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Why fairness matters between young and old

05 October 2012

Christians should seek justice between generations, argues Ann Morisy

MOST of the established wealthy nations of the world have got into the habit of borrowing against expected future wealth. This shifting of the financial burden from those of us here now to those still to come raises significant questions of justice. In particular, the cry "It's not fair" can be heard from young people as they face up to austerity and future high taxation to support older generations who seem to have had it all.

We are waking up slowly to these vertical obligations, but we cannot afford to dither, because disgruntlement between young and old undermines the most fundamental and precious contract in a society - the contract between the generations.

More and more energy is spent debating the balance of advantage between age groups, whether in response to student fees, the balance of advantage in taxation policies, or the perceived protection given to state pensions while other benefits have been reduced. Debate that focuses solely on whose rights should take precedence must carry a caution, however, because it risks undermining the generosity of spirit which has underpinned the contract between the generations.

The cry "It's not fair" may be justifiable, but it is risky, because the manner in which we engage with this complex discussion matters. Too easily, debate about fairness degenerates into blaming. As Christians, we have a special responsibility in relation to blaming because Jesus gave himself up knowingly as a scapegoat, and insisted that he was to be the final scapegoat. We have been slow to recognise the radical and distinctive nature of these actions. Jesus, the ultimate scapegoat, calls us his followers to resist the temptation of giving way to blaming.

IN OUR tetchy world, it is more important than ever to heed the command of Jesus, "Put away your sword," which must surely include putting away our inclination to make scapegoats. There is plenty of scope for practising this in the arena of intergenerational fairness. And it is important that we do so, because social psychologists have come to understand just how dangerous blaming can be.

In 1954, the American psychologist Gordon Allport, shaken by wartime experiences, explored, in his book The Nature of Prejudice, the ease with which scapegoating gains momentum. He noted the worryingly few steps between laughing at people, wanting to avoid them, allowing discrimination to go unchallenged, and the way in which, from this, physical abuse or neglect easily ensues, culminating in extermination.

Once we start to blame a specific group, especially when the times are tough, anxiety and fear can give momentum to scapegoating - and ultimately to death-dealing. It is in this context that concern about the care of the elderly and the frequent eruption of debate about assisted dying needs to be seen.

ONE of the reasons why intergenerational fairness is hard to achieve is that, in most wealthy nations, older people are in the majority; so political power does not favour younger people. This exposes a structural weakness at the heart of our democratic process: the interests of the majority can counter what justice demands. This reality has not escaped the notice of younger people. It makes for cynicism in politics, and adds coal to the fire of anger and resentment towards older people.

To rebalance fairness between the generations, the retirement age is being moved upwards. If this is to have the necessary impact, however, the age of retirement and the receipt of a state pension need to increase more like 15 years, towards 80, rather than the proposed three or four years.

Prolonging our working lives to this extent is profoundly unpalatable. It also raises the question just how much scope there is for paid work in our society. As both men and women now seek paid employment, unless the amount of such work increases substantially, raising the retirement age, even if just by a few years, risks adding to the existing difficulty for young people in getting a good job and achieving a positive sense of identity.

AN alternative approach involves widening what we understand by work. For those who are no longer "wage-slaves", there is scope for work to bring out the best in us. But shifting the emphasis from earning money inevitably requires an equally unpalatable challenge: a "downsizing" of lifestyle.

Yet here there is some compensation. By embracing purposeful activity, and divesting ourselves of the urge for more and more material benefits, we begin to engage with the vital developmental stages associated with later life, which deserve to be honoured with the designation "elderhood". This involves fostering a distinctive character and orientation to life, particularly in relation to the stewardship of culture and of creation.

Cognitive psychologists acknowledge that, as we age, there is likely to be a growth in our interest in "higher things", as well as a lengthening of our moral stretch, extending concern to more than just the well-being of ourselves and our family.

Likewise, there is likely to be an increase in our ability to live with uncertainty, and a sense that life and all its manifestations are interconnected. For those in the third age, the challenge is to direct this spiritual capital outward, to ensure that we leave the world in a better state than we found it.

When assaulted by the frailty of the fourth age, however, when we relinquish more and more prowess, we need all the spiritual capital that we can muster to help us to negotiate the distresses that are likely to come upon us.

There is much for churches to do. They can:

• provide opportunities for older people to think more deeply about what purpose they are to give to later life;

• rally support, perhaps in a similar way to Jubilee 2000, to encourage politicians to give heed to younger and future generations; and

• help both young and old practise talking about "the generations" without drifting into blaming and name-calling . . . and ultimately death-dealing.

Ann Morisy is a community theologian, the author of Borrowing from the Future: A faith-based approach to intergenerational equity (Continuum, 2011).

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