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Intergenerational justice

An idea whose time has finally come

A storm is raging around the world.

In every country on earth, families are being buffeted by forces outside their control. Health systems are straining, economies are being squeezed and governments are scrambling to get a grip.

At the same time, our natural environment is still being vandalised. Enormous numbers of children remain out of decent education. And violence continues unabated in many places, including within millions of households.

The pandemic did not cause this storm – all these challenges pre-existed the novel coronavirus. But it’s certainly accelerated it.

And while the disease itself mainly affects older people, in the long run its protracted, pervasive secondary impacts are likely to be devastating for younger generations.

Children alive today will forever be ‘the Covid Generation’, their lives deeply marked by the impacts of the pandemic. Our new report, Covid’s Kids, sets out how children will experience exacerbated deprivations in their health, nutrition, education, protection or wellbeing that, for some, will cause them to suffer a lifetime of poverty, violence and other rights abuses.

Many of these harms are being experienced by children in rich countries as well as poorer ones. And while there are clearly great differences across the world, there are also huge amounts that all today’s children are experiencing in common.

Our debts to children

The youngest generation carries our hopes for a brighter future. But there’s a real risk that it becomes a generation that is failed by the choices we make today. With governments borrowing unprecedent amounts to respond to the crisis, it looks as though it will be today’s children, as they grow older, who will bear the costs of recovery.

But this is also a moment of opportunity. Rebuilding from the ruins of the pandemic offers a once-in-a-generation chance to catalyse the emergence of economies that value what really matters. In other words, a world-changing opportunity to:

  • put family finances at the heart of economic decision-making everywhere
  • prioritise universal public services
  • protect parents from precarious employment
  • re‑focus on international economic cooperation that puts the rights and interests of children first.

To put it bluntly, adults – especially wealthier ones in the global North – owe an enormous debt to our children for the harm that we have done to the planet. The virus has arisen out of environmental degradation and the pandemic has further delayed action on tackling these harms.

But we have also seen that drastic change is possible. Now, post-pandemic recovery packages offer a one-off opportunity to turn towards ecologically sound economics.

Debts are also owed to children by (some) adults for our failure to take sufficiently seriously the scourge of social injustice. Millions of children are currently being held back from realising their rights through deep inequalities that run through every society, reflecting imbalances of power entrenched by systems of governance.

The pandemic has reproduced and deepened inequity. And it has shown that, unless inequalities are addressed, we are all more vulnerable and less resilient in the face of collective threats.

Finally, today’s children will inherit a world in which multilateral action to solve shared problems is in historic retreat. Over the last century, global cooperation has been fundamental to the advance of children’s rights and human rights. And it has underpinned efforts to tackle collective challenges and to protect us from collective threats.

The turn towards inter-state competition and away from cooperation has been one of the hallmarks of international responses to the pandemic. It may deepen further as the economic and social consequences of the crisis unfold over the coming years. What’s becoming ever clearer is that the primary losers in the collapse of multilateralism will be today’s children.

There must be no return to ‘normal’

The Covid Generation cannot afford a return to ‘normal’. The scale and severity of poverty, inequality, malnutrition, poor health, precariousness and exclusion that persisted before the pandemic, the acute lack of resources for education, the mental health crisis, the persistence of violence against children, the carnage being wreaked on the environment, the diminishing of human rights, the polarisation in our public realms and the loss of confidence in international cooperation all mean that for many millions of children, normal simply wasn’t good enough.

Without diminishing the extraordinary toughness of the current time – the deaths, the illness and the enormous social and economic pressure that millions of people are under – we should recognise the pandemic as a “portal”. It invites us not simply to accept a future that is already laid down, but to play an active part in shaping a better one. The children who are growing up around the world now – Covid’s kids – have the biggest stake in what that future looks like. But we – Covid’s adults – have the biggest role in determining whether the 2020s will see a great reversal or a historic advance in children’s rights.

Some responses to the pandemic offer real grounds for hope. All over the world, communities are coming together, understanding and supporting each other in new ways.  There’s growing recognition of the indispensable contributions to society made by those whose work is often underpaid or unpaid and most often done by women, girls, people from ethnic minorities, migrants and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. That is, a realisation that there’s no correlation between the size of your pay packet and the size of your contribution to society.

During periods of lockdown, the natural world has enjoyed some partial respite from humanity’s relentless impact. And there’s emerging evidence of a more active global conversation about mental wellbeing and the simple things that can help protect it. Despite the huge divergences that exist between us in terms of power, privilege and experiences, there seems to be greater consideration of our commonality too. These are all grounds for deep optimism.

On all fronts there are big battles to be won. In our report, we’ve set these out using a five-pillar framework:

  • Create economies in which all children can thrive
  • Rescue childhood for the Covid Generation
  • Save children’s natural inheritance
  • Govern for children’s rights – by sharing and building power
  • Govern for children’s rights – through international cooperation

To say that ‘children are our future’ is a cliché. Unlike many clichés, however, this one captures a fundamental truth: the values, skills, capabilities, hopes and dreams that we engender in Covid’s kids represent our greatest hope for a more peaceful, more prosperous and fairer world.

Read our new Covid’s Kids report.

Intergenerational justice