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by Mary Ann Glendon
When Otto von Bismarck established the world’s first social security system, he never dreamed that a large proportion
of the populace would live long enough to draw pensions. With a tight grip on the public purse, the Iron Chancellor set
age sixty-five as an eligibility threshold that few could be expected to cross. When the U.S. version of the welfare state
came into being fifty years later, the labor force was still relatively large in comparison to the population of those
receiving benefits. Few in the New Deal era could have anticipated the demographic developments that in our day
threaten all of the institutions on which people rely for support and security. Impeding any easy solution is the fact that
many of the current pressures on families, welfare systems, and benevolent associations are the by-products of
genuine advances in health and opportunity.
Longer life spans have expanded the population of frail elderly persons, including victims of dementias characterized by
lengthy periods of disability. Changes in women’s roles have greatly reduced the traditional pool of caregivers for the
very young and the very old alike. Low birth rates are decreasing the ratio of active workers to pensioners and persons
requiring social assistance. In combination, declining birth rates and improved longevity mean that the dependent
population now includes a much smaller proportion of children and a much larger proportion of disabled and elderly
persons than ever before. But with increased divorce and unwed parenthood, the impoverished population is now
composed largely of women and children.
The increasing pressure on economic and human resources from both ends of the age spectrum has received
remarkably little attention from policy makers. And this despite a warning from the Senate Special Committee on Aging,
which argued in a 2002 report that, without significant reform, “the United States could be on the brink of a domestic
financial crisis.” The issues cannot be ignored much longer, however, for the first wave of the nation’s seventy-seven
million baby boomers will reach age sixty-five in 2011. According to Alan Greenspan, the country “will almost surely be
unable to meet the demands on resources that the retirement of the baby boom generation will make.”
The pinch is already provoking generational conflict in the ambitious welfare states of northern Europe, where birthrates
and immigration rates are lower than in the United States and where, as here, the elderly wield considerable political
clout. Modest proposals to cut back on pensions or to raise the retirement age in France and Germany have met with
strikes and protests from the groups affected. At the same time, young Europeans are complaining about the high cost
of health care for the elderly, and are resentful of fees that are eroding the tradition of free university education. (One
German youth leader gained notoriety by suggesting that old folks should use crutches rather than seeking expensive
That the coming economic crunch is only one aspect of the dilemmas our aging society will confront was emphasized at
two recent interdisciplinary meetings. After hearing testimony on aging, dementia, and caregiving at its June 2004
meeting in Washington, the President’s Council on Bioethics concluded that discussions of these matters tend to
neglect important medical, psychological, ethical, and social issues. The Council is currently in the process of deciding
whether to explore the area further with a view to producing a report that might aid in the search for practices and ideals
adequate to the new culture of longevity.
That such investigations are urgently needed was one conclusion of another recent meeting, that of the Pontifical
Academy of Social Sciences, which devoted its annual spring gathering in Rome to a conference on the ways that
changing relations between generations have affected the very young, the frail elderly, and the severely ill or
disabled”both in welfare states and in places where the welfare state is minimal or nonexistent. (The Academy was
established in 1994 by Pope John Paul II and is charged with the task of contributing to the advance of the social
sciences while helping to find “solutions to people’s concrete problems, solutions based on social justice.” Its
membership, drawn from five continents, is composed of experts in the social sciences, including two American Nobel
laureates in economics, Kenneth Arrow and Joseph Stiglitz.) Like the U.S. President’s Council, the Academicians
concluded that underlying the welfare crisis is a deeper crisis involving changes in the meanings and values that people
attribute to aging and mortality, sex and procreation, marriage, gender, parenthood, relations among the generations,
and life itself.
The papers presented to the Academy, soon to be published by Libreria Editrice Vaticana, should be of wide interest
since several were based on cross-national studies. The speakers included, for example, Francis Fukuyama, whose
book The Great Disruption treats the late twentieth-century revolution in behavior and ideas in affluent nations, and
Jacques Vallin, Director of the French National Demographic Institute, who has studied the changing age structure of
populations throughout the world.
The presentations led to much debate about the implications of the dramatic alterations in social norms that took place
in many countries in recent decades. Where children are concerned, changes in the sexual and marital behavior of
large numbers of adults have altered the very experience of childhood. Moreover, as the proportion of childless
households has grown and societies have become more adult-centered, the general level of concern for the well-being
of children has declined. They are out of sight and increasingly out of mind. Cambridge economist Partha Dasgupta
noted an interesting “free rider” problem: childless individuals (who as a group enjoy a higher standard of living than
child-rearing persons as a group) expect to be cared for in old age through benefits financed by a labor force that they
are not helping to replenish.
With widespread acceptance of the notion that behavior in the highly personal areas of sex and marriage is of no
concern to anyone other than the “consenting adults” involved, it has been easy to overlook what should have been
obvious from the beginning: individual actions in the aggregate exert a profound influence on what kind of society we
are bringing into being. Eventually, when large numbers of individuals act primarily with regard to self-fulfillment, the
entire culture is transformed. The evidence is now overwhelming that affluent Western nations have been engaged in a
massive social experiment”an experiment that brought new opportunities and liberties to adults but has put children and
other dependents at considerable risk.
