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
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
• 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).