The future of the left since 1884

Fairness, responsibility and the lifecourse

When we worry about fairness we tend to ignore ageing. We think about national economic inequalities which separate rich and poor or about how to ensure that two babies from different sides of the tracks can reach the same starting...


When we worry about fairness we tend to ignore ageing. We think about national economic inequalities which separate rich and poor or about how to ensure that two babies from different sides of the tracks can reach the same starting point when they turn 18. You could have said the same 150 years ago, when most of us were dead by 60.  These perspectives just aren’t sufficient to think about what fairness means in the context of a rapidly ageing population and the huge lifespans we are coming to expect.

So what does fairness mean when we put it alongside longer lifespans? We need to be thinking about three issues side-by-side. First there is inequality amongst people of the same age throughout their lives. We are good at worrying about how children’s life chances diverge from birth to early adulthood. We are less used to thinking about the drivers of inequality which scar people’s lives all the way into late old age.

Our experiences of old age are hugely unequal because of everything that has come before. Two children born the same day 80 years ago will today live very different lives because of the accumulation of inequalities over a whole lifetime. Later life in Britain is characterised by wide inequalities of wealth and income; there are huge variations in older people’s homes, local environments and their opportunities for an active, purposeful life; and most important of all, old age is scarred by rising inequalities in health and in the length of life itself.

Such inequality represents ‘chickens coming home to roost’ from across our whole lifetimes; the aggregation of our failure to equalise opportunities, resources and environments at every stage of life, decade after decade. Perhaps this might only matter for the unfortunate victims if it were a one-off failure for a single generation.  But the pattern is set to recur as generation after generation reaches old age, through our failure to tackle inequality at each stage of our lengthening lives.

My second and third dimensions of lifespan fairness are inter-generational and inter-temporal equity. They are related and easily confused ideas. They also engage notions of obligation in a much more practical way than the idea of fairness within each generation, which I managed to describe without mentioning responsibility.

Let’s turn first to the hot-topic of inter-generational fairness. A great deal has been said in recent times about the perceived injustices facing some age-groups compared to others (ie ‘unlucky’ youth versus ‘lucky’ baby boomers). But these easy claims need a good deal of scrutiny. Are the people being compared in each age cohort alike in all other respects? And can the argument be sustained if the British economy returns to health and today’s young go on to experience a lifetime of rising living standards? In my view there is clear inter-generational unfairness with respect to housing while the long-term prospects for public spending and the labour market raise far fewer concerns.

Ideas of inter-generational fairness and responsibility are almost inseparable because inter-generational relations are based on a contract. Older generations are responsible for investing and conserving for the benefit of future generations. Younger generations are responsible for safeguarding the security and wellbeing of the old to ensure they can share in the (hopefully) rising prosperity of society. And both must care for the other at different points. Since the parties to this contract bear their obligations at different times its success is dependent on the self-policing we associated with the everyday idea of moral responsibility.

There is also the overlooked issue of inter-temporal equity – how fair or rational is the allocation of resources and opportunities over each of our lives? Perhaps the distribution of resources between the same person at different points in time is not a true issue of social justice, since only one party is involved. In other words, perhaps it should be thought of as responsibility to ourselves not fairness to others. But inter-temporal distribution has huge implications for our lifetime welfare and our politics – and demands attention because it is often confused with inter-generational fairness. Many of the concerns people conceive of as inter-generational issues are better framed as questions regarding the fairness of the contract with our future selves, for example in the balance between education today and healthcare to come.

What definition of inequality are we talking about here? For practical politics no single conceptual account will quite do, so it’s perhaps recalling a formula set out by Ed Miliband in a Fabian speech he made in 2008. He suggested that for egalitarians three things matter: financial resources; social mobility; and access to the opportunities to lead the life people choose.

The latter is politician shorthand for the capabilities conception of human welfare made famous by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, which is so all-encompassing that perhaps the first two thoughts can be subsumed within the third. But for politicians there is great merit in specifying all three independently. Money is not only pretty fundamental to welfare and closely linked to other dimensions of inequality; it also keeps politicians honest because it is easy to measure (hence the squirming when governments fail to meet their goals for reducing relative income poverty). Meanwhile social mobility captures the value of social churning – the end result of a fair distribution of human capabilities – which is a good in its own right in an open, porous society.

