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A Synthetic Index of Intergenerational Justice—Measuring and Addressing Intergenerational (In-)Justice in Aging Societies

Pieter Vanhuysse, Director of Research and Deputy Executive Director, European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research
Ideas Fair


Intergenerational justice has been a key concept within theories and discussions of social justice since at least John Rawls’s (1971) general Theory of Justice and two seminal intergenerational justice-focused volumes, R.I. Sikora and Brian Barry’s (1978) Obligations to Future Generations and Derek Parfit’s (1984) Reasons and Persons. These books made a strong case for systematically analyzing social justice within countries viewed as transgenerational polities—societies in which successive generations are linked together in relationships of obligation and entitlement.

The index of intergenerational (in-)justice is a new and innovative tool, which allows one to measure and compare intergenerational justice in practice across altogether 31 OECD member states. The approach captures two major aspects of intergenerational justice. On the one hand, the index measures outcomes which leave legacies towards future generations or constitute discrimination between younger and older living generations. On the other hand, it attempts to grasp the degree to which current policy output is biased towards younger or older living generations. Thereby, the index does not only look at results produced (social, economic, ecological legacies/discriminations) but also at the direction a political system is taking in its policy output to address such outcomes (policy output bias).

With regard to outcomes, the index assumes that intergenerational justice can only be achieved if performance is sustainable along three dimensions. First, social outcomes must ensure that starting conditions and related life chances for everyone are largely the same and will not deteriorate for future generations. Second, economic and fiscal outcomes ought not to shift legacy burdens to future generations which do not yield corresponding payoffs for these generations. Third, the use of ecosystem resources ought not to exceed its natural regeneration capacity. Each dimension is composed of a small number of intuitively plausible indicators.

Just outcomes need to be complemented by just policies. Hence, intergenerational justice requires that current policy output does not unduly favor one living generation over another, but rather that it attributes fair and proportionate entitlements to young and elderly citizens. The index takes a measure of the relative welfare state spending bias towards elderly citizens as an indicator for this second aspect of intergenerational justice.

It is especially with regard to this output dimension that the index can be used to formulate concrete policy conclusions. As applied to intergenerational justice in aging OECD welfare states, the working assumption here is that population aging as a demographic concept may be viewed largely as an ethically neutral development (a society, or individuals/groups within it, cannot morally be blamed for lower fertility and higher life expectancy). But the way in which a country’s public policy packages react to this development is not ethically neutral. Thus, obviously a demographically young society might be said to have it easier to treat its currently young citizens well in terms of, say, social spending patterns or child poverty prevention. But an aging country that nevertheless manages to put a comparatively small burden on, or allocate a larger investment in, its young citizens would clearly be intergenerationally just—and arguably even more just than the young country. Here lies the specific solution-oriented potential of the new index. By systematically comparing outcomes and government effort, the approach identifies the countries’ specific need for reform and can help policy-makers to adjust public policy packages towards greater intergenerational justice.

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