Report

Time to rethink generational justice

Author:
Peter Lloyd-Sherlock
Source:
The Lancet
Contributor:
Publication Year:
2021
June 29, 2021
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being

COVID-19 affects all age groups in multiple ways. These effects vary according to individuals’ ages and wider circumstances, be they frail older people, children and youth in education, or workers of all ages. They are also occurring within broader crises of intergenerational justice. The notion of a modern intergenerational contract based around education, reproduction, production, and retirement was in crisis well before the syndemic hit. This was evident on many fronts: mounting pressures of population ageing on public services, care, and pensions; reduced access to secure employment during the working years; growing generation gaps in opportunities to participate in housing markets; changing norms and practices of gender roles through the life course; and recognition that unsustainable consumption by current generations will harm future ones.

 

Richard Horton1  noted how the COVID-19 syndemic is increasingly promoting social division on the basis of wealth, race, and in many other ways. I would like to address this point with reference to age.

COVID-19 affects all age groups in multiple ways. These effects vary according to individuals’ ages and wider circumstances, be they frail older people, children and youth in education, or workers of all ages. They are also occurring within broader crises of intergenerational justice. The notion of a modern intergenerational contract based around education, reproduction, production, and retirement was in crisis well before the syndemic hit. This was evident on many fronts: mounting pressures of population ageing on public services, care, and pensions; reduced access to secure employment during the working years; growing generation gaps in opportunities to participate in housing markets; changing norms and practices of gender roles through the life course; and recognition that unsustainable consumption by current generations will harm future ones.

These tensions, now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, have often been framed in terms of impossible policy dilemmas: should we prioritise keeping schools open, saving jobs, or keeping at-risk older people safe? They have also heightened existing discourses of ageism and youthism (such as blaming younger people for irresponsible behaviour). Increasingly, there seems to be a zero-sum tug of war between the generations. This view of fundamentally conflicting interests is profoundly unhelpful and damaging and could promote bitter legacies of social division. How can we respond to this threat?

A starting point will be to critically deconstruct established understandings of intergenerational justice. In the short term, this might generate new ethical frameworks to guide policy responses to those impossible dilemmas of COVID-19; further on, it could contribute to new consensuses of generational equity and sustainable consumption.

This high-minded ambition is a lot easier said than done. It will need innovation and inspiration from across the disciplines, be they moral philosophy, economics, or behavioural science. It will also need high-level political support, perhaps in the form of a new UN Commission on generational justice.

I declare no competing interests.

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