Generational Equity

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Generational equity refers to the concept that different generations should be treated in similar ways and should have similar opportunities. It is often invoked as an issue by those who criticize the share of societal resources that elderly persons consume today and are predicted to consume in the future, when the baby boomers have retired. According to these critics, a trade-off exists between meeting the needs of children and the elderly, and too many resources go to the elderly. This entry presents the history of the debate about generational equity, evaluates the evidence that there is conflict between age groups, and presents an alternative formulation of the notion of generational equity.

History of the debate

Two independent events catapulted the issue of generational equity to visibility in both the policy and the academic communities in 1984. In the policy community, Senator Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.) founded Americans for Generational Equity (AGE). The goal of AGE was to promote the concept of generational equity among America's political, intellectual, and financial leaders. It called into question the prudence, sustainability, and fairness to future generations of federal old age benefit programs. The major vehicles for AGE's message included conferences; books, articles, and op-ed pieces in newspapers; and speeches and comments in the U.S. Congress by a number of prominent AGE leaders who were members of Congress. AGE is now defunct as an organization, but its influence was important in the emergence of the issue of generational equity and in its reshaping of political discourse "so that all future policy choices will have to take generational equity into account" (Quadagno, p. 364). The Concord Coalition, funded by Pete Peterson, an investment banker and former U.S. secretary of commerce, took up where AGE left off. When it was founded, its aim was to bring entitlements (specifically, Social Security and Medicare) "down to a level that's fair to all generations," and its rhetoric was couched in terms of generational equity.

Also in 1984, in the academic community, Professor Samuel H. Preston gave the presidential address to the annual meeting of the Population Association of America, "Children and the Elderly: Divergent Paths for America's Dependents." The address was reprinted in the journal Demography and later published in revised form in Scientific American. Although Preston never mentioned the term "generational equity" in the address and the subsequent publications, it was clearly his subject. Drawing on large bodies of data on changes in the domains of well-being, the family, and politics, he made the case that conditions have deteriorated for children and improved dramatically for the elderly. Further, he argued that "in the public sphere at least, gains for one group come partly at the expense of another" (Preston, p. 450). According to Preston, U.S. policy makers have made choices that have dramatically altered the age profile of well-being for the young and the old: "Let's be clear that the transfers from the working-age population to the elderly are also transfers away from children . . . and let's also recognize that the sums involved are huge" (pp. 451452).

Since the mid-1980s, references to generational equity have continued. Scholars have held academic conferences; newspapers have carried stories with headlines such as "U.S. Coddles Elderly but Ignores Plight of Children," "America Is at War with Its Children," and "The Tyranny of America's Old" (see Cook et al.); and advocacy groups have debated the issue (see Williamson et al.). The debate that began in the latter half of the 1990s over whether Social Security should be partially privatized offered yet another platform for bringing the issue of generational equity to the foreground (Kingson and Williamson).

Does age conflict exist?

As early as the 1970s, some social scientists warned that one implication of the growing numbers of elders might be a backlash against the old resulting in intergenerational conflict (Neugarten). The emergence of the generational equity debate shows that such concerns were prescient. But is there conflict between age groups either for resources or for support from the public?

Regarding conflict for resources, Preston's argument sparked considerable interest both among scholars and among foundations and agencies to analyze the issue of age group equity in more detail. The National Academy of Sciences, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation funded research and a series of conferences and workshops to study the contrasting economic experiences of children and the elderly. Aggregate data from one study compared the experiences of children and the elderly in the United States with those groups in other Western democracies, and replicated one of Preston's major conclusions: the economic experiences of children and elderly persons in the United States diverged widely from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. In addition, international comparative data showed that children in the United States have much higher poverty rates than children in most other nations with similar standards of living (Palmer et al.). However, the scholars did not draw the same conclusion as Preston. Instead, they pointed out that it was not at all clear that children's doing worse had enabled the elderly to do better, and showed that U.S. poverty rates for the elderly were on the high side compared with other industrialized nations.

Many professionals dedicated to defending and promoting the interests of America's children see the generational equity debate as a dangerous effort to divide the young and the old and to undercut public support for important government programs such as Social Security. Consequently, they have made a concerted effort to quell the divisive rhetoric of generational equity. Of special importance has been their role in founding Generations United, a group whose goal is to "dispel the myth of competition for scarce resources and reap the benefits of inter-generational collaboration. . .and interdependence" (Generations United, 1990). Further, the organization seeks "to foster intergenerational collaboration on public policy and programs to improve the lives of children, youth, and the elderly" (Generations United, 2001, p. 19). According to David Liederman, former executive director of the Child Welfare League of America, who helped to found Generations United, "What we are trying to say is that the fates of the generations are linked. Obviously, I want better programs for kids. . .but they should not come at the expense of seniors, especially the large number who are poor or near poor" (quoted in Pearlstein).

