picture alliance / All Canada Photos | Chris Cheadle
picture alliance / All Canada Photos | Chris Cheadle

In times of crisis intergenerational comity is especially key An Opportunity, not a Defect

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We are living through a perilous moment in history. Russia’s war against Ukraine has destabilized the international system, exacerbating problems ranging from global finance and the euro to cross-border migration, and the coronavirus. The rise of authoritarian and right-wing populist forces threatens to hollow out established democracies and supranational institutions like the EU from the inside. The climate crisis hangs over everything like a dark cloud, as do widespread fears of downward social mobility, affecting even the most affluent countries. Intergenerational solidarity could prove crucial in addressing such challenges. Against this backdrop, we must ask how well the generations are communicating and how young people, in particular, are coping with issues that are likely to define our reality for some time.

The sense of déja vu

One might object that numerous generations in the past have been dubbed “generations of crisis,” yet at the end of the day we often find that fault-lines between generations have been exaggerated, that the attitude of young and old alike are actually more positive than we had imagined, and that things have continued to roll along quietly. We can’t just write as though those facts did not exist. Yet one thing is clear: the climate crisis  poses an existential threat today; indeed, it has done so for a long time. Hence, it cannot really be compared to earlier crises. So, could it turn out that this crisis will go down in history as the one that drove a permanent wedge between generations?

Over the last few months, it has not been unusual to read that some members of older generations, especially the boomers, have not been sufficiently willing to question their privileges and lifestyles, a reluctance that shifts burdens onto their own children and future generations. But how did things stand with the boomers’ own parents? Did they live and act prospectively and trans-generationally, keeping the future in mind? Was resilience cast as a political program? Weren’t at least the tail-enders of the boomer generation proclaimed to be a “crisis generation” during the late Seventies due to international clashes and wars, the waning of faith in future progress, oil price shocks, and high rates of inflation? And aren’t we facing a chicken-egg problem here: what came first: the feeling of being part of a crisis generation or the ascription to one? And does that make any difference?

In the future will we need to have an exhibition in Bonn’s House of History on the topic of “generation and crisis”? It would be nice if other people decided to take up that cause as their own. But for now, at the very least, we need a more sophisticated consideration of all these crisis-related phenomena and of the differing generational attitudes that each cohort has toward the crises themselves and toward other cohorts.

Here, political science can count on empirical research. In numerous studies, both quantitative and qualitative, it has devoted much effort to uncovering people’s values and (political) attitudes. A survey of all these studies would exceed the scope of this article, so for now let us highlight a few of the principal findings of recent investigations.

In one seminal study of young voters published not long ago, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung refers to young people as having “grown up amid crises.” The research makes it clear that the crises of recent years have left a deep imprint on this generation. It responds to those crises with pragmatism and an intensive search for solutions. For them, post-materialist values like equal rights and climate protection play a major role.

But social and financial security are no less important to the new generation. What they want and expect from the political system is not so much progress on “youth issues” like education and digitalization; instead, they mainly want answers to “the big questions of the day” such as affordable housing, pensions, and social security in old age.

In this context the dominant viewpoint is that in these matters (and not only in these) political actors are mostly making policy to benefit older people. Seventy-seven percent of participants in the study are of the opinion that politics does not take the concerns of younger people seriously. They see a widening gap between rich and poor in society and frequently even worry about their own livelihoods. Regardless of their educational level, nearly all of the participants in the study are losing confidence in the kind of social support provided by the state.

Attitudes toward democracy

It has been shown repeatedly that citizens’ socio-economic status, including their levels of educational attainment, affect how satisfied they feel about democracy. Among young adults in Germany, those with higher levels of formal education are more likely to be satisfied with the working of democracy than those with less educational attainment. Likewise, as might be expected, perceptions of overall societal conditions shape those political attitudes. Young German citizens who view the current situation with confidence express more satisfaction with the functioning of democracy (80%) than those who are troubled by the current state of affairs in Germany (43%).

»Optimism is waning among young people in Europe.«

The TUI Foundation’s “Study of Youth, 2023” looks for the bigger picture. For the seventh time it focuses attention on 16-to-26-year-olds, and now includes European-level comparisons. Moreover, the German section of the study also compares young Germans’ attitudes with those of the total population. What are its findings? Optimism is waning among young people in Europe. It’s not so much that any specific crisis underlies this trend, but rather that the elan vital of younger people fades into feelings of gloom. Fifty-two percent believe that they will be worse off than their parents’ generation. Still, those results differ significantly from one European country to another. There is really no such thing as “the youth” either in Germany or within Europe as a whole.

