The intergenerational equity framework has convinced many people that intergenerational equity is a big deal, an idea that has persisted over time. For example, even after the Great Recession of 2008, the media highlighted the large number of college graduates in jobs that did not reflect their educational credentials. The Wall Street Journal calls this the “well-educated-barista economy,” arguing that the high cost of college isn’t paying off for young people. This, compared to stories of older Americans working longer, has led people to question whether older adults are pushing young people out of “good jobs.” The generational equity framework pitted the interests of the old and the young against each other—and appealed widely to ideals of fairness and justice. But he ignored some aspects of reality.
Intergenerational theory offers an alternative frame for viewing aging in the US. Established in 2003, Intergenerational Interdependence focuses on the mutual benefits of different generations rather than their conflict. This frame correctly highlights the wide diversity among the elderly; Some need more financial assistance from the government than others. Although drawn from the same data as the generational inequality frame, it highlights different aspects of that data. For example, intergenerational interdependence, the increasing number of single-parent households, and reduced federal spending—increasing the propensity of older workers to delay retirement—may explain the declining economic status of younger generations.
Intergenerational interdependence focuses on the strengths that different generations have in common, rather than on their strengths.
This “well-educated-barista economy” perspective focuses on what political scientist Jacob Hacker calls the Great Risk Shift: the transfer of financial risk from corporations and governments to individuals and households. In this view, the problems of both college graduates and near-retirees stem from similar sources. The shift from traditional pension plans to defined contribution pension plans has exposed older workers to new financial risks. And student loan balance growth represents another way risk has shifted to individuals and families. The intergenerational framework draws attention to the risks that generations share, not what they don’t.
The main lesson here is that there are many ways to understand our experience. Thinking in terms of intergenerational interdependence—rather than intergenerational competition—may be a way to navigate debates about aging policies in the United States. “We’re all in this,” suggests Intergenerational Interdependence. And that can be a strong idea.
John B. Williamson, professor of sociology at Boston College, helped develop the intergenerational framework. Williamson and Ty K. McNamara is a senior research associate at Brandeis University’s Center for Women’s Studies and author of the 2019 book Ageism: Past, Present, and Future, published by Routledge.
Question and answer
A growing aging expert
John Williamson ’64, whose 50-year career as a sociology professor at Boston College has covered topics such as the politics of aging and Social Security policy, weighs in on how much aging has changed.
When did you first start studying aging and why?
I think I was influenced by my wife, Betty Johnson, who has a PhD and teaches gerontology. We wrote a book about aging.