Academic journal article Generations

What Is a Social Compact? How Would We Know One If We Saw It? Yes, John, There Is a Social Compact

Academic journal article Generations

What Is a Social Compact? How Would We Know One If We Saw It? Yes, John, There Is a Social Compact

Article excerpt

How families and society respond to human need across the course of life.

As we were starting this article, a young friend overheard us discussing the philosophical and political bases for our argument that the social compact and intergenerational strategies are inherently intertwined and necessary for human progress. John politely interrupted, noted that he had just decided to apply to business school, and asked the dreaded question: "So what?"

Threatened, but challenged, we responded in our most thoughtful academic voice, "Just what do you mean, `So what?"'

He told us. "How does your argument affect the bottom line? Who cares about social compacts or intergenerational strategies, whatever they are? Why put out a whole issue of Generations on this stuff? This is the 199Os. The time to ride the stock market into the new millennium. Get with the program."

John turned to leave, but we caught him with the rash promise that we could answer all of his questions, including the one about the bottom line. "Okay, I'm game. Go ahead," he said, taking a seat and leaning back with his arms crossed.

We huddled a moment to replan our approach. We had assumed that everyone knew the answers to such questions, or at least that no one would ask them.

"Let us begin with some definitions, we intoned, seeking to clarify our own thoughts while buying time.

INTERGENERATIONAL STRATEGIES AND THE SOCIAL COMPACT DEFINED

Keeping with the time-- honored practice of covering one's flanks, we acknowledged that our definitions might not be for everyone. For the purposes of our discussion, "intergenerational strategies" are policies and programs that transfer tangible resources and care across age groups, age cohorts, and generations within families. They are sources of support and mutual aid and means of building a more civil and caring society. They also embody actions based on the social compact.

The social compact gives expression to and is based on the reciprocal ties that hold families, governance, and society together over time. When humanely conceived and honored at each level, the compact has fostered and remains necessary for human development and progress. In turn, the exchange of knowledge and resources, broadly defined, across generations within families and across age groups and cohorts within society is a bedrock on which a successful social compact rests. More specifically:

The decision of John's parents to form a family was based on an implicit compact to care for and to share resources within and across the generations of their family-their parents, siblings, children, and grandchildren. While the familial compact too often has become strained, fractured, and even ignored, the family-in its many forms-remains the center of raising children and caring for relatives.

The government and John, his friends, and the members of his community have a compact, spelling out duties and responsibilities for the parties to the compact. Ideally, the governance compact flows from the will of the people. Usually, but not always, a national constitution spells out the general compact, which in turn is carried out through laws, regulations, and actions, including intergenerational policies and programs.

Finally, the societal compact reflects the reasons people come together to form societies. Usually the reasons deal with mutual protection and advancing the well-being of the members of the society, present and future, as individuals and as members of a larger community. The admonition of former Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich (1997, 1998) that in dealing with problems that buffet the human species, "we" are "all in this together" comes into play here; but as Robert Ball, former Social Security commissioner reminds us, the "we" are but middle persons, with debts to the past and obligations to the future:

We owe much of what we are to the past. …

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