What challenges does a whole-lifespan approach throw up for these conceptions of equality?

Thinking about financial inequality is perhaps most straightforward. However old you are, financial poverty undermines your opportunity to participate fully in society and great financial inequalities among people of any given age suggests indefensible divergence in life experiences and opportunities. Thinking about lifespans adds some complexity, however. It means we need to think about the accumulation and decumlation of assets, not just the earning and spending of income.  For example, you need less income to achieve the same standard of living in old age if you have already bought a home and no longer need to save for a pension. It also reminds us that at some points in our lives we need to consume more than at others in order to achieve the same standard of living, even after the size of household has been taken into account, for example because of childcare or social care costs.

There is also the subjective and controversial question of whether the financial resources people need to participate in society change at different ages. For example, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation research finds that the British public currently consider an adequate income for families with children needs to provide enough so they can drive a car, but they do not believe older people need the internet in their own home. These social judgements, though very interesting, are based on historic consumption patterns and expectations of different generational cohorts. I am cautious of seeing this as an objective definition of income need. The material requirements deemed acceptable in old age risks being a time-capsule of general living standards from previous poorer decades.

Turning to social mobility, our standard understanding is flawed when it comes to thinking about lifespan inequality. We think about mobility as a ‘nought to thirty’ phenomenon largely determined by parenting, education and early labour market experiences. The post-war stereotype of social mobility is the image of working-class children winning a place at university and then a white-collar graduate job. This perspective was always pretty limited but today, with one-in-four babies expected to live to 100 a focus on what you’ve made of yourself by early adulthood is totally insufficient.

Politicians should lose none of their fervour for opportunity and mobility. But they need to think about how mobility can be engineered across 50 year working lives – and also how to prevent downward mobility.  For example, late entry into higher education can be transformative for many who have struggled in their early careers but the political classes still obsess about a university system for their sons and daughters. Thinking about mobility throughout our lives is particularly important when it comes to considering the life chances of women, since motherhood still scars earning potential for the rest of women’s (lengthening) working lives. Women who have young children need support to train and achieve their ambitions as their children grow older.  Meanwhile the labour market needs to serve women returning to work far better, so they are able to regain jobs at their previous levels of skills and earnings, at the very least by the time their children are in their teens.

Lifespan thinking perhaps sits most easily with the capabilities conception of inequality, where we think about fair distribution of the resources we need to lead lives we have reason to choose. This is because an appreciation of human diversity lies at the heart of this approach. Thinking about capabilities allows us to recognise that there are core aspects of life that we should all wish to have available to us (things like health, education, security, money, family, purposeful activity, voice and respect) but that aside from this we also differ greatly. This is clearly true when we think about diversity across our own lifespans and from generation to generation. At different stages of our lives and because we have lived through different times, we will choose different things; and we will face different barriers to achieving our goals, both personal and institutional.

For example, in late old age we may not choose to work but we should still wish for an active, stimulating life. It may take the support of family and paid carers to make this possible, illustrating how people of different ages will often need different resources to realise the same capability. Without such support we may learn to do without purposeful activity by withdrawing into ourselves, even though this is not something anyone would truly have reason to wish for and value. This approach also reminds us that the availability of resources and our expectations about making use of them are mutually reinforcing, so we should be wary about taking historically expressed preferences at face value.

Finally, the capabilities approach to welfare is a natural antidote to labelling people simply according to their age or generation; it forces us to focus on each individual and their unique endowment, goals and barriers. In other words it provides a conceptual framework for integrating lifespan thinking with a focus on socio-economic and identity-based drivers of inequality. It treats us alike when it matters most – in valuing us all equally – but recognises we are all different and should be treated differently as a result.

Fabian membership

Join the Fabian Society today and help shape the future of the left

You’ll receive the quarterly Fabian Review and at least four reports or pamphlets each year sent to your door

Be a part of the debate at Fabian conferences and events and join one of our network of local Fabian societies

Join the Fabian Society
Fabian Society

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.