When would you like to have been born? An intergenerational thought experiment

Angus Hanton suggests a subtle way to winkle out intergenerational attitudes

One way of exploring our attitude to intergenerational fairness is to answer a theoretical and imaginary question. The question is, “If you could go outside time and relive your life again and choose when to be born, in which year would you choose to be born and why?”

The assumption is that you can’t choose what place you would have in society or even what gender you would be. So, with a sort of Rawlsian “veil of ignorance”, you don’t know whether you will be born into family of servants or into the family of a king or leader, but you must assume you will be born British (after all we don’t want to stretch the imagination too far!)

Past, present or future?

Many people when faced with this question choose the year in which they were actually born, but this, perhaps, shows some lack of imagination. Others choose the future, in the hope that things might perhaps be better for them and the expectation that typically they would have a longer life expectancy.

Choosing a future date does include taking risks that problems of overpopulation, nuclear proliferation or climate change may make life harder or even intolerable. Others want to avoid the future because of general uncertainty and they say they want to be sure that they are in a period when things will go well.

It is relatively unusual for people to choose long-ago history because society was so much nearer to subsistence levels, and there was so much more cruelty or drudgery. If you were born in Roman times you might easily find yourself born as a slave and you would have had a much lower life expectancy. You would have missed out on the possibility of having a car and a computer and other modern luxuries, like Marmite.

Baby-boomer envy

A good proportion of respondents, after some careful thought, choose to be born in the baby-boomer generation (about 1945 to 1960), reasoning that they will have the benefits of modern medicine, a peaceful country, rising incomes, and the advantages of good pensions and escalating house prices.

Such a choice would be consistent with the concern that many politicians have put forward that our children will face a tougher future than we faced, with talk of the “British Promise” being broken, as suggested by Labour’s Ed Miliband. Others separate out their personal comfort from the part they would be playing in what that era represents: whilst recognising the likely increase in material well-being in the 1950 to 2000 period, they say they don’t want to be part of the generation that saw the rise in consumerism, loss of community, decline in faith and environmental damage.

So there may be a tension between opting for what is most comfortable and choosing to be partly responsible for today’s conditions.

What about you? When would you choose to be born?