Beyond the Intergenerational Social Contract

Jennifer A. Herdt

We are an aging society, indeed an aging world, with birth rates declining and the elderly making up a growing percentage of overall population. Edmund Burke, critiquing Rousseau’s notion of a social contract between the sovereign and the people, famously wrote of society as a kind of partnership between the generations: “Society is indeed a contract … The state … is … a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”1 

     Today, that contract seems to be eroding quickly.  Public intellectuals such as Harvard’s Niall Ferguson are warning of a coming age war that will displace the class warfare of the past.2 An ever-smaller workforce is being asked to shoulder the burdens of supporting an ever-growing population of retirees.  Though many societies in the past had a high ratio of dependents to workers, the body of dependents was primarily children. In more and more parts of the world today, by contrast, the retired and elderly make up the largest class of dependents. Given the diseases and disabilities of age, together with the dramatic advances of modern medicine, supporting this sector of the population is particularly expensive, and becoming more so every day.  

Breach of Partnership

    The problem is complex, and there is no quick fix.  As funding for Social Security in the United States faces the prospect of exhaustion, baby boomers feel betrayed. They have paid into these funds throughout their working lives, on the understanding that they would be supported in their retirement. Is the nation not obligated to find a way to uphold its end of the bargain? On the other hand, can the rise in taxes needed to fund future Social Security – or the severe spending cuts needed elsewhere to rescue it – be borne without crippling the national economy?  Ferguson argues that “in the enormous intergenerational transfers implied by current fiscal policies we see a shocking and perhaps unparalleled breach of precisely that partnership.”3 Fulfilling commitments made to those in retirement might make it impossible to extend the same care to those to come.

     I have no neat solution to offer. I do think, though, that we might make a start by questioning the Burkean metaphor of contract, lasting as it has been. Burke sought to draw attention to the unifying force of tradition, of culture, of bonds of sentiment.  We cannot reinvent society anew in each generation, he argued, even if we recognize elements of injustice and oppression in our societies. Lasting reform is a slow and organic process; revolutions simply breed revolutions. There is wisdom here, even if Burkean conservatism can also be used to excuse indifference to reform. 

     Burke argued that we need to appreciate our indebtedness to those who have gone before us and our responsibility to those who come after. These are not bargains that we have chosen to strike up; we have not haggled over terms in order to make them favorable to ourselves. Rather, we come to consciousness of ourselves as defined by unchosen relationships and identities and obligations, and it is our task to negotiate these with integrity.

     But the language of contract actually works at cross-purposes to Burke’s best aims. True, the language of an intergenerational social contract calls on us to fulfill commitments we have undertaken, but it also licenses us to neglect all other commitments except those to which we have freely and explicitly consented. Further, it encourages us to identify solely with those of our own generation. It is easy to be cynical and assume everyone votes for his or her own self-interest, but the evidence does not support this assumption. Instead, individuals vote for policies that they take to be in the best interest of their core affinity group or groups.4 The discourse of an intergenerational social contract encourages people to think in terms of generational identity politics. In supporting the lobbying efforts of a group as vast and powerful as the AARP, for instance, we are serving something larger and higher than self-interest – but we are also reinforcing tendencies to think of the set of retired Americans as a “we” arrayed against a host of “theys” who are eager to deprive us of resources and rob us of our rights.

     The tendency to structure American social life according to generational cohorts reinforces this generational identity politics. Due in part to increasing geographic mobility and the priority of the nuclear over the extended family, ever-greater numbers of retirees are moving to retirement communities and nursing homes in which most of their social contacts are with members of their own generation, instead of remaining within the intergenerational communities in which they have spent their working lives and eventually moving in with family members. 

     There is a great deal to be said in favor of these retirement communities, which offer robust social and medical support systems for their members, helping them maintain their independence and live healthy lives. But we need to be conscious of the ways in which they also work, in tandem with the social forces that have fed their development, to undermine cross-generational forms of identification. 

We’re In This Together

    We will continue to identify with our generational cohort and lobby for its interests. But in order to meet the challenges that lie ahead we need also to cultivate cross-generational bonds of affinity and identification, bonds capable of counteracting the more negative aspects of what Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind terms our “groupish” tendencies.5 Burke wrote not only of a contract between the generations but of an intergenerational partnership. We might explore the potential of this social metaphor of partnership as we cultivate concrete social practices that bring the generations together in shared projects, harnessing the energy of the young and the wisdom of the mature. 

     The churches have always been and must continue to be places where these practices are cultivated: “in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female,” says Galatians 3:28. And, we might add, no longer young or old. 

     If we can understand ourselves to be “in this together,” with collective goals, shared identities, and common goods at stake, we can begin productively to re-frame debates about social assistance for the aging. Instead of girding our loins for an “age war,” we can reflect together on the conditions that allow a flourishing life for all, at every stage of life, in recognition of our shared humanity, our shared finitude, and our shared longing to be taken up into the life of God.

                                                                                          Jennifer A. Herdt, who joined YDS in 2010, is Professor of Christian Ethics and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs. Her research interests include early modern and modern moral thought, classical and contemporary virtue ethics, and contemporary Protestant social ethics and political theology. She is the author of Religion and Faction in Hume’s Moral Philosophy (Cambridge, 1997) and Putting on Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices (Chicago, 2008).


1 J. C. D. Clark, ed., Reflections on the Revolution in France. A Critical Edition (Stanford University Press, 2001), p. 261.

2 “Prepare for the Clash of the Generations,” The Telegraph, 30 September 2007,….

3 Reith Lectures, New York Historical Society, 18 June 2012,….

4 D. E. Kinder, “Opinon and Action in the Realm of Politics,” in The Handbook of Social Psychology, 4th edition, edited by D. Gilbert, S. Fiske, and G. Lindzey (McGraw Hill, 1998), p. 808.

5 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Vintage Books, 2012), p. 221.