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Borrowing from the Future

Elizabeth Hunter

A faith-based approach to intergenerational equity
Ann Morisy
Continuum 240pp
If you're 50 or over, you are part of Britain's biggest and richest group. You are the most prosperous generation this country has ever seen, which should be no great surprise - every generation has been richer that parents. Until now. 

Something very unusual has happened - the generations following their baby boomers are the first who cannot expect to continue this upward trend in living standards. They are part of the 'jilted generation'. A confluence of economic, demographic, political, cultural and ecological factors  means that the baby boomers are poised to take more out of the system than they put in, and leave their children and grandchildren to pick up the bill.

Ann Morisy's new book is an attempt to address the problem of this intergenerational injustice. She attempts to provide an analysis of the reasons behind this predicament and offer 'faith-based' (read loosely theological) insights and suggestions for how we might avoid the future being robbed by the present.

Her format is ambitious - a popular, colloquial book on a heavyweight sociological and theological topic aimed at both the Christian and non-Christian audience. It's chattily readable, peppered with helpful examples in magazine-style boxes, and chapter titles like 'What's the score?' and 'Old Peopleā€¦don't make me laugh'. Her analysis of the causes of the contemporary situation are concise and comprehensible - the first three chapters to set out the predicament of the first generation who cannot expect to be better off than their parents. For anyone wanting to get quickly informed, this section is invaluable - although perhaps somewhat derivative of other works on the subject.

Morisy then moves on to the meat of her argument, the ways in which theological or 'faith-based' thinking might help tackle this seemingly intractable problem. She diagnoses the root of the problem as human 'dastardliness', the self-loving narcissism and unrestrained individualism which characterises not just modern society, but the human heart. The choice of 'dastardliness' in place of what she admits elsewhere would be called 'sin' is the most striking thing about the book. It is clearly both an attempt to keep on board a hoped-for non-Christian audience and also to help Christian readers to think differently about sin. I applaud the attempt, but found the obvious association with Penelope Pitstop a constant hindrance to the word expressing either the darkness or weight she clearing hopes it will convey.   

Dastardliness and narcissism are an easy default, Morisy argues, especially within a political system which has short-termism and the interests of the older (and more frequently voting) population built in. No government will find it easy to pass those measures which would help redress the balance between the generations, especially any assault on pensions or rising of retirement age.

True to her promise of a faith-based approach, Morisy offers some distilled theological insights, a 'second chance theology' which she believes might help. The most relevant here are an imperative towards compassion, an 'acknowledgment of theā€¦conscious and unconscious dasterliness that taints all that we do', and the importance of forgiveness. She hopes that by adopting these attitudes we might avoid the already building resentment and bitterness between the generations as a result of the disparity in levels of prosperity.

Ultimately, Borrowing from the Future is a rallying cry for the baby boomer generation to be the drivers of intergenerational equity. Because of the makeup of our political system, Morisy says, only if the older generation themselves stand up and ask for change will it happen. She hopes that the principles of theological principles she sets out can lead us into a 'self-restrained individualism' which resists the pull of dastardly narcissism, and instead compels baby boomers to become a self-sacrificial or 'pivot' generation. What is missing is any detail - it is useful to think about intergenerational justice as a matter of discipleship, but Morisy offers neither prescription nor inspiration for what a sacrificial uprising of baby boomers might look like. It's a great idea, but to be effective, more guidance on practical action is needed.

Morisy is a charming and persuasive writer. Few could disagree with her that we are in this situation because we are too selfish and materialist, or deny that the risk is not just of an emerging generation saddled with the multiple debts of their elders, but a society deeply divided down generational lines. It is an inspiring, if deeply idealistic cry for change, and one that needs to be heard.

However, in trying to speak to both Christian and non-Christian audiences alike, Morisy blunts her argument. The transforming power which allows anyone to overcome their own dastardliness is only once given a name - (whisper it) Jesus. Those who don't have any truck with that sort of thing are asked to think of him as they would Mahatma Gandhi- a teacher in the ways of humility and compassion. This quite reasonable, essentially sociological prescription; that baby boomers should be nicer and pay their dues, does not pack a very great punch, nor, I fear, stand much hope of success. 

Elizabeth Hunter

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