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Generational Equity - History Of The Debate

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Two independent events catapulted the issue of generational equity to visibility in both the policy and the academic communities in 1984. In the policy community, Senator Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.) founded Americans for Generational Equity (AGE). The goal of AGE was to promote the concept of generational equity among America's political, intellectual, and financial leaders. It called into question the prudence, sustainability, and fairness to future generations of federal old age benefit programs. The major vehicles for AGE's message included conferences; books, articles, and op-ed pieces in newspapers; and speeches and comments in the U.S. Congress by a number of prominent AGE leaders who were members of Congress. AGE is now defunct as an organization, but its influence was important in the emergence of the issue of generational equity and in its reshaping of political discourse "so that all future policy choices will have to take generational equity into account" (Quadagno, p. 364). The Concord Coalition, funded by Pete Peterson, an investment banker and former U.S. secretary of commerce, took up where AGE left off. When it was founded, its aim was to bring entitlements (specifically, Social Security and Medicare) "down to a level that's fair to all generations," and its rhetoric was couched in terms of generational equity.

Also in 1984, in the academic community, Professor Samuel H. Preston gave the presidential address to the annual meeting of the Population Association of America, "Children and the Elderly: Divergent Paths for America's Dependents." The address was reprinted in the journal Demography and later published in revised form in Scientific American. Although Preston never mentioned the term "generational equity" in the address and the subsequent publications, it was clearly his subject. Drawing on large bodies of data on changes in the domains of well-being, the family, and politics, he made the case that conditions have deteriorated for children and improved dramatically for the elderly. Further, he argued that "in the public sphere at least, gains for one group come partly at the expense of another" (Preston, p. 450). According to Preston, U.S. policy makers have made choices that have dramatically altered the age profile of well-being for the young and the old: "Let's be clear that the transfers from the working-age population to the elderly are also transfers away from children . . . and let's also recognize that the sums involved are huge" (pp. 451–452).

Since the mid-1980s, references to generational equity have continued. Scholars have held academic conferences; newspapers have carried stories with headlines such as "U.S. Coddles Elderly but Ignores Plight of Children," "America Is at War with Its Children," and "The Tyranny of America's Old" (see Cook et al.); and advocacy groups have debated the issue (see Williamson et al.). The debate that began in the latter half of the 1990s over whether Social Security should be partially privatized offered yet another platform for bringing the issue of generational equity to the foreground (Kingson and Williamson).

Generational Equity - Does Age Conflict Exist? [next]

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