Is there conflict between age groups in their support for programs for older people? Studies show the answer to this question is no. One of the largest and most visible programs is Social Security. In each congressional election year since 1984, the University of Michigan's National Election Studies (NES) surveys have asked a large, nationally representative sample of Americans whether they would like spending on Social Security increased, decreased, or kept about the same (University of Michigan). In each of the nine election years the question was asked, 90 percent or more of respondents in every age group have said they wanted spending either to be increased or to be kept the same. Less than 7 percent ever said they wanted spending on Social Security decreased. Given the frequent claim that young people do not support Social Security, the most surprising finding is that young people are slightly more likely to support increases in spending than are older persons. For example, in the 2000 NES survey of 1,798 Americans, 62 percent of young adults age eighteen to twenty-nine said they wanted spending for Social Security increased, compared with 60 percent of respondents age sixty-five to seventy-four and 56 percent of those age seventy-five and over. These findings are similar to earlier research on public support for Medicare and Social Security by Cook and Barrett.

An alternative formulation of generational equity

There is no dispute that America's older citizens receive the lion's share of the income, in cash and in services, that the nation's federal social programs distribute. In 2001, expenditures on the elderly amounted to roughly a third of the entire federal budget (U.S. Office of Management and Budget). But this fact does not imply inequity. That is because the size and distribution of the burdens imposed by children and elderly persons differ. For the most part, parents bear the daily living expenses of children. Their educational costs are borne mostly by state and local governments. The health and income support costs of poor children are shared by the states and the federal government. In contrast, large portions of the income support and health costs of the elderly are borne by the federal government through the Social Security, Medicare, and Supplemental Security Income programs. Thus, as the population ages, the fiscal responsibility of supporting the economically inactive population shifts from families to governments and, within the public sector, from states and localities to the federal government. As Norman Daniels has argued, "Justice between age groups is a problem best solved if we stop thinking of the old and the young as distinct groups. We age. The young become the old. As we age, we pass through institutions that affect our well-being at each stage of life, from infancy to very old age" (p. 18).

From a life course perspective, it follows that an alternative formulation of generational equity is generational interdependence. Kingson et al. discuss the "ties that bind" generations together and stress the high degree of interdependence between individuals and between generations within society. This view emphasizes what different generations have to offer one another as opposed to what one consumes at the expense of the other (Williamson et al.). Such contributions include transfers of income, child care support, personal assistance, formal volunteering, psychological support, and advice.

In line with the notion of generational inter-dependence, Robert Ball describes Social Security (i.e., Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance) as "America's family protection plan" (p. 11). By this, he means it protects children with the survivors component, working adults under sixty-five with the disability component, and elderly adults with the retirement component. He notes that 98 percent of children under eighteen and mothers and fathers with children under sixteen can count on monthly benefits if a working parent dies; that four out of five people of working age have protection against the loss of income due to sustained disability; and that 95 percent of people sixty-five and older are eligible for Social Security benefits (p. xv).

What of the future? Is generational equity likely to continue as an issue? It is always hard to predict which issues will rise or fall in salience on the agendas of scholars, policy makers, and the media. However, based on the period since the mid-1980s, it would seem that generational equity will continue to be an issue as long as one side or the other in the debate for attention to the reform of social policies and programs thinks its cause is forwarded more by attempts to pit one age group against another than by attempts to find common ground in pursuing the needs of both the elderly and the young.

Fay Lomax Cook

See also Age Integration and Segregation; Inequality; Intergenerational Justice; Social Security: Long-Term Financing and Reform; Welfare State.


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Cook, F. L. and Barrett, E. J. Support for the American Welfare State: The View of Congress and the Public. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Cook, F. L.; Marshal, V. W.; Marshall, J. G.; and Kaufman, J. E. "The Salience of Intergenerational Equity in Canada" In Economic Security and Intergenerational Justice: A Look at North America. Edited by Theodore R. Marmor, Timothy M. Smeeding, and Vernon L. Green. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute Press, 1994.

Daniels, N. Am I My Parents' Keeper? An Essay on Justice Between the Young and the Old. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

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Generations United. "Generations United Mission." Together: The Generations United Newsletter 6, no. 1 (2001): 19.

Kingson, E. R.; Hirshorn, B. A.; and Cornman, J. M. Ties That Bind: The Interdependence of Generations. Washington, D.C.: Seven Locks Press, 1986.

Kingson, E. R., and Williamson, J. B. "Why Privatizing Social Security Is a Bad Idea." In The Generational Equity Debate. Edited by John B. Williams, Diane M. Watts-Roy, and Eric R. Kingston. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Neugarten, B. L. "Patterns of Aging: Past, Present, and Future." Social Service Review 47, no. 4 (1973): 571580.

Palmer, J.; Smeeding, T.; and Torrey, B. B., eds. The Vulnerable. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute Press, 1988.

Pearlstein, S. "The Battle over 'Generational Equity': Powerful Spending, Tax Choices Have the Young Calling for the Old to Get Less." Washington Post February 17, 1993, p. F1.

Preston, S. H. "Children and the Elderly." U.S. Scientific American 25, no. 6 (1984): 4449.

Preston, S. H. "Children and the Elderly: Divergent Paths for America's Dependent." Demography 21, no. 4 (1984): 435457.

Quadagno, J. "Generational Equity and the Politics of the Welfare State." Politics and Society 17, no. 3 (1989): 353376.

Williamson, J. B.; Watts-Roy, D. M.; and Kingson, E. R., eds. The Generational Equity Debate. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

U.S. Office of Management and Budget. Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2002. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2001.

University of Michigan. National Election Studies: Pre-Post-Election Study Dataset. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, Center for Political Studies, 2001.