In a recent article, researchers Renee Beard and John Williamson discuss two major ways that late-life inequality is framed and how these different perspectives on inequality lead to “different definitions of what the problems are and [the] proposed policy solutions.”
The first framework they describe is generational, which emphasizes the distribution of resources between generations. This perspective places much less emphasis on differences within a specific generation or on demographic differences based on race, gender, or class. Policy debates from this perspective revolve around discussions of how resources should be distributed between generations; for example, whether there should be increases in eligibility for Social Security benefits, or for a greater reallocation of resources across generations such as an expansion of Social Security benefits. Debates surrounding this perspective often center around family vs. government responsibilities toward older members of society. This debate also centers around the high costs of supporting our oldest citizens vs. the social stability and social mobility that such public sector support can enable for society as a whole. However, in general, this perspective focuses on how best to address vulnerabilities that emerge or are accentuated in older adulthood and retirement.
The other frame discussed is cumulative advantage/disadvantage (CAD), which emphasizes the accumulation of risks and benefits that occur over the lifetime. This perspective emphasizes policies that can impact factors contributing to accumulating inequalities as early in life as possible. Here, the emphasis is on areas like education and early and midlife health care. From this perspective, initiatives targeted at older adults cannot sufficiently address the “systematically skewed distribution of resources” that builds up over the entire lifetime. Interventions informed by this perspective aim to impact trajectories over individuals’ life courses.
In contrasting these perspectives, the authors note that the generational framings “have drawn attention away from the real issues of ensuring optimal financial security and thus quality of life for seniors”—issues that arise long before retirement.
Beard RL and Williamson JB. Frames matter: aging policies and social disparities. Public Policy Aging Report (2016); 26(2): 48–52.