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Stiftung für die Rechte zukünftiger Generationen/Bertelsmann Stiftung (Hg.): Demographic Change and Intergenerational Justice: The Implementation of Long-Term Thinking in the Political Decision Making Process

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This interdisciplinary anthology is composed of articles by demographers, philosophers, economists and sociologists from the international scientific community.  In putting together this anthology, we were trying to address the need for a comprehensive volume that addresses the complex relationship of intergenerational justice and demographic change.

It is composed of five sections that explain demographic trends, examine the impact of demographic developments on key indicators, investigate the relationship between key sustainability indicators and intergenerational justice, scrutinize intergenerational justice and population policies, and finally apply of long-term thinking to these issues.

In the first section of this book, the demographic changes are described in detail on a global and national level. The dynamics of population growth (decline) and aging (juvenescence) must be laid out because they set the statistical basis for the rest of the volume. As a starting point in the first section, Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Lutz, director of the Vienna Institute of Demography and leader of the World Population Program at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), draws a general picture of global demographic trends over the past decades and likely trends in the future in his article “Low fertility in Europe in a global demographic context”. He briefly discusses the forces driving this universal process of continuing demographic transition. The article discusses the possibility that fertility in these countries may actually stay at very low levels or continue to decline due to self-reinforcing mechanisms of social change. The Low Fertility Trap Hypothesis describes three distinct mechanisms (demographic, sociological and economic) that may lead to such a downward spiral in future fertility. But it is not only the sheer number of people and their age distribution that matters. The possible consequences of demographic changes greatly depend on the productivity and the skills of the people, something that economists would call the quality dimension. Special attention is given to the future position of Europe in this changing global context.

The second section examines the impact of demographic change on key sustainability indicators in certain areas of interest such as public debt, retirement systems, competitiveness, environment, the labour market, and the education system in more detail. In “The impact of demographic change on financial sustainability in Germany”, Dr. Johannes Meier, Member of the Executive Board of the Bertelsmann Stiftung, presents the foundation’s Debt Monitor 2006. In the context of financial sustainability, the foundation asserts that investments in education are the crucial factor for retaining the political capacity to act for future generations. Additionally, from the analysis of states with successful budget consolidation, the foundation has found it possible to deduce reform measures it deems necessary for Germany.

Two articles discuss the effects of demographic change on the economy, including that of Michael Hüther from the Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft who posits that individuals and their qualifications are the most important drivers of an expanding economy and that a shrinking population leads to a loss in welfare and prospects. Countering this position, Thomas Straubhaar from the Hamburg Institute of International Economics argues that a decline in population does not necessarily lead to economic problems. He asserts that fears associated with demographic change have not been empirically proven, and that it is possible that these changes could even be economically positive. In a shrinking population it is possible for instance to increase capital intensity per person, leading to increased productivity and per capita income; human capital can also be increased with a distribution of resources between fewer people. Furthermore, it is aging rather than shrinking that presents the biggest demographic challenges. There are most certainly problems to be faced within an aging society, primarily with impediments to growth caused by policies that are designed for a young and growing population, but they can be compensated for through policy changes, especially including incentives for fast technological progress, alterations in the duration of working life, labour force behaviour, and intelligent reforms in the pension system in order to make it independent of age structure.

In a uniquely clear and applicable case study, Prof. Dr. Thomas Lindh, research director at the Institute for Future Studies, and Prof. Dr. Bo Malmberg, professor of geography at Stockholm University, demonstrate the effects of changing patterns of age structure on Swedish post-war socio-economic indicators. In particular they explain how demographic change affected the development of saving, growth, investment, current accounts and the budget balance, which is particularly easy to see within the context of the public-oriented redistribution of the Nordic welfare states.

