Generational Equity, Generational Interdependence, and the Framing of the Debate over Social Security Reform

By Williamson, John B.; McNamara, Tay K. et al. | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Generational Equity, Generational Interdependence, and the Framing of the Debate over Social Security Reform


Williamson, John B., McNamara, Tay K., Howling, Stephanie A., Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


This article analyzes the differences between the generational equity and generational interdependence conceptual packages used to frame arguments in the debate over policies such as Social Security reform. It begins with a history of the generational equity debate. This is followed by an analysis of the assumptions, values, and beliefs that inform each of these two ideological frames. It presents an analysis of why the generational equity frame has dominated the debate and highlights some of the limitations of this perspective.

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Current projections suggest that if no policy changes were made in the years ahead, the Social Security trust fund would be depleted by about 2042. This does not mean there would be no money to pay Social Security pensions as billions of dollars would continue to be collected each year, but it would mean that benefits would have to be reduced by about 27 percent or the payroll tax would have to be sharply increased at that point by about 50 percent (Board of Trustees, 2003). Few analysts believe that this scenario will be played out; most expect that changes will be made long before the late 2030s. However, such projections do serve to point out that at least some changes will be needed and they will be the type most politicians like to avoid. Most would involve directly or (more likely) indirectly cutting benefits or increasing taxes.

In this article we will be analyzing the ideological contest between two major frameworks for thinking about the share of societal resources that ought to go to the elderly, particularly today's retirees. The generational equity (GE) perspective is one framework for thinking about the share of resources that ought to go to the elderly. At the heart of this interpretative package is the idea that each generation should provide for itself. Proponents of this perspective offer a way to view old-age policy that often leads to proposals to cut back on entitlement programs for the elderly and to place more emphasis on privatized alternatives. Critics of this perspective offer an alternative interpretative package, which we (along with some other analysts) refer to as the generational interdependence (GI) frame. Their major argument is that the GE frame focuses on age and cohort based equity at the expense of other forms of equity, such as class equity, race equity, and gender equity. They also argue that this frame is deceptively simple, ignoring the two-way flow of emotional, social, and financial resources between generations (Williamson & Watts-Roy, 1999).

The Generational Equity Perspective

Beginning in the mid-1980s, advocates of the GE perspective argued that there was a conflict of interest between the elderly and the working-age population. These advocates included several well-known conservative journalists, such as William F. Buckley Jr., as well as other commentators linked to conservative think tanks such as the Cato Institute and conservative foundations such as the Olin Foundation. The advocacy network also included organizations that explicitly focused on promoting generational equity. For instance, Senator David Durenberger founded AGE (Americans for Generational Equity), an organization that was funded largely by conservative foundations and businesses (Binstock, 1999; Quadagno, 1989). Both AGE and other advocates of the GE perspective repeatedly cited the work of well respected demographer Samuel Preston (1984) who presented evidence that the economic status of the elderly had been improving while that of children had been deteriorating. He interpreted his data in such a way as to suggest that the improved conditions of the elderly had been achieved, at least partially, at the expense of children. Advocates for the GE perspective argued that due to overly generous spending on programs for the elderly, young adults and children were being shortchanged.

The GE frame combines claims of fairness and claims of affordability (Marmor et al. …

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Generational Equity, Generational Interdependence, and the Framing of the Debate over Social Security Reform
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