My interest in demography, ethics and public policy started in my first doctoral year at the LSE under the late Brian Barry. Brian always nudged me to try and incorporate normative political theory considerations into positive political economy analysis. My first book, Divide and Pacify, attempted to make sense of the historically unprecedented government-promoted early and disability retirement booms in 1990s post-communist Europe. This was a demographically not-yet-aging region, where short-term political tactics set in motion pathways toward the strongly pro-elderly oriented welfare states we see today. With Clara Sabbagh, we subsequently studied the remarkably strong and internationally consistent perceptions of intergenerational injustice among young people, and of pensions injustice among adults.
Another book, Ageing Populations in Postindustrial Democracies, co-edited with Achim Goerres, in turn attempted to infuse a sense of empirical variation and political-institutional refinement as a counterbalance to increasingly shrill and alarmist assertions about ‘gerontocratic’ welfare states dominated by unholy baby boomer alliances of ‘greedy grey’ voters and ‘myopic’ or populist politicians. Achim and I are currently working on a book on Global Political Demography. Demography is not destiny: governance cultures matter more than pure population aging in explaining policy biases and grey power – or their absence. With Markus Tepe, we similarly tried to inject empirical and institutional qualifiers into sweeping claims about how population aging causes gerontocracy politics in pensions, pension cutback delays, and elderly-biased welfare states.
Recently I have been thinking about how to measure the intergenerational justice of public policies in rich democracies. At the invitation of the Bertelsmann Foundation I developed a four-dimensional snapshot indicator of intergenerational justice (IJI), including a new measure of elderly bias in social spending (EBiSS). And I discussed reform ideas, including the ‘parental proxy votes for children’ thought balloon launched earlier by demographer Paul Demeny, philosopher Philippe van Parijs and others. I was also part of the team that developed the first Active Aging Index for the Commission, in the context of the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations.
I have also been thinking about the need for a wider humanities education (foxes and hedgehogs; STEM and Shakespeare!) and the potential of early human capital investment policies to provide future foundations for an aging Europe. And with demographers Robert Gal and Lili Vargha we have asked what resources generations give each other. From different angles, the latter two papers both argue that notwithstanding decades of ‘social investment states’ rhetoric, we actually observe surprisingly little state investment in young people.
Looking at public policies alone offers an incomplete and biased picture of intergenerational transfers. It’s a proverbial case of looking for a lost car key only where the streetlight shines at night. The reason is a key asymmetry in modern societies. Working-age people pay taxes and social security contributions to institutionalize care for older persons as a generation. But they invest substantial private resources (money and time) to raise their ownchildren, often with large social returns. Once one also incorporates these family resources, counterintuitive and radically different conclusions follow. Children actually receive more than twice as many per-capita resources as older persons in Europe – but not from policies. We live in pro-elderly welfare states within child-oriented societies.
A key ethics and public policy question is therefore: why do states not take a greater role in helping families raise children? Economist Nancy Folbre, sociologist James Coleman, and political philosophers Anne Alstott and Serena Olsaretti, among others, have forcefully argued that children are also public goods. Their contributions will later benefit all of society, including non-parents. Since children are also ever scarcer in aging societies, we ask: why has child investment not been socialized much morethan we can observe in reality? Robert Gal and I plan to keep investigating these questions and their normative implications in the near future.
Pieter Vanhuysse is professor of comparative welfare state research at the University of Southern Denmark
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