Debating intergenerational issues: A legal perspective

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Human longevity and related medical advances will reshape the zeitgeist in a multitude of human endeavours. No, duh! At the cusp of the computer/Internet revolution, we had no idea where the technology will take us (or we the tech). We would delude ourselves if we believe we can currently fathom the socio-economic and political implications of human longevity that should define the 21st Century.

The relevant problems are complex and pervasive. How do we even conduct discussions without becoming overwhelmed? There’s no magic bullet. I have written a short essay on one approach to debating issues concerning intergenerational values or the so-called “clash of generations” (the essay was published in the 44th St Gallen Symposium brochure, p 11)

In the essay, I noted that the law can offer some lessons in terms of framing such debates as the legal field begins to grapple with intergenerational issues:

Age discrimination law is invoked in labour and welfare disputes to balance the interests of minors/the elderly and the majority population. In allocating resources efficiently, and recognising divergent values fairly, the law faces the challenge of defining the identity groups, conflict nature and rationale of intervention. Economists who predicated the clash on poor accounting of generational debts that accrued unchecked, were essentially identifying a massive classificatory failure. Similarly, we must discern what instantiates a “generational clash” (c.f. conflicts relating to but not arising from generational differences). This is important in distinguishing when proximate generations will likely clash (e.g. resource competitions), and when remote generations will likely clash (e.g. value competitions). And, whether or not a certain clash is a zero-sum game between the generations.

The space and time scales differ drastically depending on which issue we scrutinise. While a social discriminatory phenomenon might affect several generations, an environmental disaster could affect many more.The law struggles with arbitrating the contest between consumption and conservation to safeguard inter-generational equity and effecting adaptive sustainability policies. Speaking for the unborn is hard, but empathising with them is much harder. The complexity of the debate exponentially increases as the relevant scope expands.

There is clearly a lot of work to do, and everyone must pitch in – central bankers, demographers, insurers, and social planners, just to name a few. We must act sensibly to ensure the infrastructure will be in place to cope with potential risks as and when they arise.

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