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Going grey

Ann Morisy

ANN MORISY on the future of inequality between generations

Fage.jpgThe British population will never be young again. Like other grey­ing nations - usually the so called developed ones - we've seen the proportion of over-65s creep to more than 20% of the popu­lation, with a major growth in the number of people in their 80s, 90s and above.

This has implications for social cohesion, because if people vote solely on the basis of self interest then demography will clearly trump democracy. Even now it is possible to detect how governments go easy on the older genera­tion, because their mass defection would mean loss of political power. But this only feeds the growing debate about fairness between genera­tions. The pattern of advant­age seems to have re­peatedly favoured the baby-boom genera­tion. They say that 1948 was the most blessed year in which to have been born, as all the benefits of the welfare state opened out to a vista of possi­bility. For those born in the 1970s and later the story has been one of benefits being stripped away and the anticipa­tion of the future being worse than the past. As a result, the scope for re­sentment be­tween the generations is high. The big challenge is how on a societal level we are to take into account the in­terests of future genera­tions when the political sys­tem legitimises voting on the basis of immediate self-interest.  

The usual assumption is that this unique event in human history - where oldsters outnumber youngsters - is due to the ever increasing longevity. However, what tends to get masked is the extraordinarily sudden, and apparently persistent, eschewing of fertility in most western nations. The populations of most developed nations are shrinking, and if they are growing, it will be due to the fertility of new arrivals - immigrants, as is the case in the UK. So while much attention is given to the ageing of our population, rarely is the spotlight turned towards the disinclination to have children.

The reasons for this extraordinary development in the 'progress' of the species have to be both strong and complex.  It is tempting to link it with an intense individualism, even narcissism, that has gained momentum in affluent nations, but who is to say? Interestingly, those who consistently buck this trend are those who are passionate about their faith. Conservative Christians, Orthodox Jews and Wahabi inspired Muslims all have significantly higher numbers of children than those with more liberal expressions of faith.

The issue of caring for those in late or 'deep' old age cannot be ducked.  Let me say it now: in the west, within 20 years I anticipate that we will have become familiar with people seeking assistance to end their lives. While the churches and Christians may protest, as with abortions, such protests will scarcely dent the intention. Just as 'a woman's right to chose' has become an unassailable mantra, so too will 'It's my right to choose how to die' become a welcomed creed for the generation that has been bewitched by the power to choose.

This raises the two questions that gain most attention in the media: How will we afford to care for so many frail elders - and who will do the caring? As today, in the future those who will do the caring will be poor women, often immigrants unable to get 'better' jobs. But the question of who will pay is more challenging still. In failing to produce a goodly number of offspring who grow up to pay taxes, we are reliant on the children of present day immigrants to root themselves sufficiently to pay taxes here and not elsewhere.  The issue of social cohesion doesn't get more basic than this. 

Ann Morisy