Disarray in one sustaining cultural institution weakens others. The spread of family breakdown has been accompanied
by disturbances in schools, neighborhoods, churches, local governments, and workplace associations”all of the
structures that have traditionally depended on families for their support and that in turn have served as important
resources for families in times of stress. The law, too, has changed rapidly, becoming a testing ground for various ways
of reimagining family relations and an arena for struggles among competing ideas about individual liberty, equality
between men and women, human sexuality, marriage, and family life. It does not seem an exaggeration to speak, as
some at the Rome conference did, of a breakdown in social norms.
Perhaps no single development, apart from the epidemic of fatherlessness, has had more impact on the environment of
childhood, the care of dependents, or the health of the mediating institutions of civil society than the mass movement of
women, including mothers of young children, into the paid labor force. It is a mark of great progress that we now live in
a world where women have more opportunities than ever before in history. No society, however, has yet figured out how
to assure satisfactory conditions for child-rearing when both parents of young children work outside the home. And no
society has yet found a substitute for the loss of other types of caregiving previously provided mainly by women.
For many women, moreover, the picture of progress is ambiguous. Though birth rates are declining, the majority of
women still become mothers. When mothers of young children enter the labor force, whether because of necessity or
desire, they tend to seek work that is compatible with family roles. That usually means jobs with lower pay, fewer
benefits, and fewer opportunities for advancement than those available to persons without family responsibilities. So,
ironically, the more a woman forgoes advancement in the workplace for the sake of caring for her own children, the
more she and her children are at risk of poverty if the marriage ends in divorce. On the other hand, the more she invests
in her work, the greater the likelihood her children will have care that is less than optimal. It is not surprising therefore
that women are hedging against these risks in two ways: by having fewer children than women did in the past, and by
seeking types of labor force participation that are compatible with parenting. In so doing, they often sacrifice both their
child-raising preferences and their chances to have well-paid, satisfying, and secure employment.
Thus, while enormous advances have been made by women without children, mothers face new versions of an old
problem: caregiving, one of the most important forms of human work, receives little respect and reward, whether
performed in the family or for wages outside the home. Despite these risks, most mothers still accept primary
responsibility for childcare, thereby incurring disadvantages in the labor force. If divorce or separation occurs, most
mothers seek and accept primary responsibility for the care of their children even when they are not well-equipped
financially to do so. Indeed, if women did not continue to shoulder these risks and burdens, it is hard to see how any
social institution could make up for the services they now provide.
The main solutions proposed by the feminism of the 1970s (at the zenith of the welfare state) were the socialization of
caregiving and the equalization of child-care responsibilities between fathers and mothers. But those ideas have not
had broad appeal”either for parents or for taxpayers. Such ideas ignore the fact that for many women, caring for
children and other family members is central to their identity, sustaining the relationships that make their lives
What makes the dependency-welfare crisis so confounding is that all of society’s sources of support and security are
implicated. Families, still the central pillar of our caregiving system, are losing much of their capacity to care for their
own dependent members, just when government is becoming less capable of fulfilling the roles it once took over from
families. It seems that the ambition of welfare states to free individuals from much of their dependence on families, and
to relieve families of some of their most burdensome responsibilities, may have succeeded just well enough to put
dependents at heightened risk now that welfare states are faltering.
At the Rome meeting, the British social theorist Margaret Archer pointed out a curious fact that may have impeded
reform efforts: the overemphasis on self-sufficiency in contemporary political thought coexists with an approach to
welfare that underrates human capacities and ignores important dimensions of personhood. Social policy, she noted,
has been influenced by mindsets that treat human beings as passive subjects or instrumental rationalists rather than as
active agents whose decisions are influenced not only by calculation of self-interest but also by strongly held values. In
a similar vein, the Italian sociologist Pier Paolo Donati pointed out that the prevailing concepts of what society is also
inhibit constructive solutions: society, Donati noted, is not just a collection of self-seeking individuals, but is “a fabric of
relationships, to a certain extent ambivalent and conflicted, in need of solidarity.”
Perhaps the most important conclusion reached by the Pontifical Academy was that if political deliberation about the
impending dependency-welfare crisis proceeds within a framework based solely on the idea of competition for scarce
resources, the outlook for dependents is grim. As noted, divisive intergenerational conflict is already observable in
Europe. The most ominous development, of course, is the growing normalization of the extermination of persons who
have become inconvenient and burdensome to maintain at life’s frail beginnings and endings.
To state the obvious: if the outlook for dependents is grim, the outlook for everyone is grim. Despite our attachment to
the ideal of the free, self-determining individual, we humans are dependent social beings. We still begin our lives in the
longest period of dependency of any mammal. Almost all of us spend much of our lives either as dependents, or caring
for dependents, or financially responsible for dependents. To devise constructive approaches to the dependency-
welfare crisis will require acceptance of this profound and unchangeable fact of life.
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