Should millennials be cheesed off about house prices?

The question of what duties are owed to future generations is a puzzling and difficult intellectual problem. It has ceased to be only that, however. As members of younger generations – millennials, born 1981–2000, and Gen Z, born since 2000 – encounter unexpected challenges in the economy, there is a widespread sense not just that the intergenerational compact is under strain, but that there is generational injustice. Generational injustice is the result of previous generations having failed to fulfil their obligations to present and future generations.

Image credit: April30 (iStock)

Most policy work on this problem has focused on the economic prospects of the young. The historic assumption that living standards would rise for each generation no longer holds. In the UK, millennials’ incomes are approximately identical to those of Gen Xers, born 1966–80, at the equivalent age. But housing costs are significantly up, and so millennials’ spending on consumption is lower. The situation is worse in Italy, Spain and Greece, where millennials’ incomes are lower than Gen Xers. In the US, the trend started earlier, so that Gen Xers were affected too.

The problem of intergenerational justice is posed more starkly yet by climate change. Diminishing biodiversity and pressure on ecosystems deprives present generations of the interaction with and participation in nature that has been the historical assumption for the normal human life. It leads to loss of health, livelihood, and of lives. Future generations look likely to be grotesquely deprived of this, unless very significant changes are made immediately.

It is not difficult to see that the problem of climate change offends basic justice. Previous generations have made – are making – future generations worse off. Even though this has not been intended, the problem is now known about, and it is negligence to ignore it. The effect may be not just a comparative one, of making future generations worse off than they could have been had growth been sustainable, but may be an absolute one. And it is a basic principle of justice that, other things equal, one should not harm others.

But it is not so obvious why millennials’ stalled economic prospects offend against principles of justice. Why is continual growth a claim that one generation can make against others? Why should the child’s life go better than her parents’? One source of the chagrin about reduced economic progress may be the thought that there is a kind of inevitability to progress – that history is the chronicle of our slow but steady evolution towards better, more perfect societies. This idea is widespread, as well as being curious, and innocent of any encounter with reality. 

John Rawls influentially addressed what the demands of justice were between generations. He framed the issue in terms of an enquiry into how much each generation should save. A ‘just savings rate’ requires that each generation should ‘not only preserve the gains of culture and civilisation, and maintain intact those just institutions that have been established, but also put aside in each period of time a suitable amount of real capital accumulation’.

Rawls observed that his basic method – of identifying the demands of justice on the basis of what a self-interested individual would choose, if they did not know their actual situation in a society – gives implausible answers here. Behind such a ‘veil of ignorance’, but spread out through time, such a person would not know whether they were a member of the first generation or the twentieth. Being self-interested, they would want to make sure that the worst-case scenario they could find themselves in would be as good as possible. So, for this question, they would say that there should be no savings rate set for the society. Why save, if you could find yourself a member of the first generation, in which case you would be being told to make sacrifices that you would never benefit from? But this is counter-intuitive. Most people think that early generations should forego some consumption, to help improve the lives of later generations.  

So, Rawls needed to find a way to rig the result. His solution was ‘that the parties [should] represent family lines, say, who care at least for their more immediate descendants’. Caring for their immediate descendants, those behind the veil of ignorance would nonetheless choose to engage in some saving, because it would benefit their children and grandchildren.

Rawls’ discussion has a striking implication, one which I think is insufficiently noted. To make sense of intergenerational obligations, Rawls has to appeal to affection, not just self-interest. Justice is often construed – both in theory, and especially so in the practice of standing on one’s rights – as consisting in claims that one person makes against another. It is adversarial. On this adversarial picture, apart from the unqualified obligations not to harm another, it is consent only that gives rise to an expectation that someone should actively cooperate with or seek to benefit others. But if this picture of justice-as-self-interested-claims is correct – and it is a common one – then millennials’ stalled economic prospects are not the basis for any legitimate claim against previous generations. That claim is legitimate if, and only if, different generations are united by bonds of love and affection.

This point has a corollary. Insofar as bonds of affection are the basis for intergenerational justice, this applies both prospectively and retrospectively. Members of the millennial cohort are, I think, increasingly aware of their obligations to future generations on environmental issues. It is an open question how far baby-boomers, born 1946–65 and now entering their long retirement, appreciate the economic privileges their generation has uniquely enjoyed, and how the burden of providing for their retirement is about to be imposed on a proportionately smaller, younger workforce. Rebuilding a sense of intergenerational loyalty is an urgent task.

Edmund Burke famously wrote that society is a ‘contract between those who are dead, those who are living, and those who are yet to be born’. If what I am saying is correct, however, then even Burke understates the case. His language of ‘contract’ is misleading, as a contract is what two self-interested parties enter to enable a mutually beneficial exchange. But the relationship between the generations seems more like a covenant, in the theological sense – a non-revocable agreement, which may bind independently of whether one has individually consented to it, based on ties of love and regard.

If this point is recognised and taken as seriously as it should be, it changes one’s attitude to the past. Instead of the past being primarily a target for one’s opprobrium – perhaps because social attitudes were insufficiently enlightened – the primary attitude becomes gratitude to one’s forbears. For those claims of justice which depend on one’s forbears making sacrifices, you have the standing to make those claims only if you reciprocate their sacrifices with your gratitude. And there is plainly a shrinking supply of gratitude to the past.

This also changes one’s attitude to the future. A self-interested generation asks what the minimum is that we must do to make sure things aren’t worse in the future. Those committed to an intergenerational covenant ask what the sacrifice is that we can make now to promote the good of those in the future.

Tom Simpson is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government.

Comments are closed.