The selfish society begins to crack
Longer life-spans combined with lower birth rates result in an ageing
population, which America, along with Australia and other advanced
countries is beginning to experience. The immediate problem appears to
be economic. With relatively more aged people, and fewer workers or
taxpayers, the costs of health care and age pensions become more
burdensome. US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan says that the US
"will almost surely be unable to meet the demands on resources that the
retirement of the baby boom generation will make".
But this question needs to be examined in other ways, and not
limited to economic considerations. Mary Ann Glendon is a professor of
law at Harvard. She is also president of the Pontifical Academy of
Social Sciences, a committee of experts from five continents. Her
reflections in the US journal First Things on two recent meetings set out some of the wider issues. (1)
In June this year, the President's Council on Bioethics
concluded that when our ageing society was discussed, there was a
tendency to neglect important medical, psychological, ethical and
social issues. Ways of remedying this are being examined.
At a meeting earlier this year in Rome, the Pontifical Academy
of Social Sciences concluded that underlying the welfare crisis is a
deeper crisis. It involves changes in the meanings and values that
people attribute to ageing and mortality, sex and procreation,
marriage, masculinity and femininity, parenthood, relations among the
generations, and life itself.
Take, for example, the changes in sexual behaviour which began
in the 1960s. Once the notion becomes widely accepted that behaviour in
the highly personal areas of sex and marriage is of no concern to
anyone, other than the so-called "consenting adults" involved, it is
easy to overlook the effect on society. But individual actions add up.
When there are a lot of them, they exert a profound effect on society.
Massive social experiment
According to Glendon "Eventually, when large numbers of
individuals act primarily with regard to self-fulfillment, the entire
culture is transformed. The evidence is now overwhelming that affluent
Western nations have been engaged in a massive social experiment - an
experiment that brought new opportunities and liberties to adults but
has put children and other dependants at considerable risk."
Writing in First Things, Glendon says the family is an
institution which sustains our culture. If the family is in disarray,
that weakens other institutions. The spread of family breakdown has
been accompanied by disturbances in schools, neighbourhoods, churches,
local governments, and workplace associations - all of the structures
that have traditionally depended on families for their support and that
in turn have served as important resources for families in times of
There are two developments, she believes that have had profound
effects on the environment of children. One is the epidemic of
fatherlessness. The other is the mass movement of women, including
mothers of young children, into the paid labour force. Women now have
more opportunities than ever before in history, which is a mark of
But there is a downside: "No society, however, has yet figured
out how to assure satisfactory conditions for child-rearing when both
parents of young children work outside the home. And no society has yet
found a substitute for the loss of other types of caregiving previously
provided mainly by women."
But while birth rates are declining, the majority of women
still become mothers, and the picture of progress for them is
ambiguous. Mothers of young children, if they enter the labour force,
tend to seek work that is compatible with family roles: usually lower
paid jobs with poorer prospects. The more she foregoes workplace
advancement for the sake of her children, the more she and her children
are at risk of poverty if the marriage ends in divorce. If she chooses
the other direction, the more time and energy she gives to the
workforce, the greater the likelihood that her children have less than
"It is not surprising therefore that women are hedging against
these risks in two ways by having fewer children than women did in the
past, and by seeking types of labour force participation that are
compatible with parenting. In so doing, they often sacrifice both their
child-raising preferences and their chances to have well-paid,
satisfying, and secure employment."
So the net effect of all this is that women without children
have made enormous advances. But mothers face new versions of an old
problem: "caregiving, one of the most important forms of human work,
receives little respect and reward, whether performed in the family or
for wages outside the home."
Glendon says that the feminist ideas of the 1970s envisaged
child care run by the state or employers, and the equalization of child
care responsibilities between fathers and mothers. But these ideas
don't have broad support, from parents or taxpayers. "Such ideas ignore
the fact that for many women, caring for children and other family
members is central to their identity, sustaining the relationships that
make their lives meaningful."
Back to the dependency-welfare crisis. Families are still the
central pillar of our caregiving system, says Glendon, but they are
losing much of their capacity to care for their own dependent members.
In fact, as a result of family breakdown and unwed parenthood, there is
a new group of poor people, mainly women and children. At the same
time, governments are becoming less capable of fulfilling the roles
they once took over from families.
At the Rome meeting, attention was drawn to the dominance of
narrow concepts in current political thinking which can lead to wrong
conclusions. In reality human beings are influenced not simply by
calculations of self-interest, (which most economic theories assume)
but also by strongly held values. Society is not just a collection of
self-seeking individuals, but a complex fabric of relationships.
Glendon says the most important conclusion reached by the
Pontifical Academy was that if governments look at the
dependency-welfare crisis, and decide it is all a matter of allocating
scarce resources, the outlook for dependents is grim.
"The most ominous development, of course, is the growing
normalization of the extermination of persons who have become
inconvenient and burdensome to maintain at life's frail beginnings and
And if the outlook for dependents is grim, says Glendon, the
outlook for everyone is grim. "Despite our attachment to the ideal of
the free, self-determining individual, we humans are dependent social
"We still begin our lives in the longest period of dependency
of any mammal. Almost all of us spend much of our lives either as
dependants, or caring for dependants, or financially responsible for
dependants. To devise constructive approaches to the dependency-welfare
crisis will require acceptance of this profound and unchangeable fact
Social Action is a Melbourne magazine of social affairs and commentary.
(1)Mary Ann Glendon. "Discovering Our Dependence". First Things. October 2004.
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