When Otto von Bismarck established the world’s first social security system, he never dreamed that a large proportion of the populace would live long enough to draw pensions. With a tight grip on the public purse, the Iron Chancellor set age sixty-five as an eligibility threshold that few could be expected to cross. When the U.S. version of the welfare state came into being fifty years later, the labor force was still relatively large in comparison to the population of those receiving benefits. Few in the New Deal era could have anticipated the demographic developments that in our day threaten all of the institutions on which people rely for support and security. Impeding any easy solution is the fact that many of the current pressures on families, welfare systems, and benevolent associations are the by-products of genuine advances in health and opportunity.


Longer life spans have expanded the population of frail elderly persons, including victims of dementias characterized by lengthy periods of disability. Changes in women’s roles have greatly reduced the traditional pool of caregivers for the very young and the very old alike. Low birth rates are decreasing the ratio of active workers to pensioners and persons requiring social assistance. In combination, declining birth rates and improved longevity mean that the dependent population now includes a much smaller proportion of children and a much larger proportion of disabled and elderly persons than ever before. But with increased divorce and unwed parenthood, the impoverished population is now composed largely of women and children.


The increasing pressure on economic and human resources from both ends of the age spectrum has received remarkably little attention from policy makers. And this despite a warning from the Senate Special Committee on Aging, which argued in a 2002 report that, without significant reform, “the United States could be on the brink of a domestic financial crisis.” The issues cannot be ignored much longer, however, for the first wave of the nation’s seventy-seven million baby boomers will reach age sixty-five in 2011. According to Alan Greenspan, the country “will almost surely be unable to meet the demands on resources that the retirement of the baby boom generation will make.”


The pinch is already provoking generational conflict in the ambitious welfare states of northern Europe, where birthrates and immigration rates are lower than in the United States and where, as here, the elderly wield considerable political clout. Modest proposals to cut back on pensions or to raise the retirement age in France and Germany have met with strikes and protests from the groups affected. At the same time, young Europeans are complaining about the high cost of health care for the elderly, and are resentful of fees that are eroding the tradition of free university education. (One German youth leader gained notoriety by suggesting that old folks should use crutches rather than seeking expensive hip replacements.)


That the coming economic crunch is only one aspect of the dilemmas our aging society will confront was emphasized at two recent interdisciplinary meetings. After hearing testimony on aging, dementia, and caregiving at its June 2004 meeting in Washington, the President’s Council on Bioethics concluded that discussions of these matters tend to neglect important medical, psychological, ethical, and social issues. The Council is currently in the process of deciding whether to explore the area further with a view to producing a report that might aid in the search for practices and ideals adequate to the new culture of longevity.


That such investigations are urgently needed was one conclusion of another recent meeting, that of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, which devoted its annual spring gathering in Rome to a conference on the ways that changing relations between generations have affected the very young, the frail elderly, and the severely ill or disabled”both in welfare states and in places where the welfare state is minimal or nonexistent. (The Academy was established in 1994 by Pope John Paul II and is charged with the task of contributing to the advance of the social sciences while helping to find “solutions to people’s concrete problems, solutions based on social justice.” Its membership, drawn from five continents, is composed of experts in the social sciences, including two American Nobel laureates in economics, Kenneth Arrow and Joseph Stiglitz.) Like the U.S. President’s Council, the Academicians concluded that underlying the welfare crisis is a deeper crisis involving changes in the meanings and values that people attribute to aging and mortality, sex and procreation, marriage, gender, parenthood, relations among the generations, and life itself.


The papers presented to the Academy, soon to be published by Libreria Editrice Vaticana, should be of wide interest since several were based on cross-national studies. The speakers included, for example, Francis Fukuyama, whose book The Great Disruption treats the late twentieth-century revolution in behavior and ideas in affluent nations, and Jacques Vallin, Director of the French National Demographic Institute, who has studied the changing age structure of populations throughout the world.


The presentations led to much debate about the implications of the dramatic alterations in social norms that took place in many countries in recent decades. Where children are concerned, changes in the sexual and marital behavior of large numbers of adults have altered the very experience of childhood. Moreover, as the proportion of childless households has grown and societies have become more adult-centered, the general level of concern for the well-being of children has declined. They are out of sight and increasingly out of mind. Cambridge economist Partha Dasgupta noted an interesting “free rider” problem: childless individuals (who as a group enjoy a higher standard of living than child-rearing persons as a group) expect to be cared for in old age through benefits financed by a labor force that they are not helping to replenish.


