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Will we be good ancestors?

By Steven Schwartz - posted Thursday, 12 January 2023

Why should I care about posterity? What has posterity ever done for me? Groucho Marx

Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch that I have got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations. George Bernard Shaw

It has become customary at Australian gatherings to start proceedings by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which the participants assemble. Although the precise wording varies, speakers almost always indicate respect for past, present, and emerging indigenous elders. These acknowledgments contain a profound idea, often lost in the perfunctory way they are delivered. They highlight the thread that links the past, present and future. 


Connections to the past are easy to spot; they are all around us. Our monuments, culture, and way of life are all legacies of previous generations. We may not be proud of everything done by our forebears, but we can learn from them and use our knowledge to correct any wrongs we have inherited.

Our connections to the present are also obvious. We make sacrifices for friends, neighbours, family, co-workers, and our fellow citizens because we care about them, and we hope they will reciprocate when circumstances change. As Martin Luther King said, “We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now.”

Our connection to the future is different. We cannot expect love or reciprocity from future generations. Sacrifices made for those not yet born, people we will never meet, are one-way favours for which we receive nothing in return. So, Groucho asks, why should we care about posterity?

To answer Groucho’s question, consider a "thought experiment." Imagine that a virus has rendered everyone sterile, making ours the last generation of human beings. Would medical scientists still work endless hours seeking to expand the frontiers of knowledge? Would businesspeople invest in new commercial enterprises? Would artists write books, make movies, or paint portraits? Would governments build libraries and museums? Probably not. Why write a book no one will read? Why create a museum no one will visit? Without a future generation, life, as we know it, would be rendered pointless and devoid of meaning.

In a free society such as ours, individuals are subject only to the social obligations they voluntarily incur. I may join a volunteer fire service and agree to fight fires, while my neighbour decides not to join. I have a duty to live up to my commitment, but my neighbour has made no promise and has no moral obligation to fight fires. If we applied the same logic to future generations, we might conclude that only those who have agreed to be "good ancestors" are morally obligated to sacrifice for posterity. 

However, even the most committed libertarians agree that the freedom to choose one's actions does not extend to harming others. Polluting the environment, spending more than we earn, and providing substandard education damages the interests of our successors; a liberal society cannot defend such harmful behaviour. The past, present, and future are all connected. We must concern ourselves with all three as we pass George Bernard Shaw's torch to the next generation.


We cannot change the past; we only learn its lessons. The future is different. For more than a century, we have come to expect perpetual progress. Each generation has been better off than the last. Unlike the Great Depression, which blighted their parents' lives, the soldiers returning from World War II found lifetime employment and cradle-to-grave welfare. Their children, the baby boomers, attended university in the 1960s and 1970s, stepped into good jobs, made more money and owned nicer homes than their parents.

It seems unlikely that the generation that came to adulthood in the 2000s—the millennials—will be better off than their parents. Sky-high house prices have provided a windfall for wealthy and older people while condemning many young people to a lifetime of rent. Members of the most highly educated generation in history cannot be sure of finding a job to match their educational qualifications. The well-paid permanent employment available to their parents and grandparents is no longer guaranteed. Instead, they are condemned to an online existence in which workers never know from where their next dollar will come.  

Young people are getting a raw deal; they have every right to be disappointed. Many have become too disengaged to care. Turning inward, they have become detached from politics, civic associations, and their families.

If we want to be good ancestors, we must start examining our social policies. How do we make home ownership more than a pipe dream for young people? Are government subsidies the answer, or should we try to increase the housing supply? Or both? Does it make sense to tax the young to provide pensions for older people living in multi-million dollar homes? What about education? Are young people leaving school academically prepared to work in a modern economy?

Someday, we will be the previous generation. Will we be the "good ancestors" graduation speakers often exhort us to be? Or, will we go on in the same selfish way handing the next generation a poorer, riskier, and more troubled world than our parents left us? The time to start answering these questions is now.

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This article was first published on Wiser Every Day.

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About the Author

Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz AM is the former vice-chancellor of Macquarie University (Sydney), Murdoch University (Perth), and Brunel University (London).

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