Generational inequality: who should pay for the future?

Saturday 22 October, 10.00 - 11.30 , Frobisher Auditorium 2 Millennial Dilemmas


Watch the video of this session at the bottom of this page.

Generational inequality has become a major policy buzzword since the financial crisis, with a host of commentators arguing that Generation Y has been disproportionately hit by government cuts, economic downturn and the costs of maintaining an ageing society. A combination of increasing life expectancy and the sheer size of older generations means that the young carry the burden of ageing populations with no guarantees of welfare or pension as they themselves get older. After the referendum vote for Britain to leave the EU, many complained that older voters had selfishly robbed more pro-European youth of the future they wanted. Today’s challenges for the young are often blamed on the ‘never had it so good’, ‘must have it now’ Sixties generation, who allegedly were irresponsible in pursuing policies of unsustainable growth, racking up unpayable future liabilities and despoiling the planet. More broadly, it is widely charged that today’s youth are paying for the short-termism of governments keen to appease an ageing demographic of core voters. Some suggest policy-makers should concentrate on ensuring Millennials learn lessons from their (grand)parents’ alleged mistakes to ensure that the future from now on will be sustainable; that the young need to take responsibility right now for shaping their own and society’s long-term future, whether through pension planning lessons at school to youth policy consultations about long-term infrastructure decisions.

In contrast, self-proclaimed ‘rational optimists’ argue that ‘a problem delayed is a problem solved’ when it comes to future risks: that we should seek to confront contemporary problems and trust in future generations’ innovation and creativity to tackle issues as they become more pressing. Critics respond that this is dangerously utopian and risks imposing insurmountable debts on future generations, ranging from fiscal deficits to environmental harm.

Have the Boomers really squandered their children’s future, or have Generation Y been spoiled with expectations of material comfort which their parents could only have dreamed of?  Instead of seeing themselves as victims of greedy Boomers, should Gen Y do what every young generation has done: stand on its own two feet and start thinking how to change the world for the better? Does a concern with generational fairness promote a more forward-planning approach or confuse questions about what contemporary policy should look like? Who should pay for the future – and who should decide?