain's future."

Then again, the baby might itself seems to have become part of that economy: One retail analyst this week concluded, using some rather exuberant multipliers, that the birth of the baby and its attendant excitement will inject £243-million ($385-million) into the British economy. Never mind a rentier economy, this seems to foretell the creation of what used to be called a tribute economy, when the ascent of kings and queens was literally the only source of wealth.