Intergenerational Justice in 29 Aging Societies

A 29-country snapshot. Population aging wide across the OECD has led to a renewed popular and theoretical interest in the notion of justice between generations. But efforts to measure intergenerational justice empirically have lagged behind. How can we improve policies when we do not know the state of affairs in terms of intergenerational justice in practice? At the request of the Bertelsmann Stiftung in Germany, I have developed a simple four-dimensional snapshot indicator to improve the cognitive toolkit of academics, journalists and policymakers: the Intergenerational Justice Index, or IJI. The aim is pragmatic and empirical: to compare intergenerational justice in practice across OECD member states. The unit of analysis is countries, and the IJI is a macro-level snapshot linked primarily to government activity rather than private behavior. The snapshot was taken based on the years for which the most complete recent data was available for 29 countries: the end of the 2000s or the start of the current decade, depending on the dimension.

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Sustainability is the moral starting point: ‘enough and as good’ ought to be left by each generation to the next. In aging welfare states, population aging as a demographic concept may be viewed largely as an ethically neutral development for our purposes. A society, or cohorts within it, are not morally blamed for lower fertility and longer life expectancy. But the way in which a country’s public policy packages react to demographic change is not neutral from an intergenerational justice perspective.

Three policy outcome dimensions: ecology, child poverty, child debt. Three of the IJI dimensions measure policy outcomes that leave legacy burdens towards younger and future generations: (1) the ecological footprint created by all generations alive today; (2) early-life starting conditions as measured by child poverty levels; and (3) the economic and fiscal burdens on the shoulders of currently young generations as measured by public debt levels per child.

One policy input dimension: the pro-elderly bias of welfare states. Intergenerational justice also demands that current policy efforts do not unsustainably favor one living generation over another. (4) I therefore develop a new measure of welfare states’ overall elderly bias in social spending (EBiSS). This fourth dimension shows that demography is not destiny when it comes to social spending patterns. It is policy choices as determined by longstanding governance cultures that drive the pro-elderly bias of welfare states. Of the OECD’s four demographically oldest societies, Italy and Japan show a distinct pro-elderly bias in their social spending patterns, whereas Germany shows only a moderate pro-elderly bias and Sweden shows relatively little bias. In addition to three Southern European countries, East European countries such as Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Poland and Hungary are all in the high-EBiSS spectrum of the 29-country sample too (Vanhuysse 2013: 27). For instance, in the demographically still comparatively young Poland, the state spent 8.6 times as much on every elderly Pole as on every non-elderly Pole in the late 2000s. Yet in the equally young New Zealand society, the state spent only 2.7 times as much. By contrast, in the demographically much older Greece, the state spent seven times more for every elderly Greek as it spent for every non-elderly Greek. But in comparably old Sweden, the state spent only 3.4 times more (Vanhuysse 2013: 28).

The Intergenerational Justice Index. These four dimensions are then aggregated into an overall IJI value, using a ‘benefit-of-the-doubt’ weighting method to respect the (revealed) preferences of democratically elected governments. Among the most intergenerationally just OECD countries were Estonia, South Korea, New Zealand and all of Nordic Europe. By contrast, among the least intergenerationally just countries were the USA, Japan, Italy, Greece and Canada (Vanhuysse 2013: 37). Unless these low-IJI countries could somehow guarantee fast economic and productivity growth and rapid technological innovation in the near future, not reforming current policy patterns would simply mean that a high degree of injustice will be inflicted upon non-elderly citizens. Sticking to the status quo would perpetuate a bad deal for young and future generations.

Policy options, supply side. Seemingly ‘obvious’ policy measures that merit a new look in light of the IJI perspective include fiscal and social security benefits or credits to reward family members for raising younger and caring for elderly generations (often expending substantial private cost for societal benefit); the adjustment of official pension ages and pension benefits to rising life expectancy; and ecologically motivated tax frameworks such as carbon taxes. There is a particularly strong case for spending more on high quality early childhood education and similar social investment policies that increase human capital and skills and bolster the fiscal basis of aging welfare states in the process.

Policy options, demand side. But the hard power politics of population aging matters crucially, too. When ‘obviously’ sound policies are not sufficiently implemented, wishfully thinking such policies into existence is not likely to be an effective strategy. The time is ripe for discussing the radical idea of giving each parent one half extra vote, to be used on behalf of each under-age child until that child reaches legal voting age (Vanhuysse 2013: 41-43). These proxy votes for children, or Demeny votes, could be made conditional on parents guaranteeing minimum child welfare, and they could otherwise be regulated according to civic requirements such as, for instance, longstanding tax contributions. Proxy votes would add bite to the intergenerational power politics game, as they would change the incentive structure of elected policymakers in aging societies.

[1] Vanhuysse, Pieter (2013), Intergenerational Justice in Aging Societies: A Cross-national Comparison of 29 OECD Countries, Gütersloh: Bertelsmann Stiftung


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Pieter Vanhuysse

About Pieter Vanhuysse

Pieter Vanhuysse, PhD (LSE) is Professor of Comparative Welfare State Research, University of Southern Denmark. Previously, he was Head of Research and Deputy Director at the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research, Vienna (affiliated to the UN). His research on the political sociology of public policies and welfare states, intergenerational policy conflict, and population aging has been published in over forty journals including West European Politics, Public Choice, Political Studies, Social Policy & Administration, Journal of European Social Policy, Journal of Social Policy and Journal of Public Policy. Pieter has co-edited Post-Communist Welfare Pathways (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and Ageing Populations in Post-Industrial Democracies (Routledge/ECPR, 2012). His book Divide and Pacify (CEU Press, 2006) was nominated for the American Sociological Association’s Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Award for Political Sociology.

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