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Playing Fair across the GenerationsAnn Morisy
The challenge at the heart of fairness across the generations is the acknowledgement of the ‘vertical obligations’ to future generations alongside the ‘horizontal obligations’ we have to people ‘here now’. This issue – with its concern for the wellbeing of future generations, is thus a close cousin of environmental concerns – both challenge us to have a concern for the future. However, the issue of intergenerational fairness is an even more intimate issue, for it involves your son and daughter and grandchildren, and for those of us with only distant relations, my cousin’s children and their children.
The case for a ‘perfect storm’...
- Our sudden (in historical terms) increase in longevity (over the last fifty years)
- The sudden and sustained fall in the birth rate
- Mistaking a ‘demographic dividend’ for the normal working of the economy – in other words… we thought the good times were here to stay…
So younger generations are not to be recipients of the good times and unrivalled opportunities that have characterised the lives of many older people - and add to this the burden of meeting the health care and pension costs of a large and long living generation of elders…. And we can hear the word –‘foul’ - taking shape on the lips of young people.
A fourth complicating factor making for a perfect storm:
- Sudden shock of financial need to re-fund the banks and ensuing debt burden and loss of interest on investments and likely high levels of inflation – which have a disproportionately negative effect on older people and this combines with the fragility of private pensions – for baby boomers as well as younger generations.
And the fifth complicating factor making for a perfect storm:
- Demography trumps democracy: The structural weakness at the heart of our democratic process is exposed by this issue of fairness between the generations.
If we assume that people vote on the basis of self-interest, then the interests of the majority hold sway, and the interests of younger generations get trumped. (NB Hungary – considering giving 2 votes to mothers).
Add to these five contributing issues to a perfect storm, add:
- The high cost of housing
- The ‘Ponzi Scheme’ nature of state pensions – state pensions are not paid from a pot of money set aside for that purpose but reliant on tax contributions from current and future generations
- The increasing cost of health care: a combination of ever-increasing capacity of medical interventions (much of which is delivered to those in later life) and the increasing number of people achieving ‘late’ old age.
Manifestations of the issue
We face a cultural watershed regarding the implicit understanding of rights and obligations between age groups and generations in human societies based on the growing recognition that the social provision and pension rights enjoyed by an older generation are only possible by borrowing from the future, and that such borrowing against future wealth has been, until now, been an unquestioned habit of modern states.
So far only a feeble response to the issue
The assumed solution to re-balancing fairness between the generations is to extend the retirement age upwards, and many governments have chosen to do this. While this may ease the tax burden, it is unlikely to help younger people achieve the ‘narrative of identity’[vii] that comes from decent employment. With both men and women now seeking paid employment, unless the amount of paid work increases substantially, raising the retirement age is likely to add to the existing difficulty of younger people getting a good job.
Increasing the age of retirement is the least imaginative way through the problem of inter-generational fairness because it increases the likelihood of the older generation staying on the top rungs of the ladder and receiving ‘top dollar’ remuneration for even longer.
To resolve the pension crisis by re-establishing the relationship between age and fitness to work would mean retirement age rising not just by two or three years but by ten to fifteen years. If we really wish to ease the burden of our pensions on future generations a more moral but less palatable response would be to scale up the level of pension contributions, with contributions increasing more significantly from the age of 50, but even so, the need to reduce pensions received over the decades of retirement, would remain.
The dastardly dynamic of resentment
All this unfairness – deep, structural unfairness contributes to an issue of even greater magnitude – that of resentment between the generations. Resentment once it gets hold is very hard to dampen down and resentment can be the springboard for a host of unruly and uncivil developments. However, resentment of older generations carries an especial jeopardy: Each of us, over time will find ourselves ageing and becoming old, at least that is our hope. When we are young or in our prime we do not think of ourselves as already being the dwelling place of our own future old age…
This unique trait of old age, that, barring misfortune, it is everyone’s destiny, makes the resentment of older people a risky business, for it involves resentment of what we are to become. Resentment in response to this perceived (and actual) unfairness risks leading younger generations into a negative view of what it is to be old - and therefore a negative view of their future selves. It is a particularly big ask for younger generations to resist the temptation to blame older people for their tough circumstances compared with the apparently easy blessings heaped upon older generations.
[i] Based on the work of Phil Mullan (2000) The Imaginary Time bomb: Why an ageing population is not a social problem. London: I.B. Taurus, p.61
[ii] Bloom, David E., David Canning and Jaypee Sevilla, 2003, The Demographic Dividend: A New Perspective on the Economic Consequences of Population Change, Population Matters Monograph MR-1274, RAND, Santa Monica.
[iii] Other estimates of ‘demographic windows of opportunity’ made by the United Nations include China: 1990-2025; India 2010 – 2045; USA 1970 -2010; Japan 1965 -1995, Eritrea 2045-2080; Uganda and the Yemen: 2060 -2090. See the report World Population to 2300 by the Department of Economics and Social Affairs Population Division (2004); United Nation, New York
[iv] The ‘cougar’ is slang for older women keen to date younger men. The term comes from a Canadian television series ‘The Cougars’ and the film (2007) “The Cougar Club”. The term is now used widely on dating sites.
[v] Rosamund Urwin “The over-40s are stealing my golden years” in the Evening Standard 12 November 2009
[vi] By B. Morgan, BBC News Website, readers comments 1 December 2003 and cited in E. Howker and S. Malik, Jilted Generation, London: Icon Books, 2010 p.199
[vii] The significance of achieving a positive narrative of identity is essential to achieving appropriate and healthy self-esteem. This idea is at the heart of Richard Sennet’s ‘The Corrosion of Character’ which has the sub-title ‘The personal consequences of work in the New Capitalism’. See R. Sennet (1998) The Corrosion of Character, New York: W. W. Norton and C