The political scientist Jonathan White observed that “today’s social problems are the problems of generations.” Indeed, it seems that the term “generations” is everywhere, raised around discussions around everything from unemployment to climate change. But “generation” means a great many things, in the popular imagination as well as in public policy.

On one level, it’s a way of dividing society up according to birth year to examine and make sense of different people. Scholars emphasize that generations are not homogeneous social categories but rather are crosscut by power relations and inequalities of class, gender, race, and so on. Being in one’s 30s at any given moment means something, but it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing for everybody, because society is unequal.

At another level, generations exist as familial or “kinship” structures that tie grandparents, parents and children to one another through relationships of exchange and interdependence. In other words, generations can be seen as strata that support and depend on one another in formal and informal, and direct and indirect ways.

Generations can also be manifestations of the dynamic and unfolding quality of our lives. They take shape at the intersection of historical time and biographical time, capturing in a single word the complex idea that a 24-year-old in 1970 lives in a different milieu, and is differently equipped to deal with his or her environment, than a person the same age in 2016.

In short, generation is messy, both familiar and strange. And yet it is still compelling enough to use as a foundation for entire policy frameworks, including the modern welfare state, which is itself based on a generational compact in which each generation cares for the others when it is in a position to do so. In the last decade, explicitly generational policies appear to have caught legs in developed nations. In our spring 2016 article in the Public Policy and Governance Review, we examine this phenomenon, focusing our analysis wherever governments adopt terms such as “intergenerational solidarity,” “justice” and “equity” in their policy discourse. Here, we summarize some of our main findings and implications for Canada.

First, we find that in many nations, across fiscal and social policy domains, “generation” served as a widely appealing shorthand for measures that actually emphasize the needs of older people and respond primarily to aging populations. The United Nations framework on aging — The Madrid International Plan of Action on Aging, from 2002 — was formative in emphasizing the need to combat the social exclusion of the elderly in public welfare and informal care systems. Many EU countries were inspired to create active aging and lifelong learning opportunities for seniors, as well as to undertake pension reforms, such as increasing the retirement age and promoting personal and private sector pension savings.

In fiscal policies, population aging is the overwhelming concern. Some policy mechanisms focus on saving some of today’s money for tomorrow’s needs — as in Finland’s Sovereign Wealth Fund or New Zealand’s Superannuation Fund. Others offer fiscal projections of spending and costs — like the intergenerational budgetary forecasting conducted in Australia. In both cases the motivation is the same: anticipation of ballooning costs as a consequence of population aging. As mechanisms for fiscal sustainability, these budgetary measures are about ensuring that the older generation doesn’t drain the fiscal tank to empty.

But the Finnish government’s “lifecycle impact assessment tool” is supposed to help ensure that new policies have “solid support across all age groups,” and don’t trigger resentments between generations – for example, younger people who feel governments are more focused on the needs of their older neighbours. The tool mostly focuses attention on the individual’s needs through the course of lifetime, including such issues as age discrimination in the workplace and social exclusion. These are important issues. However, the redistribution of resources among present and future generations and, more importantly, the shifting historical circumstances each generation confronts.

We also find that for policies that explicitly address intergenerational issues, there is a recurring link made between long-term sustainability and intergenerational equity — making sure that people of different generations are benefiting equitably from spending. It appears as if, in order to make sustainability matter as a government priority it has to be anchored to the shared, generational notion of “our children and grandchildren,” rather than a generalized concern for the future. This is especially true of environmental legislation and policy, where Wales offers the most intriguing example. In 2015, the country adopted The Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act, enshrining the principle of sustainable development in law by creating a set of long-term well-being goals for the nation. Under the legislation, sustainable development becomes the central organizing principle of the public service in Wales, and public bodies are required to pursue and measure their performance toward achieving these goals through annual reports (including a “future trends” report) and national indicators. The newly created post created to monitor, assess and make recommendations on the achievement of these goals is the Future Generations Commissioner.

