Stanford scholar’s new book examines how to build social justice across age groups
New book highlights the need to distribute jobs, income and other essential resources in a way that treats people who are young and old as equals.
Juliana Bidadanure witnessed many social injustices growing up during the 1980s in Paris’s low-income suburbs, known as “banlieues.” The youth in her community were denied essential resources and were unfairly portrayed in the media as lazy and feckless. Bidadanure, now an assistant professor of philosophy in Stanford University’s School of Humanities and Sciences, has come to understand the inequalities she experienced were about race, gender, class and, concurrently, age.
In her new book Justice Across Ages: Treating Young and Old as Equals (University of Oxford Press, 2021), Bidadanure argues that there are important consequences to ageism, whether it’s projected on the old or the young. The book describes how age inequalities contribute to social injustices.
“Our obligations and entitlements, the benefits we have access to, the respect we are deemed worthy of – these are all affected by age,” said Bidadanure, who is also the director of Stanford’s Basic Income Lab.
In Justice Across Ages, Bidadanure proposes a framework she calls a “theory of justice” that “guides a fair distribution of goods like jobs, healthcare, income and political power between people at different stages of their life.”
Equal but not the same
Bidadanure argues that young and old should be treated as equals – but not necessarily equally all the time.
For example, giving older people a greater share of healthcare and financial support is viewed by most as an acceptable inequality, because most people will have access to those same resources when they age. The fact that all humans age is a compelling feature of a theory of age group justice, Bidadanure said, and most political theorists agree that societies should be more concerned about inequalities of resources over a person’s whole life, rather than between individuals at a given point in time.
However, Bidadanure points out that this approach becomes problematic when “temporary” inequalities between age groups turn into more permanent generational inequalities – as occurred after the 2008 recession. “Young people of all generations are vulnerable to unemployment when they are transitioning from schooling to work,” Bidadanure explained. But after the 2008 recession, “younger people were most likely to be victims of long-term unemployment, and many were scarred by these early experiences.”
Also, keeping young people in economic insecurity doesn’t make sense, if a societal goal is to distribute resources across a person’s lifespan in an optimal way, Bidadanure explains. “If there are no financial resources available to young people, they might miss opportunities like going to college or being able to do an internship and then are more likely to live in greater disadvantage for the rest of their lives,” she said.
While the above considerations have to do with how resources are distributed among different age groups, there’s another important way inequalities between age groups matter – our inability to regard each other as equals. “Some modes of relating by age are incompatible with a just society,” she writes.
These include: the infantilization of both young adults and older citizens, the political marginalization of teenagers and young adults, the political veneration of those middle-aged and older, the exploitation of young workers through precarious contracts and unpaid internships, the spatial segregation of elderly people and the normalization of financial dependency on one’s parents for young adults.
Ageism directed at the young
Ageism directed at the young can stand in the way of adequate policymaking and can have serious societal consequences, she said.
One example of ageism that Bidadanure examined was the French Government’s exclusion of those younger than 25 years old from two income-support programs (the Revenu Minimum d’Insertion, 1988, and the Revenu de Solidarité Active, 2009). Even though many of those younger than 25 faced very high rates of unemployment and poverty, policymakers often assume that young adults, 18-25, will rely on parents or other family members for financial assistance and aren’t responsible enough to manage money.
“This example showed persistent stereotypes of young people – that if we give them some cash then they’ll be lazy, won’t work and will waste the money,” she said.
It is the same argument Bidadanure has heard in her work on basic income, a concept she supports. “What people need is economic security throughout a lifetime and for that, they need a continuous stream of income, especially in life stages when they are most vulnerable to poverty and unemployment,” she said. But damaging myths about those who receive benefits, and about the young, often stand in the way.
Another age-related concern is that young adults are politically marginalized and often left out of crucial debates on socio-economic issues. “It’s a problem when no one is there to stand up for the young and advocate for their interests,” Bidadanure said. “When the stereotypes and misrepresentations are left unchallenged, it demeans a portion of the population with crucial policy consequences.”
One way to address this imbalance is to boost youth voting rates and lower the voting age, she noted. Another, which she discusses extensively in her book, is to introduce quotas for young adults in parliaments.
Bidadanure argues that ageism against any segment of the population, young or old, must be addressed if we are to create truly just societies. “We ought to attempt to build communities that are age-integrated, where members of a community are able to interact with one another with respect and consideration,” she writes in her book. “This is an essential feature of justice across ages.”