Oct 302012

This topic sometimes gives the appearance of warfare! Falsehoods, exaggerations, glib sound-bites, and selective analysis are hurled around in the hope that some will stick.

Rather than identify the policies that need to be adopted to resolve intergenerational problems, (which is beyond my current ability!), I’ll identify some principles to enable the debates to be constructive and productive. First I’ll quote from the last section below, because I think this is the most important of these principles:

“Adopt those policies which you would consider fair and just if you knew you would have a second life but you didn’t know what your age or wealth would be”.

Be wary of wealthy people on a guilt trip!

A number of wealthy and influential nearly-elderly people have pontificated on this topic:

Typically they claim to be part of the generation they are criticising, although since they apparently fall for the standard myth about the UK baby-boom, this claim can be taken with a pinch of salt. They earn money and have assets that most of us can only dream of. So their perception of their generation’s wealth is false, and their own lack of need for state help prevents empathy with most of their generation.

These people are not representative, and are not entitled to speak for most of their generation.

Avoid “blame” unless it is specifically justified

The most stupid statements about intergenerational problems are those based on “the baby-boomers have stolen their children’s future” or similar. Superficially it may appear profound, but it mostly defies analysis, and the bits that may mean something are incorrect. Consider:

April 31 1973:
“Bought a gun, went out and stole our children’s future”

If you told someone to steal their children’s future, what would they do? If you told them to stop doing it, what would they stop doing? What have those children lost? (Years of their life? Modern medicine? Modern technology? Greater education opportunities than previous generations? Ohthey still have those!) 
WTF does that statement mean?

It is only valid to blame someone if they did something they shouldn’t have done, or didn’t do something they should have done. And “should/shouldn’t” implies knowledge of the consequences and the ability to change those consequencies. It obviously doesn’t imply simply “living in a country where, in retrospect, unwanted things happened” nor “living in a country without power to change things for the better”.

If it helps, identify things that one generation did (or didn’t do) where another generation in the same situation with the same knowledge would have done something different. And “the same knowledge” may mean “no world-wide-web; no freedom of information; no mathematical modeling of demographic trends”.

Avoid thinking of unchanging groups

Tyrants and bigots have operated for centuries by identifying “otherness” in some group of people to mobilise action against them. The typical group-definition for intergenerational demonisation is “baby-boomer”. Unlike “pensioners”, which is a changing set into which nearly everyone will fit at sometime, “baby-boomers” identifies nameable people. (The fact that the people using the term “baby-boomer” typically believe the myth that the UK had a baby-boom which started about 1945 and ended about 1965 doesn’t help! But this myth is not the main point here).

Generations pass through phases. For younger generations, pensioners are their grandparents. Decades later they are their parents. After that they realise they will soon be pensioners themselves. Then they are pensioners! Generations tend to have their own characteristics, but these mustn’t be over-generalised. A significant number of people in the “baby-pop” from about 1946 to about 1948 died before becoming pensioners. Later generations have a greater chance of becoming pensioners, and their greater life expectancy may cause them to form a larger group of pensioners than current pensioners.

One risk of thinking of an unchanging group (such as “baby-boomers”) is that they may be imagined to be a special case, for whom rules can be changed as a one-off then changed back for later generations. There is no evidence that the so-called baby-boomers are a one-off case which need temporary specialised rule-changes.

Don’t over-generalise about groups

In The Times of October 30 2012, Rachel Sylvester said: “Parents are losing child benefit, the young are struggling, while the elderly prosper.”

Three inaccurate, and for practical purposes useless, statements in one short sentence! The majority of parents are not losing Child Benefits. Many young are struggling, (as many young have always struggled), but obviously not all. Many elderly are living a marginal existence, depending on means-tested benefits and charity.

Typically the accurate way of defining the characteristics of a group is as a set of distribution curves. Health; income; savings; opportunities; helpers; dependents; education; etc. All of these have distribution curves for pretty well each generation. I suspect that typically the within-generation distribution will be greater than the distribution of the averages of different generations. The different in wealth between Premier League footballers / young “Celebrities” (and their partners), and the poorest of their generation, is probably vastly greater than the differences between the averages of that generation and any other.

But, of course, it is easier to campaign using inaccurate over-generalised sound-bites than to use subtle, nuanced, truth!

Understand the whole system

The law of unintended consequences typically occurs when parts of a system are changed without the whole system being understood. This often happens when a “single issue group” tries to obtain a specific benefit without understanding the causes and perverse incentives around that benefit. Human nature defies narrow logic!

Stop allowing girls to use contraceptives, and instead of becoming celibate they are likely to become pregnant. Stop allowing abortions, and instead of saving fetuses, back-street abortions are likely to kill both women and fetuses. Try to maximise child-support payments as income increases, and the incentive to work harder and longer and earn more can be dramatically reduced.

An example here is that if pensions are means tested to reduce the load on taxpayers, the incentives to save for a private pension and life savings are reduced. So older people will on average become more reliant on means-tested benefits which will add to the load on taxpayers. Another example is the link between paying National Insurance while working and claiming a state pension later. As people get older, they do expect something back for what they have undoubtedly paid. If this “contract” or “promise” is broken, National Insurance becomes pointless as a separate “tax”, and the concept of “personal contributions” gets lost. Benefits “come from the state by magic”, and apparently don’t have to be worked for.

Apply respectable theories of justice

Here is an example based on (a tiny part of) the “veil of ignorance” in John Rawls‘ “A Theory of Justice” (text from Wikipedia):

“It is a method of determining the morality of a certain issue … based upon the following thought experiment: parties to the original position know nothing about their particular abilities, tastes, and position within the social order of society. The veil of ignorance blocks off this knowledge, such that one does not know what burdens and benefits of social cooperation might fall to him/her once the veil is lifted. With this knowledge blocked, parties to the original position must decide on principles for the distribution of rights, positions and resources in their society. … The idea then, is to render moot those personal considerations that are morally irrelevant to the justice or injustice of principles meant to allocate the benefits of social cooperation.

“For example, in the imaginary society, one might or might not be intelligent, rich, or born into a preferred class. Since one may occupy any position in the society once the veil is lifted, the device forces the parties to consider society from the perspective of all members, including the worst-off and best-off members.”

My simplified version, tailored for this topic, is:

“Adopt those policies which you would consider fair and just if you knew you would have a second life but you didn’t know what your age or wealth would be”.

This topic shouldn’t be seen as “them and us”. Most of the people involved in it never had their hands near the levers of power, and muddled through doing what appeared to be sensible and decent at the time. The policies need to assume that this is what future generations will do too.

Further reading

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