Today I appeared at the European Commission at the invitation of EC President Jose Manuel Barroso, as part of an interfaith panel charged with exploring ways to restore intergenerational solidarity that in recent years has been steadily eroding in Europe (video of the press conference, in which although I am present, I did not take a speaking role). Below is my essay that was the source of my comments.
Your Excellencies President Barosso of the European Commission,
President Van Rompuy of the Council of Europe and
Vice President Surján of the European Parliament,
Eminences and Excellencies,
The challenge President Barosso asked us to address is, in a few short bullet points, the following:
- The population of the European Union is rapidly ageing.
- We live longer, but there are too few jobs for the elderly. In fact, even at 55, many are forced into early retirement.
- A heavy taxation burden makes work relatively less interesting, because the marginal income of work does not always compare sufficiently attractively as compared to the payouts by the social safety net.
- There are too few births and a shrinking sandwich generation that finds it increasingly difficult to pay for the waning years of our elderly population, further exacerbating the problem.
These tensions bring about a growing feeling of unfairly bearing too much a burden, and thus unravelling the feeling of solidarity among the generations, making the problem just about unmanageable.
Walter Laquer summarized succinctly the challenge President Barosso put before us, in his book After the Fall:
The coming years will confront most European countries with very serious domestic tensions. To reduce their high debt they will need steady growth. But these will also be years of cutbacks and austerity and, needless to say, resistance against cuts. Young people have grown up in an age in which higher education was free or at least inexpensive. Elderly people depend to a large degree on social security payments, and the unemployed on the minimum of material help needed to survive, but there will be cuts in all these fields as well as in health services and education. The cake (or the bread) is shrinking, and every sector of the population will fight not to be among the losers. To some extent it will be a generational confrontation. The increased fees for higher education will be a great hardship for the young, and a major setback for the countries. But if their demands prevail, it will mean that other sectors of the society, such as the elderly and unemployed, will suffer more. Since in all European societies there are now fewer young people than middle-aged and elderly, the young will be at a disadvantage in a democratic society – which is to say that European democracy will be under conflicting pressures; will it be the street against the parliament? There will be a class struggle of sorts, but also generational conflicts.
It is indeed becoming increasingly difficult for governments to continue providing the cradle to grave safety net we grew up with. The Greek crisis, with high debts exacerbated by years in which the population experienced a growing sense of entitlement, with early pensions and other expensive luxuries, is but the most extreme symptom of this illness. Discussions in France and Germany about raising the retirement age, a particularly touchy subject in France, where retirement is kind of mandatory, show that the issues are more pervasive and not restricted to crisis economies.
Our problem, in brief, is that on the one hand, we need higher taxes to continue providing the same level of service, while paying for it with a relatively shrinking working population, and concommitant increasing numbers of elderly.
On the other hand, the solidarity between young and old has eroded and there is no willingness to pay for the other.
Obviously, there is a need to step outside and think outside the proverbial box. While the social safety net has helped countless individuals, it isn’t the only model. Man is very tribal and throughout history, and in many countries and entire continents still today, the family has been the safety net. And while it is true that the modern safety net came about because some crises were too much for a family to bear, one should not be blinded to the question of what has happened to the family since that modern social safety net was created. Falling birth and marriage rates are perhaps a sign that the family is not doing well, perhaps precisely because of the particular way the modern social safety net has been executed, along with some legal and cultural corollary issues.
Free higher education and a guaranteed minimal income to all have nurtured an increased sense of independence among adolescents, and have made it easier than ever to leave home early. The uncoupling of sexuality from couplehood, marriage and the family has made remaining in the parental home just about unbearable, because there is no biological drive that demands and promotes independence as much as an active sexuality does.
Those twin economic and biological factors explain much about the eroding solidarity, but other factors contributed, too. The social cohesion and intergenerational solidarity has been significantly impacted by the manner in which the social safety net itself has been legislated. No longer do familial bonds mean that much, as now, it is the entire working population that is expected to feel solidarity with the entire elderly and the entire younger generation. Those are major emotional demands on individuals who feel no particular kinship to fellow citizens whom they will never meet, but yet are expected to support. Only when solidarity taxes are relatively low can such be maintained, but presently, taxation levels have been too high for several years if not decades, and the burden is becoming unbearable.
So I would like to suggest that we conceive the safety net and surrounding laws anew. No longer should the safety net operate instead of the family. Rather, legislatures should recognize and nurture the special familial bonds, and the safety net should become a safety net for what is too much for the family to bear. Transfers within the family should not be taxed, in times of legitimate need the state could even encourage such transfers by topping them up with a subsidy or tax credit. Furthermore, there should be legal expectations that young people stay even several years into adulthood in their parental home (for the duration of their studies, for example, or during a period of unemployment), during which the bond between the generations will be deepened. Likewise, laws should help give rise to the expectation that adult children take an active part in the care and nurture of their elderly parents. When circumstances demand additional financial support, the family, rather than the individual, should be the preferred medium through which to channel social aid. Thus, the law would strengthen, rather than weaken the family. Likewise, schools and the arts should promote a healthier and more family friendly approach to human sexuality.
In this sense, I would like to mention the Hebrew word for lovingkindness, Chessed. In its Biblical context, it conveys the mutual covenant of a people, of a family and of a couple. Both lending money to the poor without interest, to help them get independently out of their misery, and couplehood are designated as Chessed. It is this wholesome view that integrates the economic, sexual and social ties into our notion of solidarity, which can provide the way out of our present predicament.