What do we owe to young people?

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Juliana Bidadanure
(SPS MW Fellow 2014-2015)

I started my Max Weber Fellowship in September 2014, just after having handed in my PhD thesis at the University of York in the UK. My thesis is titled ‘Treating Young People As Equals: Intergenerational Justice in Theory and Practice’. In it, I ask which inequalities between generations – that is both between birth cohorts and age groups – matter to justice, and I examine governmental duties to young people. At the EUI, this year, I am both (1) working on an number of articles that derive from this project and (2) trying to turn this thesis into a book project. But let me tell you a bit more about the topic of the thesis.


In the UK, unemployment rates for young adults are always likely to be higher than for older age groups, but the gap is widening as unemployment rates among the young rise. In 1992, the unemployment rate of the young was twice as high as for the rest of the population, now it is four times higher (MacInnes et al. 2013, 38). At the European level (EU28), the rate of unemployment amongst 16-24 year olds is 23%, approximately twice the overall rate (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions 2011, 1). Even when they do have jobs, young people are disproportionately likely to be in precarious positions. As Guy Standing argues, although many other groups make up what he calls ‘the precariat’, ‘the most common image is of young people emerging from school and college to enter a precarious existence lasting years, often made all the more frustrating because their parents’ generation had seemingly held stable jobs’ (Standing 2011, 18).

Despite this context of job scarcity and the structural precariousness they have to face, the young are often regarded with little sympathy. Media and politicians alike tend to emphasize personal desert and render young people responsible for their own situation. The generation born in the 1980s – Generation Y – has been described as the ‘entitlement generation’, ‘generation me’, and even the ‘dumbest generation’ (Twenge 2006, Bauerlein 2008). If young people are portrayed and perceived as lazy, self-serving and unwilling, then there is at least some reason to worry that youth policies may be inadequate. If policies are driven by group representations and prejudices of this kind, they may miss the urgency of youth poverty and unemployment, and not take young peoples’ interests seriously enough (Buckingham 2012, Howker and Malik 2010).

Taking on this challenge, some groups have condemned what they claim are clear instances of injustice. Think tanks, journalists, activists and politicians have voiced, all in different ways, their concerns for intergenerational fairness. They complain that some generations – in general younger and future generations – are getting fewer resources, benefits or entitlements than others, and that such inequalities are morally objectionable. For instance, some argue that it is not fair that the generation of young people today will find themselves having paid ‘a higher share of their incomes to their governments for a lower entitlement to services and benefits from their governments’ (Coyle 2011, 103). Others claim that it is unfair that the government’s spending per elderly person is several times higher than the amount spent per child (Willetts 2010). Others complain that the young today have to pay so much in tuition fees to study towards higher education while the generation before them – the baby-boomers – did not have to pay for the same services when they were young themselves.


The thesis project

My thesis draws the lines of an egalitarian account of intergenerational justice. It provides the conceptual clarifications and the normative tools needed to respond to the following questions: Which inequalities between generations matter? What does it mean for a young person to be equal to an elderly person? When do institutions treat different age groups as equals? What is special about time, age and the young for distributive justice? My aim is to answer the question: ‘what does it means to treat the young as equals?’. I provide both a theoretical answer – asking what makes young adulthood special for distributive justice – and a practical answer – asking which radical policies could help bring about a temporally fair egalitarian society.

The thesis makes three core theoretical contributions to contemporary political philosophy. First, it contributes to egalitarian thought. Egalitarian theories will not be complete until they can accommodate issues of equality through time. At the very end of the 1980s, the highly abstract ‘equality through time’ debate emerged. It sought to establish the time unit to which dominant egalitarian accounts for justice should apply: if John and Mary are unequal at T1 and unequal at T2 but equal overall, should we care? Is equality a diachronic value, in which case we should find the respective situation of John and Mary unproblematic, or is equality a synchronic value, in which case, we should find the inequality at T1 and T2 problematic. However, participants in this debate did not sufficiently connect their discussion of this abstract puzzle to the topic of intergenerational justice (Lippert-Rasmussen and Holtug 2006). The first important contribution of this thesis is that it deliberately reconnects this debate to generational issues and highlights its concrete implications for the field of justice between generations.

Second, in recent years, many philosophers have been concerned with issues of intergenerational justice, but most of them have focused on issues arising from what we owe ‘future generations’. The intergenerational literature has largely focused on the problems of justice that arise when we ask what our duties of justice are to people who do not yet exist. Very little has been written in political philosophy on what co-existing generations owe each other and even less on issues of intergenerational equality. I take on this challenge in the thesis and focus exclusively on co-existing generations, with an emphasis on what we owe to young people.

Third, this thesis provides a detailed analysis of the normative importance of the distinction between two meanings of the concept of generation: age groups and birth cohorts. Simply put, the puzzle I engage with is the following. On the one hand, we have no more control over our age than over our gender or ‘race’, so perhaps age – like gender and ‘race’ – should be seen as a criterion that is not morally relevant in justifying inequality. On the other hand, given that we all age – whereas we do not (in most cases) change ethnicity or gender – inequalities that are age-based seem to be less problematic. The basic fact that we all age gives intuitive strength to the dominant default approach to equality through time – complete lives egalitarianism – which states that we should aim to treat people equally over their complete lives.

Complete lives egalitarianism, I show, brings interesting insights to explain why inequalities between birth cohorts matter, but is incapable on its own of making sense of why some inequalities between age groups matter. I argue that, even if we contend that complete lives equality, and hence birth cohort equality, is a goal of justice, there are at least two further goals which egalitarians should acknowledge. One is ensuring that inequalities between age groups are always ‘prudent’. The other is making sure that society is free from synchronic relationships of inequality. To highlight these two key principles of age-group justice, I introduce and discuss the key arguments of Norman Daniels and Dennis McKerlie, before going on to offer an account that advances the literature beyond these seminal contributions. This thesis can thus be seen as an in-depth discussion of the requirements of age-group justice extensively discussing an aspect of intergenerational justice that is often overlooked (Gosseries and Meyer 2009, 6).