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David Hall calls for an intergenerational conversation about fairness - it would be hard 'but even trying would be a good start'

David Hall calls for an intergenerational conversation about fairness - it would be hard 'but even trying would be a good start'

By 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 is a political theorist based at The Policy Observatory at AUT. This article was first published in AUT's Briefing Papers and is here with permission. 

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Being Gen XY, I have no issue with the government raising the super age to 67. It's obvious that it needs to happen to balance the books.

So why not do it next week? Or in 2025? Why are we waiting until 2037? The only obvious reason is that the self-licking icecream cone (National) see it beneficial to their polling to delay it that far. I can't see any financial or social benefits delaying it until 2037, so why wait and how is this fair?

Obvious maybe, but wrong. Politics is the art of the possible, were any incumbent government to do it immediately they would simply be voted out and the change repealed.

So the problem lies with society as opposed to governance?

And how do you say politics is the art of the possible and in the same sentence say its impossible to do anything that the voters don't want?

What I think you're saying is that politics in NZ is people pleasing for the largest demographic vs doing the right thing for the future of the country.

Politics these days seems to be about pleasing the largest demographic externally, while in subtle ways carrying out an agenda via indirect methods. One good reason to have a representative democracy is because, the general public isn't informed enough to make the right decisions. We have the technology to have direct democracy. On the other hand the people we elect may not be the right people to make the decisions that will be of ultimate benefit either, but for other reasons.

True - so what do you think Nationals subtle, indirect agenda might be?

Well I would say the agenda is to improve the economy, so the agenda is not subtle or indirect. But the methods they have used have failed, low interest rates , immigration. And trying to turn the country into a tax haven for the pananma papers

What is *possible* is what the electorate will accept.

This is one major difference between a parliamentary democracy and a dictatorship.

Every generation has to make their way in the world.
It sorts the wheat from the chaff.
Been like that since adam was a cowboy.
Ain't gonna change any time soon.

Yeah Moa take that wheat of the highest per capita gdp on the planet and turn it into chaff. Good one 'boomers.

"this country once had the highest gross domestic product per capita on earth, and was the world's sixth wealthiest nation in 1950.

But in a discussion paper released by his company Morrison & Co, Mr Morrison warns that New Zealand is poised to slip to 47th on the world ladder of economic prosperity, leaving us wallowing behind Kazakhstan - the home country of fictitious comedy sensation Borat."

According to the Legatum Prosperity Index New Zealand is curently number one. Kiwi Boomers can't be too bad. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!

The ranking is based on a variety of factors including wealth, economic growth, education, health, personal well-being, and quality of life.

Yeah so we feel good but have to borrow money to get by and can't afford an airforce or navy. The boomers parents, with their highest per capita death rates in WW1 and 2 found out the hard about being poorly equipped.

Realistically our airforce would only be used in the service of the corrupt elites to further their hegemonic aims in the Middle East and Asia. Activities to date that have been an absolute disaster for everyone and caused untold suffering in those regions. Our high death toll was more to do with our uncaring leadership.

That’s not how it works now. Boomer wheat & chaff got rich out of NZs housing affordability crisis and the user pays change, while a lot of good Gen XY wheat & chaff will spoil in the field.

Crazy having an attitude like that, given what previous generations did for boomers.

And given boomers expect the younger generations to pay them a pension.

Who's volunteering not to take their pension, then?

Things are changing all the time though. Many times throughout history the most ambitious of the next generation has upped sticks and moved on. After the reconquest of Spain the next generation found a New World.

All of which is lovely but bears no relation to the comment I made.

Things are changing all the time therefore boomers are justified in their selfcenteredness? Well, errr..okay...can't argue with that I guess. *shrug*

He said the same thing about how 48/50 (or some statistic like that) of Sydney's (Melbourne's?) suburbs are unafordable for FHBs. How as young Kiwis we should take advantage of an interconnected world dominated by the rich and foreign money; despite having low wages, high house prices, no job prospects and no-one representing us in parliament.

Each generation has higher expectations than the last and unfortunately this just is not sustainable. The population of the world is increasing and at some point there is a very real possibility it will be back to the horse and cart. It is inevitable at some point in the not too distant future there will not be enough food and clean water. Forget about raising the retirement age by 2040, its going to be the least of everyone's problems. My advice, enjoy life while you still can.

"..there will not be enough food and clean water. "

We live in an age of material plenty unmatched in all of history. There is such a surplus of food and productive land that there is no profit in growing food unless it is done on a massive scale.

