Birnbaum, Ferrarini, Nelson and Palme, The Generational Welfare Contract

Simon Birnbaum, Tommy Ferrarini, Kenneth Nelson and Joakim Palme, The Generational Welfare Contract: Edward Elgar, 2017, vi + 182 pp, 1 78347 102 7, hbk, £70

The agenda for this book is set by an ageing society, which raises the question of justice between generations in an acute fashion. The theoretical underpinning of the book is a concept of implicit generational welfare contracts: and the strategy is to study the extent to which different social policies do in fact enhance generational justice in order to discover those policies that we shall need if we are to achieve generational justice in the future. Along the way, the authors offer detailed discussions of many of the complex issues facing social policy researchers – an aspect of the book that will make it particularly useful to researchers, whether or not they are particularly interested in intergenerational justice.

Following an introductory chapter, chapter 2 offers three perspectives on generational justice: a) intergenerational cooperation for mutual advantage; b) interacting as equals here and now; and c) saving for the future – all of which require empirical study [of] in order to identify which policies do in fact achieve these aims. Chapter 3 studies different age-related risks, and seeks positive sum solutions and ‘a balanced generational welfare contract, where the structure of social citizenship rights treats all age-related risk categories more equally’ (p. 40). Chapter 4 categorises countries in relation to the institutional structures of their welfare contracts (the United Kingdom is ‘pro-old’ and ‘unbalanced’). Chapters 5 to 8 contain a mass of empirical detail, and find that in countries with more balanced generational welfare contracts poverty is lower, people are happier, social and political trust and employment market participation are higher. Chapter 9 finds that positive-sum solutions and balanced generational welfare contracts correlate with the presence of strong left-wing parties.

The final chapter recognises the limitations of the research, which relies mainly on wage replacement rates in age-related social insurance programs – which is why the UK appears to do so badly. A more balanced picture would have been provided by taking account of the institutional structures of public services, such as the UK’s National Health Service, which could not be more balanced in its treatment of different generations. But this is not to criticise the book: it is to ask for another one. This book is a model of good research: a clear theoretical framework, detailed empirical study, and careful conclusions.