In the third section, we ask how intergenerational justice is affected if sustainability indicators change due to demographic change. The article “The Generational Balance” by a team of authors from Ecologic Berlin, including Andreas Krämer and Anneke von Raggamby, evaluates current trends and patterns of environmental and demographic change, in both a global and national context. Examining such issues as the Earth’s carrying capacity, concurrent urbanisation and industrialisation, present production and consumption patterns, the use of chemicals, natural resources and energy, the article provides a clear and powerful picture of the state of our world today and what must be done within our society so that future generations can have viable and fulfilling lives. It additionally examines the fact that environmental and sustainability issues can also be compacted by the ageing of society and demographic decline that many countries are now experiencing, and present recommendations also for these problems.

In “Intergenerational Justice in an Extreme Longevity Scenario”, Dr. Ulrich Feeser-Lichterfeld looks at newly emerging technologies and the prospect of extreme longevity that is perhaps nearing fruition. Such a scenario raises many individual and social issues, which he examines within the context of demographic change, focusing on its intergenerational consequences. The author considers serious questions such as whom these technologies would benefit and whether they would produce unintended consequences, such as a new type of ageism.

The fourth section addresses the ethical legitimacy of population policies. If we can influence the well-being of our descendants (including, but not limited to adopting certain family or population policies), should we do so? In an article entitled “An ethical assessment of the legitimacy of birth policies”, Dr. Joerg Tremmel first discusses whether or not such policies can generally be considered unethical. Unlike some ethicists, his conclusion is that they cannot be deemed unethical across-the-board. Rather, it is both possible and necessary to distinguish between better and worse types. Whilst it is easy to judge measures that either permit a considerable number of freedoms or impose considerable restrictions on them, it is the measures in the middle of the continuum that are more difficult to evaluate. The “four-fifths rule” is presented in order to lend substance to the core of the problem by providing a rule of thumb.

The fifth and last section addresses the issue of institutionalizing our responsibility for future generations. Democracies face a structural problem, namely the tendency to prefer the present and to forget future implications of present decisions. To work toward a solution for this problem, the framework for a fair, future-orientated generational political system could be mended by an institutional establishment of generational justice. Thereby the glorification of the present in everyday politics would lessen. In this truly innovative section of the book, Marco Wanderwitz (CDU), Peter Friedrich (SPD), Anna Lührmann (Grüne) and Michael Kauch (FDP), four young members of the German Bundestag, present a far-reaching if not revolutionary endeavour to implement intergenerational justice and sustainability in the German Constitution. They describe their real efforts in 2006 and 2007 to institute a change article 20 and article 109 of the constitution, each from their party perspective but also from their experience of working together to make this proposal a reality that is now in its final stages of consideration. Their chapter is a good example of how theory meets practice and science meets politics.

The final article, “Demographic pressure and attitudes towards public intergenerational transfers in Germany – how much room left for reforms”, by Harald Wilkoszewski of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, highlights the allocation problems in an aging society from a political economy perspective. The German political discussion has focused on reductions of public support for the elderly (e.g. the introduction of a “demographic factor” into the public pension formula) and an increase of public support for families and the younger generation (e.g. higher spending for family policies). However, the implementation of such reforms might not be feasible in the future: the question arises whether a new political group formed by people of the same age with a common interest is likely to emerge.

This book is marked by its interdisciplinary approach and flexibility to look at current societal problems from many directions at once. Not only do the authors come from a multitude of fields and perspectives, but the contributions address not only the typical problems of economic policy, but look also at environmental, societal and philosophical issues.

It is far-reaching in scope and most importantly makes a paradigmatic shift to need to see arising challenges of demographic change within a larger view of intergenerational justice.

Also within these problems it examines the many and varied components of demographic change and how they interact and what likely outcomes they would have.

Beyond this, the anthology is eminently practical and is focused with policy making in mind. It examines important philosophical and ethical problems that are inherent in these issues, but surpasses these limited discussions to offer recommendations and solutions for political implementation. Additionally, it has the extremely unique aspect of having four MPs comment directly on their thoughts and proposals for change.

This volume goes a long way to putting the many problems of demographic change in perspective.