With widespread acceptance of the notion that behavior in the highly personal areas of sex and marriage is of no concern to anyone other than the “consenting adults” involved, it has been easy to overlook what should have been obvious from the beginning: individual actions in the aggregate exert a profound influence on what kind of society we are bringing into being. 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 dependents at considerable risk.


Disarray in one sustaining cultural institution weakens others. The spread of family breakdown has been accompanied by disturbances in schools, neighborhoods, 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 stress. The law, too, has changed rapidly, becoming a testing ground for various ways of reimagining family relations and an arena for struggles among competing ideas about individual liberty, equality between men and women, human sexuality, marriage, and family life. It does not seem an exaggeration to speak, as some at the Rome conference did, of a breakdown in social norms.


Perhaps no single development, apart from the epidemic of fatherlessness, has had more impact on the environment of childhood, the care of dependents, or the health of the mediating institutions of civil society than the mass movement of women, including mothers of young children, into the paid labor force. It is a mark of great progress that we now live in a world where women have more opportunities than ever before in history. 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.


For many women, moreover, the picture of progress is ambiguous. Though birth rates are declining, the majority of women still become mothers. When mothers of young children enter the labor force, whether because of necessity or desire, they tend to seek work that is compatible with family roles. That usually means jobs with lower pay, fewer benefits, and fewer opportunities for advancement than those available to persons without family responsibilities. So, ironically, the more a woman forgoes advancement in the workplace for the sake of caring for her own children, the more she and her children are at risk of poverty if the marriage ends in divorce. On the other hand, the more she invests in her work, the greater the likelihood her children will have care that is less than optimal. 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 labor 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.


Thus, while enormous advances have been made by women without children, 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. Despite these risks, most mothers still accept primary responsibility for childcare, thereby incurring disadvantages in the labor force. If divorce or separation occurs, most mothers seek and accept primary responsibility for the care of their children even when they are not well-equipped financially to do so. Indeed, if women did not continue to shoulder these risks and burdens, it is hard to see how any social institution could make up for the services they now provide.


The main solutions proposed by the feminism of the 1970s (at the zenith of the welfare state) were the socialization of caregiving and the equalization of child-care responsibilities between fathers and mothers. But those ideas have not had broad appeal”either for parents or for 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.


What makes the dependency-welfare crisis so confounding is that all of society’s sources of support and security are implicated. Families, still the central pillar of our caregiving system, are losing much of their capacity to care for their own dependent members, just when government is becoming less capable of fulfilling the roles it once took over from families. It seems that the ambition of welfare states to free individuals from much of their dependence on families, and to relieve families of some of their most burdensome responsibilities, may have succeeded just well enough to put dependents at heightened risk now that welfare states are faltering.


At the Rome meeting, the British social theorist Margaret Archer pointed out a curious fact that may have impeded reform efforts: the overemphasis on self-sufficiency in contemporary political thought coexists with an approach to welfare that underrates human capacities and ignores important dimensions of personhood. Social policy, she noted, has been influenced by mindsets that treat human beings as passive subjects or instrumental rationalists rather than as active agents whose decisions are influenced not only by calculation of self-interest but also by strongly held values. In a similar vein, the Italian sociologist Pier Paolo Donati pointed out that the prevailing concepts of what society is also inhibit constructive solutions: society, Donati noted, is not just a collection of self-seeking individuals, but is “a fabric of relationships, to a certain extent ambivalent and conflicted, in need of solidarity.”


Perhaps the most important conclusion reached by the Pontifical Academy was that if political deliberation about the impending dependency-welfare crisis proceeds within a framework based solely on the idea of competition for scarce resources, the outlook for dependents is grim. As noted, divisive intergenerational conflict is already observable in Europe. 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 endings.


To state the obvious: if the outlook for dependents is grim, the outlook for everyone is grim. Despite our attachment to the ideal of the free, self-determining individual, we humans are dependent social beings. 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 dependents, or caring for dependents, or financially responsible for dependents. To devise constructive approaches to the dependency-welfare crisis will require acceptance of this profound and unchangeable fact of life.


Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University and president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.