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The Economic ‘Burden’ of Ageing and the Prospect of Intergenerational Conflict

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 November 2008

Alan Walker
Professor of Social Policy, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, S10 2TN, UK.


This article examines the mounting pessimism of policy-makers concerning the implications of societal ageing. It is argued that underlying this pessimism are primarily macroeconomic worries about the economic ‘burden’ that older people are said to represent to the economy and, specifically, the working population. It is suggested that, in turn, these particular concerns are ideologically inspired; hence it is the public expenditure costs of pensions and health care rather than, for example, the economic costs of ageing for older people and their families, that are the chief causes of anxiety. Thus political ideology has distorted and amplified the macroeconomic consequences of population ageing in order to legitimate anti-welfare state policies.

While Britain and the US represent leading examples of this trend, there is a danger that, inspired to some extent by the leading international economic agencies, other countries will follow their lead. An unintended result of doing so may be the growth of inter-generational conflict. This concept has achieved quite wide currency in the US literature and has been influential in some policy circles. It is subjected to close scrutiny and found deficient as a basis for policy-making. In conclusion some lessons are drawn about the failure of orthodox social gerontology to counteract the pessimistic accounts emanating from economic and demographic analyses and the need for a more critical stance by the discipline.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1990

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