What is left for the young after baby boomers reform basic security?

We live in a rapidly aging Finland. The large post-war generations, the baby boomers, are retiring with work pensions, public services and other benefits that they and their predecessors have planned and introduced while building the welfare state. It feels like only the sky has been the limit when developing benefits and services to cover a multitude of social and health risks.

It also seems that they have not been very good at considering far-reaching consequences while developing a system based on high employment rates for the baby boomers and taxes paid for income from work. The question about how to finance our welfare state in the future is not a new one. For decades already, we have pondered how the broad public system can fly like a bumblebee with very small wings. Explanations have been sought in trust and cohesion, but a sufficient funding has probably helped keep it all going.

Until now, all the different ways in which people have attempted to renew the welfare state have been more or less doomed. During the depression in the 1990s, the welfare system was subject to extensive slicing, dicing and cutting when faced with inevitabilities. Since the very beginning of the 2000s, there has been talk about a comprehensive reform of social security, but to no avail. So, it seems we again find ourselves in a situation where we do not have a choice. We are told that big decisions must be made for us to leave future generations a better society.

However, it begs the question of whether we have some sort of joint vision of a better future. What is the direction in which we want to develop our welfare state? Based on what notions and ideologies? At the core of a ‘we have to do something’ debate, there are always values on which the direction of reforms is based.

When we tell the youth of today that there are no choices, this points to a reluctance to have a genuine discussion about the future. Then again, even if the young are heard, can they really influence what our welfare state will look like after, for instance, the Sote reform? In this regard, the present demographics do not favour young people. Out of our 200 members of parliament, 15 were born in the 1940s, 41 in the 1950s, and 65 in the 1960s. In current Parliament, there is only one MP born in the 1990s.

Age brings experience, which in turn makes it possible to see things from different perspectives and also leads to a deeper understanding of how present societal changes relate to our history and earlier reforms. Those born in the 1950s and 60s also have a lot of personal experience from the golden age of the Finnish welfare state, as well as from the directional change in the 1990s.

But age may also make it hard to deviate from a path well known and safe. No matter how much the present government claims to be making the leap of the century in reforming the health and social services (Sote), from the perspective of a young person it may seem more like clinging to old conservative values. The government is in the process of creating a new society using old methods, not even discussing basic income, citizens’ reliance on the markets, or even what citizenship actually means.

Now, if ever, is the time to ask young people directly what kind of a society they want to live in in the future, or what kind of a society they would like to leave to their children. We the older generations should have the courage to ask how young people see the planned reforms and the redefinition of the welfare state. Are they as excited as the politicians driving the reforms, or do they perhaps see in front of them a slightly less rosy future?

A large group of global citizens are growing up in Finland: courageous and intelligent young people who – for better or worse – will inherit all the societal institutions previous generations have built. Faced with upcoming extensive reforms, we need to find a new kind of humility for the young. What if we would start off by signing a new generational contract and not until after that start thinking about other changes?

Minna Ylikännö

Senior Researcher at Kela Research

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