What is generational fairness?

David Runciman speech on intergenerational fairness and political representation


This article summarises a speech by Professor David Runciman at a recent Intergenerational Centre event exploring what the concept of generational fairness means for our politics, economics and society. You can watch the full event on our event page. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Resolution Foundation. In the coming months we will publish further contributions from speakers at future Intergenerational Centre events in this series.

Political uncertainty is on the rise in the developed world. Places that we otherwise think of as stable have seen waves of conflict: Hong Kong, Europe, the US, and of course, the UK. While these conflicts are in no way uniform, age is at the heart of them.

Protesters in Hong Kong are distinguished by their youth – many are still in school. The climate protests sparked by Greta Thunberg’s actions are similarly built on striking school children fighting for their future.

In the US, age is a clear dividing line in the support for President Donald Trump, while in the UK growing age divides drive conflict at Party Conferences. At Labour’s Conference, young members want more radical change (notably on Brexit) while the older members are more cautious, including the party leadership. The Conservatives have an older membership and more consensus. Despite internal debates, both parties’ promises and conflicts are fronted up by older men.

Age is not the only factor that plays into the political landscape in Britain, however. Although age is a clear determinant of support for Brexit, this support also tracks education levels closely. Since age and education levels are also strongly correlated, it is not completely clear which is more important in determining voter preferences.

This outcome raises some serious questions about representation in the UK’s political system. A central assumption underpinning how society is structured is that any human society will always have a majority of less-educated, poor and young people. Our representative democracy is therefore designed to ensure that Parliament is full of older, richer and better-educated people. If this were not the case, so the original rationale for political representation goes, the majority of the young, poor and ignorant could vote for any number of crazy ideas.

But this viewpoint has resulted in some inbuilt discriminations against the young.

Discrimination 1: The young lose the popular vote

The young and the educated are now both minorities. Although half of today’s 18 year olds go to university, this was not the case 20 years ago, let alone 60 years ago, when it was more like one-in-fifty. Across the adult population, there are a lot fewer university graduates than non-graduates.

More unusually in the sweep of history, there are more older people than younger ones. It used to be the case that governments paid attention to older people’s interests because they were more likely to turn up to the polls and vote. A lack of engagement led to little incentive for politicians to offer the young policies that might appeal to them. Today the incentive for politicians to favour older voters is doubly strong: the young would be outvoted by the old even if everyone turned up to the polls.

Discrimination 2: No one in parliament is speaking for the young  

The educated can take consolation in the fact that despite being in the minority in society they are overrepresented in parliament: the vast majority of MPs are now university graduates. But the young minority does not have the same fall-back. If the young are outvoted by the old in a referendum or election, they can’t rely on winning in parliament because of an overrepresentation of youth: there are still only a handful of MPs in their twenties and the average age of MPs remains 50, which is what it was 50 years ago. The strategically designed representative system that has long benefited older people means that the representation of the old is now dominating both in the polls and in parliament.

Discrimination 3: The young are responsible for more

Young people are expected to speak both for themselves and for children who are not entitled to vote. Often they are also appealed to for giving a voice to the unborn, as on the issue of climate change. But we only have to look to Lord David Willetts’s book The Pinch to know that young people today have enough to think about just fighting for themselves.

In a system that already severely discriminates against young people, it is unfair to lay on them the responsibility not only to vote on behalf of themselves but also for the society they want to leave to their children.

A way forward?

Lowering the voting age to six would be one way to extend the vote and force a change in the topic areas and language of political campaigns. This will not mean that we will all be governed by six year olds. And it is far less controversial than retracting the vote from older people considered no longer capable to make a rational choice, as some commentators have suggested. Another option is to introduce election shortlists containing only candidates in their 20s. Neither of these things is likely to happen, but that just goes to show how hard it is to redress the generational imbalance in political representation.

The political system was designed to ensure that parliament is full of people who are well-qualified to do their job – by implication, better qualified than the voters themselves – but it is out of date. Together with other key discriminatory aspects in political representation, such as those relating to gender and ethnicity, age is a serious problem requiring institutional reform. Without reform, we will be stuck with the frozen, acrimonious and miserable politics of the past few years.