On the Record

The Intergenerational Balancing Act: Where Children Fit in an Aging Society

Isabel V. Sawhill

Today’s children face unprecedented challenges. The world they inherit will be less safe, more environmentally precarious, and less economically secure than the one inherited by their parents. Less safe because of the Global War on Terror – a war seemingly without end. Less healthy because of global warming and other environmental challenges. And less economically secure because of globalization and a very low savings rate in the U.S.

Since I am an economist, I want to especially focus on this third challenge, but I also want to emphasize that it is the combination of all three that is especially troublesome. My theme is very simple: We need to do what we can to modify some of these trends, but since we won’t be able to control them completely, we also need to equip the youngest generation to cope with all three.

The economic challenge has two major dimensions. The first is globalization. Globalization has both a bright side and a dark side. On the bright side, the world economic pie will grow, and the slices of the pie that go to each country including the U.S. should be bigger. On the darker side,

  • wage levels in different countries will tend to converge;
  • the overall pie will be bigger, but the U.S. share of the pie will be smaller than in the past, and;
  • many workers will face job dislocation or lower wages as a result of the transition.

To compete in this new economy, children will need higher levels of education and strong interpersonal and problem-solving skills. Much has been made of the importance of education in this new environment, and it bears emphasis. But keep in mind that the only jobs that can’t be sent offshore are the ones that involve direct interaction with other people and the ability to come up with new solutions to old problems. So interpersonal skills and creativity will be in especially great demand.