Wales’s efforts, like a vast number of international agreements and declarations, echo the definition in the 1987 UN Brundtland report, Our Common Future, of sustainable development as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” While the concept of generation is clearly good at motivating policy-makers to think about sustainability, it leaves some significant questions hanging. For example, Karl Mannheim, the influential sociologist of the concept of “generations,” argued that each successive generation fought a different “adversary.” What if the present generation’s environmental adversary is not the same as those of future generations? Further, is it not true that present and future generations are divided, such that within each, some people benefit from environmental destruction and others suffer? What if the image of one monolithic present generation consuming all the resources to the universal detriment of the next monolithic generation glosses over some crucially important inequities in consumption today and suffering tomorrow?

All of these questions circle around the potential for generational and intergenerational justice as ideas that guide policy. They can also lend themselves to a neoliberal perspective that assumes there is not enough money to invest in robust social programs and infrastructure today, making this premise palatable by inferring that austerity now will benefit our progeny later.

Moreover, while many countries — such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Norway and South Africa — have enshrined the rights of imaginary future generations within their constitutions, recourse to the legal protection of these rights remains problematic. In part, the difficulty stems from the elusive nature of “generation” itself: exactly who would bring a complaint forward if they wanted to today? Would they realistically be unopposed by others with different interests? Who speaks for a generation?

Finland’s Committee for the Future, Israel’s Commission on Future Generations (2001-06), and the short-lived Hungarian Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations (2008-12) all acknowledge(d) these puzzles, aiming to create the formal mechanisms by which successive generations could help shape and reshape public policy, beyond simply casting a ballot.

But the vision of generation in these policy mechanisms is similar to those of the other examples in this article: generations are imagined as fairly uniform groups whose internal differences, tensions, inequities and conflicts are far less important than those that ostensibly divide the singular current and future generations from one another. These policy levers thus do not help older and younger contemporaries lodge complaints about current inequities or instances of one “generation” protecting and maintaining its own resources — money, political power — by deliberately excluding the other group (a phenomenon sociologists Bryan S. Turner and June Edmunds call “social closure”

Neither do any of the policies examined here explore the relations of dependence and support that exist between generations — parents who help care for their grandchildren, or parents who save for their children to go to university, for example. These ties are the kind sociologist Susan McDaniel sees as critically important to policy-making, which seem to lend themselves quite obviously to the development of policy that avoids intergenerational conflict.

Even with these shortcomings and dangers, Canada trails far behind other industrialized nations in its attention to intergenerational equity. The country could do far more to report on a carefully defined intergenerational equity, track progress, and target it in policy development. Studies in this area are conducted in an ad hoc manner rather than being built into a systemic and ongoing review process, but they point to growing gaps between young and old. We agree with Paul Kershaw of the lobby group Generation Squeeze, who writes: “we risk fostering intergenerational inequity if our governments continue to show less urgency in responding to challenges facing younger generations than we do in responding to challenges facing older Canadians.”

We would take it one step further and urge policy-makers in Canada to take advantage of “generation’s” multiple meanings and dimensions. They should emphasize policies that mimic the relationships (kinship) that exist between different age groups, supporting the exchange of resources that occur between the old and the young over the course of their lives. This means carefully structuring the investments that people need at distinct points in their lives: public education, public pensions, parental leave, organized recreation, and so on.

Policy-makers should be careful to ensure that whatever policies are adopted under the banner of intergenerational equity are truly, equally targeted at supporting older and younger Canadians. Finally, although they should take care when forecasting and projecting into the future that they do not write cheques that future Canadians cannot cash, policy-makers also must resist the temptation to use intergenerational justice as an excuse for austerity.

This article is part of the Public Policy and Young Canadians special feature.


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Karen Foster
Karen Foster is an assistant professor of sociology and holds the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Rural Futures for Atlantic Canada at Dalhousie University’s Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology.
Tamara Krawchenko
Tamara Krawchenko is an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Victoria and a member of the Institute for Integrated Energy Systems. She is an expert in comparative public policy and regional development.

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