Opinions - 23.04.2014 - 00:00 

Fairness between young and old

Solidarity between the generations fluctuates like the economic cycle. Today’s young people inherit money and crises. Fairness between the generations is in demand more than ever before, writes HSG sociologist Franz Schultheis.


25 April 2014. The conflict between generations and solidarity between the generations are two sides of the same coin: depending on the socio-historical context, the economic situation and the societal climate, one or the other prevails. Judging from the public debate, the different generations appear to view each other as opponents rather than partners at present. Overageing and the predicted collapse of the social systems are unsettling young and old in equal measure.

Unequal “life opportunities”
Studies in social science support the proposition that today’s young generation find it rather difficult to realise the “life opportunities” that were offered to their parents’ generation in terms of professional careers, standard of living and the predictability of biographical blueprints.

This appears to raise a new “social issue”: the issue of justice or fairness between the generations. What do we understand by it? The French sociologist Marcel Mauss saw in principle that each generation would have to leave to the following generation at least that which it had inherited from its precursors – an anthropological constant of the “ethics of intergenerational relations”.

Justice between the generations reaches its limits
Intergenerational relations are characterised by the fact that in this context, the issue of justice cannot be determined on the basis of the otherwise most elementary form of justice, i.e. reciprocity. I cannot return to my father and mother what they have given to me. This is why Mauss speaks of indirect reciprocity here: do whatever your father and mother did for you, for your own children.

This is where the first fundamental problem already arises: in times of increasing childlessness, this formula of justice between the generations obviously reaches its limits. In Germany, for instance, almost one couple in three remains childless for life; in almost all western societies, the birth rate is far below the net reproduction rate.

Yet the issue is much more complex: what we see today is configurations of intergenerational relations that appear to be contradictory. For one thing, never before has any young generation come into an even remotely comparable inheritance of economic wealth than is the case today.

Jeunesse dorée inherits money and crises

The capital accumulated by the preceding generation which today’s youth may expect qua intergenerational inheritance makes them appear to be a jeunesse dorée. But all that glitters is not gold. They are also left a crisis-torn, deregulated economic system, whose medium-term, let alone longer-term future can no longer be predicted even by specialists, and is contributing towards the radical uncertainty of future perspectives.

Added to this, there are a great number of global risks such as environmental problems and growing social tensions, a consequence of the increasing distributions of unequal life opportunities in the north-south and west-east divides. In many present-day societies, also in European ones, more than 50 per cent of people under 25 are unemployed and thus cut off from all essential resources and socially excluded.

The looming future scenarios make the inheritance of material goods promised to the privileged categories of the young generation appear highly precarious and fragile: a kind of poisoned gift. It may well be symptomatic of this situation that today’s societal debates about justice between generations largely focus on problems of the distribution of credit and debit in the field of pension funding and payment. The genuinely worrying issues are frequently lost in the hurly-burly of day-to-day politics.

Picture: Photocase / *Bonsai*

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