Spot on Ralph. I was a teenager in the seventies and we were constantly told there would be great famines in the near future. Check out this fun article:

7 Enviro Predictions From Earth Day 1970 That Were Just Dead Wrong

Who would have predicted that in 2017 there would be more obese people in the world than malnourished ones? The problem at the moment is too much food. Tonight I will drink a can of beer that costs not much more than a dollar and eat several Easter Eggs that cost 25 cents each. All paid for with less than ten minutes of work.

" .. a can of beer .. and several Easter eggs"

So a balanced diet then?

Moa man, Carlos67 - don't you guys have any desire to leave the world in a better place than you found it. Or just too old and too beaten up by the system?

Mate the world is stuffed and it would take some very unpopular and extreme measures starting right now to save the planet. As you may have guessed I am now 50 years old and I believe I'm living in the golden years, its simply not going to get better than this only worse. You cannot change human nature and the pure greed and waste in modern society is not going to change short of dropping a bomb on it. Things are what they are, make the most of every day. Sorry but have given up on trying to change the "System", that is just like banging your head against a brick wall 24/7. Best just to create your own world and let the rest get on with it.

That's a pretty poor attitude. I agree how the world is pretty much stuffed, but simply saying that "I'm fine and all subsequent generations are stuffed and should make the most of what they have" is low and unsympathetic. You could show a bit of compassion for Gen. Y and the Millenials.

Things get a lot more interesting ( and real ) when we talk about the state our biological world was inherited, then passed on to the next generation and fairness and responsibility there.

The boomers obviously inherited our country in a lot more healthy state than it will be passed on. Unfortunately many also inherited a very backwards and undeveloped attitude towards environmental protection. ( Certainly not all as it was this generation that gave birth to the concept of environmental movements ) As the boomers make up the vast proportion of the voting population now, we unfortunately may have to live with this immature view towards environmentalism for a while yet.
What we really need to do is to make sure the younger generations actually act in a sensible and mature way when they take over.
My apologies to any boomers who actually take environmentalism seriously, but you must know you are in a minority. The younger generations are more mature in this aspect, but really our whole society needs a re-check on priorities.

Actually we inherited stuff like DDT, Paraquat and Lindane Dust. We are the ones who began the turning of the truck around, there was some pretty nasty stuff going on before us. Science has helped, some, but as someone who lived through the era when people first seriously began to question what the generations before were doing, war, apartheid (hey it was us kicked that one in the butt). Boomers were possibly the first generation to, overall, begin to kick back against the establishment. Check out what we listened to back then, suggest you watch the Woodstock movie for that.
It is a shame that as many of our generation aged conservatism snuck in among us, expect it to happen to yourself in time, unless you guard against it.

We are the ones

Who is WE

What an absurdly grandstanding and hypocritical comment.
There's some pretty nasty stuff that has been created in the age of the boomers, even with the scientific foresight. That is much worse than the hindsight u-turns of DDT, etc.

Exactly how did you question war in any meaningful way differently to previous conscientious objectors? You think a few drugged up protests by people without jobs is more morally commendable than the thousands of conscientious objectors who actually went to war and refused to fight, suffering torture and execution from their own country?
Apartheid - how exactly did you 'kick that in the butt'? Some protest at a Rugby game? That is the most naive perspective imaginable. But sure, okay, you did your bit by watching it on TV. Perhaps that's why there was never any change in the rest of European controlled Africa? The plight of the Congolese weren't on that great baby boomer informational invention (wait, you do want to claim that too - don't you? I mean, it was invented during your generation. Perhaps not by someone of your generation, but hey, you might as well)

I'm glad you are proud of the environmental movements your generation started in the 70's, you should be.


Boomers are not the "vast majority"
They are 30% of the total roll
They are 42% of the total who voted

Voters 865,591 aged 50-69 who voted
Non Voters 163,281 aged 50-69 who didn't vote
Total age-group Enrolled 1,028,872 50-69

Total Voting Roll 3,149,417
Total actually Voted 2,410,857

Do you want to check what 1028/2410 is?
Because your 36% is fake maths..

Fixed - still not a vast majority

Fake quote/reference.
I love irony. Especially when it is at the cost of the righteous.
"Vast proportion" is what was stated by OP.

I would say that a group that represents ~42% of the democratic weighting whilst representing 30% of the demographic population is definitely a substantially high proportion.

Did you vote at the last 3 elections?

Why do they keep on experimenting on the '72/'73er's - first year to be nailed with 8%ish student loans and then first up to be made to wait on for the pension.

"expanding the economic privilege of a generation that championed individualism while profiting from collectivism" eloquently said and very true.