Political scientist Thorsten Faas, who conducted the study, summarizes: “Yes, young people’s trust is diminished as is their feeling of being represented. But at the same time the expectations that they direct toward the state and political actors have grown and—especially—become more complex. One could say that they are not exactly making things easy for the political system. If we ask them about various social groups—say, those with low or modest incomes, young people, individuals with a “migration background,” or people of color—they make vociferous demands that the political system should consider the interests of such groups more attentively than it has up until now. Furthermore, the German sub-study revealed that younger people look at such groups quite differently than the rest of the population does. Here, it is obvious that young people place more far-ranging, forcefully articulated demands on the political system than it has been accustomed to absorb previously, and that too leads to stress within the system.”

But when it comes to federal elections in Germany, political parties will not be able to accomplish much by relying exclusively on young people. Not only are they numerically inferior to the older generations; they also turn out to vote less frequently. If you want to win an election in Germany, or at least obtain a reasonably good result, you need the retirees on your side. The latter are reliable voters and constitute the numerically largest segment of the electorate. That has a twofold effect. On one hand young people feel ignored by the parties’ programs; on the other hand, as voters they are less “interesting” to the parties, even when the latter aspire to reach “everybody out there.”    

Minority protections for young people.

The sociologist Aladin Al-Mafalaani recently argued that in the future we might need a kind of minority protection for young people. Because there are so few of them compared to their elders’ generation, there might have to be regulations requiring that their needs and perspectives be given full consideration politically. He explained that at this time their principal means for obtaining such a hearing would be through legal action, for example the one that culminated in the Constitutional Court’s recent ruling on climate protection. Yet every formalized legal claim first of all must be enforceable by law and then capable of being implemented.

Those are both points on which Germany is sorely lacking—just take a look at the right of care for children under three years of age. So, this legal route would not seem to be the sole solution. And are we really so badly off when it comes to mutual solidarity between present-day generations that we have to think in terms of lawsuits?

The boomers are to blame for everything

Generational conflicts are hardly a new phenomenon. And yet the persistent and worsening crisis-proneness of this era, especially where climate change is concerned, contains an explosive charge that is likely to exacerbate the atmosphere of crisis around us. The generation of Germany’s economic miracle, those born between 1930 and 1950, got ahead early, acquired considerable wealth, and enjoyed large boosts in their incomes. By contrast, beginning with the generation of baby boomers, nearly all succeeding generations have been confronted by the need to come to terms with economic disappointments and crisis experiences. 

Moreover, the postponement of reforms has always burdened younger generations and forced them to devise adaptive measures. Perhaps this very pattern of adaptation will not be possible in the future, at least not without further adjustments. How do you adapt to the exigencies of the climate crisis? That will hardly be possible without great sacrifices and bitter losses.

Nevertheless, one can ask whether we really are dealing with conflicts between generations. After all, there is one thing that unites old and young: their worried glances at the current situation, even when the elders are naturally more “crisis-proof.” Although the older generation may not display what youth-scholar Benno Hafeneger calls “future-related agitation,” they are already preparing themselves for the likelihood that things will get worse.

»Older people sympathize with the issues and worries of the young

Gazing into the future means gazing in the same direction. Although they may reject forms of protest and direct action, older people sympathize with the issues and worries of young people. It is also true that the tone of dissatisfaction has gotten sharper. So, it is all the more indispensable that we maintain our ability to debate across the generations.  

Given the vast and complex challenges ahead, neither ideology nor sweeping generational prejudices ought to dominate. The initial situation for that accommodation is not all that bad. While the younger set needs the experiences of their elders, the latter are dependent upon the technological and digital competence of younger cohorts. Each side needs the other. The political process must encourage that comity. It must acknowledge that the urgent issues are not generationally specific; instead, they are cross-generational. Politics should encourage intergenerational debates and innovations which ii turn should be reflected in political programs and overtures. The fact that young people by nature are more impatient and want to move ahead faster should be seen as an opportunity rather than as a defect. It’s not simply that demographic change plays into the hands of the young; it also provokes questions about how secure they will be when they reach old age. Worries such as these must be taken seriously. It is time for political elites to stop associating the majority of young people with “youth topics.”  On this score, the political system can show that it knows how to respond to the aspirations of young people.  

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