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Connecting the Generations

Psychologist Erik Erikson identified eight “stages of psychosocial development [1],” passage through which was sequential, cumulative, and necessary to healthy development.  One of the more advanced stages – the seventh – is called “generativity.”

Generativity involves taking responsibility for those coming after you.  Previous stages involved relationships with contemporaries, those living alongside you: parents, friends, spouses.  Generativity takes development one step further by assuming responsibility for those who will follow you and (usually) for whose very existence you are responsible.

The most basic expression of generativity is procreation, i.e., parenthood.  But just because it’s common that does not mean it’s unimportant. The flight from parenthood today says a lot about people’s maturity.  Simply put, procreation – one’s personal contribution to humanity – is not compensated for by “nurturing” one’s profession, furry babies, or “the planet.”

But another aspect of this matter concerns what we leave our kids.  The New York Times recently published an article “In Retirement, You May Not Need to Spend So Much” [2], the thrust of which was to allay financial fears about retirement because spending generally declines with age.

In that sense, it counterbalanced the typical, jarring questions about whether “you will outlive your money” or how bankrupt Social Security is.  The piece appeared after six straight days of Wall Street declines that brought the stock market into bear territory.

What bothered me most about it, however, was its discussion of “consumption smoothing [3],” i.e., a financially well-planned economic life accumulates debt in youth, pays it off during midlife’s peak earning years, then comfortably coasts through old age  to death by “spend[ing] down your savings in old age. If you do it right, you will enjoy an even standard of living throughout your adult life.”

If that’s the model of financial responsibility our best economic brains advocate, it’s got a huge flaw. To begin with, you have to cope with uncertainty about the Grim Reaper’s ETA. But more importantly, it omits the family.  It’s a model for an isolated individual consumer, not a parent who – apart from maintaining an “even standard of living” – might also have the audacious notion of “leaving something for the kids” so that they too might have a better standard of living.

Once upon a time, the “American Dream” and most parents’ innate sense of responsibility included the goal of leaving our kids better off than we were.  More recently, it has not.


Along with the general stagnation of working/middle-class advancement, post-Baby Boomers have generally despaired that they would have a better standard of living than their parents.  Economic data seems to back up that despondency. Buying a home was integral to the American Dream.  Today, young people increasingly claim that house buying is out of their (and their parents’) reach.  How many “Big Fat Greek Weddings” today still include houses as wedding presents?

Yet our financial policies continue to conspire against families.  Job instability (even as vacancies ostensibly go begging), debt (especially from out-of-control college costs), and egocentricity have all deterred young people from marrying and founding families.  When barrenness is blessed, a major side-effect is the weakening of filial responsibility for parents.

China already sees this.  Thanks to the “blessings” of Communist Party-enforced barrenness, one child now, in a society that still values filial reverence, is the sole young relative (and potential support) of six older people: two parents and four grandparents.

America’s economic geniuses appear to assume that your situation in old age is your affair.  Individually. No familial dimension.  Certainly no corporate dimension after “pension reform” pushed responsibility for old age on employees.  Uncle Sam’s role is conflicted: enhanced dependency (“pension reform” didn’t reduce tax bites much) on a system funded in such a way that, if it were not run by the government, would be an indictable Ponzi Scheme.

But if a system, modeled on youthful indebtedness followed by a lifetime of payoffs, deters or even prevents the young from taking greater responsibility for elders, the elders – two generations on from the “Great Society” that declared “war” on poverty – also increasingly face a situation where, having paid off debts, they are likewise deterred or even prevented from doing much for their kids.

With uncertainty about being able to rely on children, older Americans increasingly hold on to assets to provide for their old age, given that they are unaware of how many years they will have until the bucket will be kicked.  Perhaps scheduled euthanasia should become an important element of financial planning?

Societal encouragement of economic models built on isolated individualism, which in practice pit generations against each other, is not just bad policy.  From a Catholic social perspective, it’s inhumane and unjust because it is built on a false ideal of the person, shorn from relationality.  Erikson said healthy human development promotes taking responsibility for the next generation.  Our social policies don’t.

The New York Times article appears simply to assume this model is normal. It even puts a smiley face on the situation, quoting research that old people in good health even increase their giving, which seems counterintuitive if people fear outliving their money.

I am not advocating that the elderly be “burdens” on their children. Nor that we so fixate on legacies and inheritances that plans for future wealth divide families, as experience so often attests.  I am advocating that we recognize the normal bonds of dependency that families create.

In the runup to the 2024 presidential election, Americans need a serious debate (not soundbites or Social Security fearmongering) about family-friendly policies that enable families to be generative and mutually supportive, not how to synchronize empty bank accounts and full caskets in tandem.

Both parties – Democrat dependency politics and Republican laissez-faire – have hurt families.  Catholic social thought has healthy (and winning) perspectives to contribute.


*Image: Christ Blessing the Children [4] by Lucas Cranach the Younger (and workshop), c. 1545-50 [The MET, New York]

You may also enjoy:

Anthony Esolen’s This Means Everybody [5]

Michael Pakaluk’s Of Feasts and Families [6]

John Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views herein are exclusively his.