Life is, most assuredly, unpredictable. It is something that neither the citizen nor the government can always account for. Sitting with several Europeans, we were discussing every economist’s eternal contemplation – government welfare – the ultimate attempt to account for the predictable as well as the unpredictable needs of society. In these hard economic times, the discussion-turned-argument concerned which are the most important social welfare programmes to be invested in for societal benefit. Should this be the provision of pensions or the provision of aid to launch citizens to a better standard of living?

As one can imagine, two camps quickly developed within the discussion, one for either side of social dependency. The first camp argued that society must concentrate on elders, since the cost of general living has increased, most elderly live longer independently and advanced care costs have increased. Moreover, elders have already spent their lives working to earn the social benefits commonly present with retirement, and thus society must preserve, if not increase support of our elders. Yet, a similar argument also exists for the opposite camp, the advocates of maintaining or increasing social support for young citizens on their way to becoming independent adults. The reasoning seems similar in that costs of schooling have increased, most entry-level jobs require previous (often unpaid) internship experience, unemployment is proportionately high for this group, and the age at which young adults become fully independent is rising.

Sitting in what was slowly becoming a turbulent discussion with an us versus them mentality, I felt like the argument of social welfare benefits had spiralled into an issue, not of what is best for society, but a lack of intergenerational trust. It was an all or nothing debate in which one could not conceivably vouch for the support of both sides. Having originated from a country with minimal amounts of social support, I kept thinking just how lucky any individuals were to live in a society with any welfare system, low or not. The fact that any generation is eligible for forms of social benefits to offset times in which citizens commonly struggle should be a huge relief to the entire family. The concept of sliding familial economics, the idea that the positive economics of one family member will spill over to help the entire family, was something my colleagues seemed to have overlooked whilst stressing support of their chosen generation.

People occasionally forget the purpose of social welfare, which is to aid society as a whole. While we may be more sympathetic about those in a situation we personally can relate to, social welfare serves to benefit the entire society, with the goal of making life better – simple concept really. Fundamental to any society is the family unit. Now, I fully acknowledge that modern families come in all shapes and forms, yet contend that there still exists a sense of obligation to one’s family. While there are families one chooses, and families one is born into, the family unit serves to help members survive the trials that life throws at them. In recent times of economic upheaval, it is the family unit that will, without question or rational economic processing, make sacrifices to ensure the survival of family members. And it is such a view on societal and the natural functions of a family that highlights the missing component in the heated discussion of my colleagues.

Today, many under-30s are struggling to keep a roof over their heads whilst dealing with the current employment conditions. In most cases, it is family which steps in to ensure that relatives get through this rough patch. These decisions are made from the heart, and are not independently rational economic decisions. Grandparents, seeing their descendants struggle may cash in part of their life savings to ensure that the younger generation does not starve. Parents divert money needed for home repairs into giving their children the opportunities for a future better than prior generations. In this case, the family economics slide down.

Yet, in other economic situations, under-30s would have managed to quickly scale the ladders to success. In an upturned economic situation under-30s would be able to utilize their level of education, which is averagely higher than prior generations in order to provide their ascendants with assurance about their financial future. While not always rational, independent economic decisions, these decisions of the heart ensure the quality of life for ascendants. Successful descendants or relatives are highly unlikely to let their ascendant or family member be evicted due to inadequate pension funds. In this case the family economics slide up.

Without social welfare, it is the family that cares for individuals, no matter what form that family appears in. Social welfare, implemented anywhere in the family group should, in theory benefit the other members of the family unit due to the economic slide up or down. And it is with this characteristic of society’s fundamental building block that social welfare should never become an us versus them argument for this reveals a problem greater than where to place governmental funds.

When considering social benefits of any form, it is best to remember the purpose of social welfare in supporting the fundamental building blocks of society, which is first and foremost the family unit – whether chosen or given. To see a discussion of this sort divide upon generational lines creates an intergenerational trust issue, rather than whether or not one is in support of the social welfare in general, which could lead to the inevitable break up of this fundamental unit of society – the family.  In leading by example, many academics, business people, and politicians have seemingly lost the general point of social welfare in lieu of supporting particular programmes, not as a counterbalance to current economics, but rather as a form of catering to a particular audience. And like my colleagues, this seemingly generational division, while done with the best intentions, will only serve to break any general social welfare model. Yes, social welfare can be improved, but remember the purpose, lest we undermine ourselves despite positive intentions.