However I dont think even the baby boomers realize where their colossal wealth really came from. They lived through the transformative period of financialisation in the goldern era of oil. Probably the halcyon days of humanity.

I found this on the internet in 1975 the average weekly wage was $95 per week (equivalent to around $850 per week in 2012). If you account for historic exchange rates and gold prices and translate that to a yearly wage “in gold” then a New Zealand man working in 1971 earned about three kilograms or gold per year, which reduced to three quarters of of a kg per year in 2012. So a fourfold reduction. Even if you account for the fact that most women didn’t work in the 1970s that’s a shocking reduction in wages. DO the same and denominate earnings in “houses” or “silver” and you’d probably get a similar result.

Following that link it was interesting to see that in 1975 voters chose to accept a taxpayer funded superannuation scheme because they were upset about having to pay for it themselves.

As a baby boomer and a parent, I feel it is my duty to leave a world in a better state for the next generation. But, things that I consider better do not seem to be what the next generation wants. The only way I can figure it is this: will the next generation prefer to live now or would they really rather live in my era: climate change or nuclear holocaust, encyclopedias in libraries or internet, only cash payment or credit, mail or email, plentiful dangerous boring jobs at standard rates or safe rewarding opportunities, motorways or light rail etc. While our parents tried to leave us in their idea of a better world baby boomers made a point of rejecting most of their legacy: perhaps we expect the same from coming generations. Finally, given the rate of change, I don't know if anyone can make valid projections for 2040.

The thing is, technological advancements happen regardless of inter-generational equality.

Take a look at Scandinavian countries where education is free, or many modern cities in the states where housing is affordable. It's not as if these places aren't going to receive the fruits of technology.

Encyclopedias or internet? Why is that a relevant factor compared to issues such as affordable housing. Should people simply be satisfied with the fact that technology has rapidly advanced, and forget about the regression in other areas?

One quick note: climate change is happening, whereas nuclear holocaust never did.

Except at Hiroshima. And Nagasaki. And I guess nuclear testing sites all over the world.

And maybe at some radiation leak "incidents", but they were almost nothing. Except for those exposed.

Oh, and I guess Chernobyl. But that was a minor holocaust. Except for those who died.

But other than that, nothing "happened".

Rampantdoubt, I think it is up to each generation how they chose to live and what technology they decide to use within certain parameters. Why would you even care if future generations chose to use cash or cards, how does that effect you at all? I think previous generations should simply endeavour to leave a fair legacy for future generations, rather than a massive pile of dung to deal with as a consequence of selfish or short sighted decisions in previous decades. Legacy should be about equal opportunity, not forced Ludditism or conservatism IMO.

I don't care what future generations use. I was trying to point out that if the current generation had to live in our world of 30 yrs ago they might prefer the current world with all its faults. That preference might be an indication that we have left an improved world despite the obvious problems.

I can't see how this debate can ever work if the two generations do not listen to each other and in my case as a baby boomer, the more I read comments on forums about how hard done by the young of today are - I despair. There are so many different education options out there that were not available to us but where I agree with you is the lack of apprenticeships that are available for young people now. Yes my modest house has doubted in value in the past four years but how is that my fault. 25 years of indoctrination in schools on subjects I find dishonest. That is the crux of the matter, the perceived lack of young people's ability to research subjects from both sides and not just accept what they are told. Look at the Political world you have lived in and ask more questions about how we (including the boomers) got to where we are now. Start with the Global Economy pros and cons and ask yourselves how much was the baby boomers fault. The answer will surprise you.

>Yes my modest house has doubted in value in the past four years but how is that my fault.

It's not.

However...previous generations actually put a lot of effort into housing outcomes and making home ownership affordable. That's a massive factor in why it peaked in the 1980s.

Earlier governments' use of Land Tax (for example) to break up land banks, government builds, cheap government leasehold land and housing corp loans. Many of these things went into creating the high levels of home ownership that boomers got to enjoy.

Now. Some boomers voted to change things. High taxes that their parents paid were they were cut, as were levels of service. Education included. Housing policies changed from being about home ownership to being advantageous as an investment vehicle. Home ownership rates have plummeted since then as investor activity has soared.

There are plenty out there doing the research:

(Note: today's young people out-saving the previous generations - not at all in line with the portrayal of them as smashed avocado eating spendthrifts.)

Most young people are actually working very hard, saving very hard, and just looking for a viable life in future. I'd suggest that generations need to work together to find solutions to the housing crisis and resurrect viable home ownership. This could include resurrecting some policies that were used to create the affordability boomers received from their preceding generations, e.g. land tax to break up land banks.

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