Sharing the cake – an intergenerational dilemma

Angus Hanton shows how the cake analogy is a useful way of seeing the difficulties of apportioning the burden of intergenerational legacies, such as carbon emissions

An extended family has assembled and a delicious cake is produced. Amongst the family are grandparents, parents and young children. The older family members have tasted this kind of cake before and the youngest have never tasted it, but there is not enough for everyone to eat as much as they would like. So the question that arises is: how should the cake be shared out?

Some people will say that children should be given first priority as they haven’t tasted this cake previously, whereas the older family members have, over their lives, shared many such cakes. Others argue that past cake-eating is irrelevant and that all family members should be treated equally.

Clearly both answers show concern for fair treatment and even some degree of equality – but should it be equality at one particular time, or equality that takes account of people’s life chances throughout their lives?

The carbon emissions cake

A conundrum similar to this intergenerational one was faced in Copenhagen in relation to carbon emissions quotas. Should all countries be treated equally or should developing countries be given more generous treatment, to reflect the fact that they haven’t yet tasted the fruits of industrialisation?

As well as rights to consume, this also raises questions of responsibility for the legacy of past carbon emissions: should richer countries be held responsible for their historical carbon emissions and correspondingly penalised in present-day settlements?

The temptation to penalise them arises partly because those countries that have historically caused most emissions are in general the richer ones, and therefore those most able to pay for carbon adjustments to their economies and most able to contribute to adjustments by others.

This discussion of how countries should be treated takes us back from different countries to different generations within each country and raises this intergenerational question within developed countries: is it fair that I should suffer because of the carbon emissions of my forebears?

Having your cake and sharing it

The apportionment of other of intergenerational issues can be visualised in the same way: how should the burdens of pensions liabilities, healthcare provision, national debt, and so on, be shared across the generations?

And how would one’s thinking change if the question was about sharing out the essential necessities of life between generations or even, in the extreme case, items that might save lives, such as food or water – or a limited supply of parachutes?

Posted on: 1 October, 2011

3 thoughts on “Sharing the cake – an intergenerational dilemma

  1. Dennis Norman

    In essence one has to agree with the premise that each generation should be self supporting, but we are human beings. Its not possible to reduce each and every thing we need or do to a monetary value. We accept that our children need to be fed, nutured and educated, with regard for their future ‘contribution’ pontential. We accept that people with handicaps and disabilities may never be able to meet their full living costs and we subsidise them from the social fund. Similarly with our old people, we acknowledge the debt we owe them, and provide them with a pension so that in principal at least none may starve. This is the basis of the human family in its widest context. These are the hallmarks of a stable, socially aware society, and Britain ranks amongst the best.
    If we were to trully move to a society where people received credits for their tax and NI contributions and then later were only able to redeem those same credits for their own sickness or pension, our world would become a much more selfish place. A place where the value of a human being is only measured by their bank account and their social credit balance. The rich would stay rich, but we would see real poverty increase.

  2. Dennis Norman

    Here’s a further thought. In Britain we expect parents and children to take care of each other. But when they do not, the state steps in and the taxpayer carries the cost. Why not follow the example of other European countries and set the obligations in law? Then parents would have to fund/support their children until the age of 25 for example. Similarly children become responsible for the care of their parents in old age. Thus the responsibility circle is closed. Generations have become interdependent in law. Parents can never walk away from the costs and responsibilities of parenting. Even if children are taken into care, local authorities can reclaim the costs. At the end of life, children would be responsible for the nursing home costs of their parents.

  3. Rosie Shawcross

    I do not agree with the cake chart, that is a device used for children.
    However I do agree with Denis Norman that a rule that families that can, should be responsible for their offspring until 25.
    Too many see off their 18/19 year old’s to university and can’t wait to change the room use, off move away as fast as possible.
    Yet these same people would have grabbed each and every benefit, only a fraction of which would have come from their own tax payments

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