What have future generations ever done for me?

David Hall

His stake is in the ground. Prime Minister Bill English is progressively raising superannuation age of eligibility from 65 to 67. The change will be complete by 2040, but won’t start until 1st July 2037, twenty whole years away. No one born before 30th June 1972 will be affected.

Many are calling foul. But on what grounds? What do we owe to people who come after us? The cynic might ask, “What have future generations ever done for me?”

One response to the cynic is intergenerational equity. This is the idea that there should be an equitable spread of goods across generations. Each generation should leave the next with the same or better.

But this gets very complicated very quickly. How do we compare goods over time? Is having a horse and cart in 1817 equivalent to having a Honda Civic in 2017? Does my hard-drive full of MP3 files have the same “utility value” as my father’s stack of vinyl records? Technology moves so rapidly that we’re forced to compare apples and oranges. Perhaps being born with an iPad in hand is just compensation for not receiving free tertiary education – but then again, perhaps not.

So what about intergenerational justice, underpinned by universal rights. After all, rights are universal not only across space, but also across time. Insofar as a pension provides dignity and security for retirees, then perhaps it ought to be a right for all.

Even if you’re inclined to think that superannuation is a political triumph, though, why not just leave it at that? Why insist on further calling it a right? If a government genuinely can’t afford a pension scheme, is it really violating the rights of its citizens? It seems much more plausible to say that there are universal rights to dignity and security, but there are many ways to deliver this. New Zealand’s superannuation scheme is historically and culturally particular, a product of the institutions it developed from. It follows, then, that we would do well to assess its fitness-for-purpose as circumstances change.

So what about intergenerational fairness? Is this what troubles people about the Prime Minister’s proposal?

Almost certainly – but this doesn’t tell us much. There are many ways to be unfair, not all of them relevant. This isn’t unfair by deception, for example. Quite the opposite. The Prime Minister’s announcement is actually commendably bare-faced, coming six months prior to the election.

What’s really getting people’s goat is the apparent bias for baby boomers. The Prime Minister is expanding the economic privilege of a generation that championed individualism while profiting from collectivism – from free public healthcare, free tertiary education and ample provision of state housing. As the over-45s appear to be sheltered from yet another fiscal compromise, subsequent generations are left wondering, “What next?” Will Government abruptly ban fossil fuels in 2040 too, once baby boomers are too old to escape to Provence for winter?

So unfairness it is – but what weight does this verdict carry against the cynic? There’s an element of truth to the notion that future generations take and take but never give back. Inheritance is a one-way street. If you take a purely transactional approach to life, if you only give because you expect something in return, then future generations are bound to disappoint you. Perhaps present peoples are justified in taking what they can get.

This seems like a colossal moral error. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke famously described society as “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” In his view, we shouldn’t be thinking transactionally about who can do what for us. We should be thinking in terms of a grander contract, something broader than any single generation, which is deferent to the wisdom of the past while also committed to prosperity in the future.

What I’d like to know is: what would this contract like this look like? What if all generations – our ancestors, our mokopuna and ourselves – were to sincerely try to reach an agreement about what is fair? Of course, this would require some imaginative reconstruction on our part, but even trying is a good start. We could certainly do worse than rummaging through the toolbox that Professor Jonathan Boston has provided in his new books.

My guess is that we’d come to a rather different agreement to what either the major parties are proposing. An agreement that wasn’t merely about the age of eligibility, but also about the varieties of work and their changing nature, about the challenges of rising living costs, and the impacts of social disadvantage.

Without this intergenerational conversation, there’s one last resort: power. If the silver-haired cynics are winning, the only way for younger generations to get their share is to win instead. Demographically, this is inevitable. Post-baby boomer voters will outnumber baby boomers one day. Then, any policies deemed unfair by the majority could simply be overturned. Disruptive, to be sure, but a new generation of cynics will say: “What did previous generations ever do for me?”

This is truly the road to intergenerational warfare.



David Hall
About the author

David Hall

David Hall is a political theorist based at The Policy Observatory. He has a strong interest in intergenerational policy issues, including climate change. He recently completed his D.Phil in Politics at the University of Oxford and his research interests including forestry policy, immigration policy and political psychology. He has contributed writing to the New Zealand Listener, the New Zealand Herald, The Spinoff, the BWB Text series (forthcoming), The Journal of Urgent Writing, Auckland Art Gallery’s Reading Room journal, and the Pure Advantage media platform.