We can’t ask young people to pay the price alone

New Zealand's response to Covid-19 has seen younger Kiwis make sacrifices to save their more vulnerable compatriots. Now it's time to look at the sacrifices older generations can make to improve their futures. 

The central principle of intergenerational ethics is that you shouldn’t be better or worse off simply because of when you were born. All New Zealanders deserve the same opportunities, whether we were born in 1950, 1975, 2000 or 2020.

If we had left Covid-19 to run its course, the cost would have fallen disproportionately on the vulnerable; especially older New Zealanders. We did not let that happen, because that’s not who we are. We are all in this together and we’ve reached this point because we take intergenerational ethics seriously. 

But if we are all in it together now, then we must be later as well, when the price must be paid. The economic cost of eradicating Covid-19 will be very high. Under pre-lockdown business-as-usual, that price will fall very disproportionately, and very unfairly, on younger New Zealanders. Our challenge then is to share the debt we are now incurring equally among all of us, no matter who we are, or when we were born.

Many pressing issues are inter-generational. Climate change, education and training, health care, housing affordability, pension entitlements, taxation rates, and workplace relations all involve scarce resources that will only become scarcer. In all these areas, we must ask how can we distribute the burdens of lockdown fairly.

These are long-term debates, but some are more immediate. Even the most fortunate New Zealand businesses – public or private, large or small – face a future of falling demand and reduced revenue. Business-as-usual would freeze new jobs, cancel casual contracts, and not renew short-term contracts. In normal times, we expect good employers to protect the jobs and conditions of existing workers with the reasoning that there are no new jobs here, but hopefully there are jobs elsewhere in the economy.

Everyone with a good job grew up in a time when they were available. We worked hard, studied, and sacrificed to get and keep those jobs. We owe it to younger New Zealanders to make the same opportunities available to them.

But these are not normal times. If the vast majority of businesses behave like this, all at once and perhaps for several years, then a whole generation of New Zealanders could be shut out of the employment market entirely.

Lockdown worked because we all played our part. Younger New Zealanders are not at high risk from Covid-19 but they have sacrificed now to protect their vulnerable compatriots. A lifetime with few prospects of meaningful employment seems a rather shabby way to repay their generosity and kindness.

There is an alternative. Don’t ask young people at the start of their careers to pay the price alone. Instead, ask older workers to seriously consider retiring at 65, even if they’d rather not; or ask everyone with a well-paid permanent full-time job to take a (temporary or permanent) salary cut of 20 percent.

Pay cuts are normally a second-to last resort, deployed only to save existing jobs; the last is compulsory redundancy. In a post-lockdown world, these options should be on the table now, not just to protect existing jobs, but also to free up the resources to create new jobs for those who come after us.

Everyone with a good job grew up in a time when they were available. We worked hard, studied, and sacrificed to get and keep those jobs. We took our opportunities. We owe it to younger New Zealanders to make the same opportunities available to them.

It may seem unfair to ask people to retire earlier than they planned, or to reduce their expectations for future prosperity.  After all, the global pandemic is not our fault. Sadly, the world is not fair and some unfairness is unavoidable. We have incurred a debt that must be paid. Whatever we do, this is going to hurt a lot. All our options are bad. We can’t decide that no one will hurt. But we can – and will – decide whether we all hurt a little, or whether some of us hurt a great deal, simply because of when we were born.

Our reasonable expectations about the future cannot all be met. Our ethical task is to distribute unfairness and disappointment fairly. Perhaps it is unfair for some to retire earlier than they would like, or to endure reduced salaries or prospects. But it is more unfair for others to miss out entirely.

Intergenerational fairness is the right thing to do. For those of us caught between the Millennials and the Baby Boomers, it is also a matter of enlightened self-interest. I am in my early fifties and, when the next pandemic hits and I find myself among the most vulnerable, I want to be part of a society where the strong protect the weak, and the young protect the old. I want the young New Zealanders of 2050 to believe that we are still all in this together.

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