Dec 202012


Everyone in the generation that started 150 years ago is dead.
Most people in the generation that started 50 years ago are still alive.

Is this “intergenerationally unfair”? Is it even “unfair”? This is a pretty devastating difference between these generations. Yet no serious person would claim that it is “intergenerationally unfair”. We need to be able to discuss generational differences without automatically treating disadvantages to one of them as examples of intergenerational unfairness.

This article was prompted by “Commentary on “Intergenerational Fairness Index” by the Intergenerational Foundation“. That article was prompted by (and analysed)  “Intergenerational Fairness Index – Measuring Changes in Intergenerational Fairness in the United Kingdom“, which made some sloppy claims for intergenerational unfairness.


In the absence of explicit definitions, people are entitled to assume that words and terms are used according to dictionaries, etc. These don’t actually define words: they attempt to capture their typical uses so they are a valid starting point.


inter” (preposition) in Wiktionary;
between, among

intergenerational” in Wiktionary:
between or across generations

So it is valid to use “intergenerational” for any comparison between generations. But it is often both redundant and silly to do so. If “intergenerational” becomes commonplace for any comparison, then “The Intergenerational Foundation” risks becoming a sort of “Compare the Generations dot COM”. That is not its aspiration; it seeks to re-balance policies, not simply to state the bleeding obvious. And it is important to avoid the “correlation implies causation” fallacy.

Rather than devalue the word, it should be confined to cases where it adds value:

“intergenerational” derived from Wikipedia (from “Intergenerational equity“):
relationships between children, youth, adults and seniors, particularly in terms of treatment and interactions


unfair” in Wiktionary:
not fair, unjust

Words like “unfair” and “unjust” are defined in contrast to “fair” and “just”. These have recognisable plausible meanings:

fair, just in Wiktionary:
honest, equitable

There are 2 sorts of fairness/unfairness here. If you obey the rules, you have been honest and fair. But the result may still not be equitable if the rules themselves were wrong. So it is important to examine both whether the rules are right and whether people are obeying them.


1. Is there more than one generation?

This should be a blindingly obvious check. But “Intergenerational Fairness Index – Measuring Changes in Intergenerational Fairness in the United Kingdom” examined certain changes that only related to one generation, for example the year-by-year changes in GCSE Pass Rates.

There is no plausible use of the word “intergenerational” that doesn’t clearly involve more than one generation!

2. Is it intergenerational?

Is it concerned with “relationships between children, youth, adults and seniors, particularly in terms of treatment and interactions“? Is there an element of cause and effect?

If it isn’t concerned with “treatment and interactions” then it is not a valuable use of the word. It is probably just an observation about the differences between generations without implications of fairness/unfairness. Don’t devalue the word.

3. What is fair?

If “what is fair” isn’t identified, how can unfairness be judged? Things that you don’t like are not automatically unfair!

For example, “Intergenerational Fairness Index – Measuring Changes in Intergenerational Fairness in the United Kingdom” claimed unfairness in the trend of  “usage of selected medical services amongst younger people”, but without any evidence that the trend was towards unfairness rather than fairness. It was just an example of  “things that you don’t like“.

Identifying “what is fair” forces you to examine all points of view, strengthening any consequential claim of unfairness. Identify whether the problem is with the rules or about whether people are obeying them. You need to know what to change to achieve fairness: change the rules, or enforce them? (You can’t blame someone for obeying the rules just because you don’t like the results).

4. Have the people concerned been consulted?

Have representative people of the generations concerned been consulted about how the judgments are being made?

This is especially directed to the views of young people. It is important that older people don’t make the judgments about whether things are fair/unfair for younger people without at least asking them! What older people think is unfair for young people, and what young people themselves think is unfair, are likely to be different.

“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”.

Other sorts of unfairness

When a child dies, we rage about the unfairness. But it mostly isn’t intergenerational unfairness.

We are probably raging against the rules governing the way the universe is operating. The universe operates according to unintelligent forces and processes such as the laws of physics and the consequences of billions of years of evolution. Every conception is an unintelligent genetic experiment, and evolution didn’t ensure that they could all work well.

We can’t change the laws of physics, but we can change a lot of the consequences of all those unintelligent forces and processes. That is what science and technology and engineering can attempt to do. There are many other examples where we think “the rules” are unfair although not intergenerationally unfair. Many people in every generation are trying to make those changes so that future generations have fewer cases where people rage against the rules.

Every generation benefits from the efforts of previous generations to make the rules more fair.

Further reading

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