Are Generations Selfish? How Can Policy-Makers Bridge the Age Divide in British Politics?


How can people in a particular age group be persuaded to support policies that primarily benefit the well-being of other generations? This is a recurring question in debates about tackling issues like Britain’s spiralling pension costs, youth housing crisis, social care funding conundrum, and long-term problems with climate change and the Covid-19 national debt. Such challenges are fundamentally ‘intergenerational’, in that solving them requires people in one age cohort to make sacrifices in order to primarily benefit those elsewhere in the age distribution.

To use two recent high profile examples, the youth must pay higher national insurance to fund more generous elderly social care packages, and pensioners must help avert an environmental catastrophe that they themselves may never see. And yet, despite these major socioeconomic challenges, we know very little about the frames and motivations that might persuade voters into showing the sort of altruism necessary for public policy-makers to act. 

This new, year-long project will utilise original surveys, survey experiments, and secondary data analysis to ask several important questions for social scientists interested in contemporary British politics. Who is prepared to display intergeneration altruism regarding public policy priorities? What are their primary motivations for this? Can particular issue frames convince more individuals to think and act in this way? And, crucially, can a new policy programme addressing these sorts of issues (e.g. pensions, housing, social care, the environment etc.) unite citizens across the age distribution, and benefit parties promoting it?

In answering these questions, the project will expand our knowledge about the likely political effects of an aging electorate, as well as highlight the potentially overlooked role of intergenerational justice in the public policy preferences of the electorate as a whole.