Are Generations Selfish?

We explore how policy-makers can bridge the age divide in British politics

The Nuffield Politics Research Centre are excited to announce their successful application for the British Academy's Innovation Fellowship Scheme 2021-22. This generous joint DPIR-NPRC award of £92,210 will enable the principal investigator, Dr Zack Grant, in collaboration with Professors Jane Green and Geoffrey Evans, to partner with the independent public policy think tank the Resolution Foundation on an innovative project probing the origins, nature, and electoral and public policy consequences of ‘intergenerational altruism’ in Britain.

How can people in a particular age group be persuaded to support policies that primarily benefit the well-being of other generations? This is a recurring question in debates about tackling issues like Britain’s spiralling pension costs, youth housing crisis, social care funding conundrum, and long-term problems with climate change and the Covid-19 national debt. Such challenges are fundamentally ‘intergenerational’, in that solving them requires people in one age cohort to make sacrifices in order to primarily benefit those elsewhere in the age distribution.

To use two recent high profile examples, the youth must pay higher national insurance to fund more generous elderly social care packages, and pensioners must help avert an environmental catastrophe that they themselves may never see. And yet, despite these major socio-economic challenges, we know very little about the frames and motivations that might persuade voters into showing the sort of altruism necessary for public policy-makers to act.

This new, year-long project will utilise original surveys, survey experiments, and secondary data analysis to ask several important questions for social scientists interested in contemporary British politics:

  • Who is prepared to display intergeneration altruism regarding public policy priorities?
  • What are their primary motivations for this?
  • Can particular issue frames convince more individuals to think and act in this way?
  • And, crucially, can a new policy programme addressing these sorts of issues (e.g. pensions, housing, social care, the environment etc.) unite citizens across the age distribution, and benefit parties promoting it?

In answering these questions, the Centre will expand our knowledge about the likely political effects of an ageing electorate, as well as highlight the potentially overlooked role of intergenerational justice in the public policy preferences of the electorate as a whole.