The international youth day (August 12 every year), which is aimed at raising the awareness on issues affecting young people, provides an excellent opportunity to reflect once again on age, intergenerational ties, and justice. During the last few decades economically developed countries have expressed great concerns with regard to the demographic changes they experience. Aging population, integration of culturally diverse immigrant workforce, the over-burdened welfare safety net and the politically disenchanted youth are perceived to be among the severe problems which may affect negatively economic productivity and societal coherence. From time to time, especially in annual debates on fiscal matters, we witness a regular revival of the intergenerational justice account which usually depicts the elderly as a ‘burden’. What explains these anxieties and why is ageing being constructed as a driving force of future instability?
To begin with, in the so-called western-style democracies a well-being of a polity is imagined exclusively in economic terms. And since economic development is defined by economic growth numbers, a great emphasis has been put on each individual’s contribution to the overall productivity of the society he or she belongs to. Thus very easily the demographic structure of a country starts being perceived as determining the performance of its economic system. As a consequence, a process of discursive economization of age is taking place and intergenerational ties are being regarded primarily on the basis of every age group’s monetary merits. This seems inevitable in the context of severe competition in the global marketplace and innovation-driven economies, which requires a energetic, highly-skilled and very productive workforce.
Second, age has been losing its axiological status as a source of wisdom (understood as useful, obtained in experience rationality). In tradition-based societies the elderly were those to be listened to, since they provided valuable advice and guidance with regard to the future of the community. Today, they can hardly keep pace with the rapidly changing social contexts. Older generations’ past experience is believed to be irrelevant in facing contemporary situations which have never been experienced before. The technological revolution in all its manifestations – information technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology, space technology, etc. – made the common temporal discrepancy between different generations profoundly deep and wide.
Third, as long as age is economized, intergenerational ties are economized as well. Until recently the intergenerational justice concept was primarily elaborated within the framework of the discipline of ethics. It was believed to refer to particular temporal aspects of responsibility held by collective entities such as ‘the people from the past’, ‘the present people’ and ‘the future people’ with regard to each other. Today, it is being regarded as the fair balance between age groups in terms of shares of public spending and consumption. Thus the money being provided for pensions, elderly healthcare and social assistance is perceived by some as deviance from the normal economic logic, which is usually based on neo-liberal interpretations of classical economics. In this context the changing demographic structure poses the question with greater severity. The elderly as a political majority (which through voting would pursue their own economic interests at the expense of every other age group) is seen as threat to the economically effective distribution of public resources, the wellbeing of all and the stability of the system. This explains why EU and US institutions promote the meaningful (i.e. economically productive) participation in community life by launching programs for older people for re-training, obtaining new qualifications and skills, late retirement, ‘active aging’, etc.
Fourth, these qualms lead to a situation in which intergenerational ties are not considered with regard to culture, tradition and respect. They are becoming relations between groups of individuals based on calculation of monetary contributions and expenditures. The logic of the market has colonized what has previously been regulated by moral, ethics, and family bonding.
Intergenerational relations are not regarded as a specific temporal continuity. With the crisis of the ‘nuclear family’ that social scientists speak of, they are not conceptualized in terms of ‘what do I owe to my grandparents’ and ‘what do my grandparents owe me’. Intergenerational ties have been expelled both from the congeniality of family care and from responsibility to non-existent generations into the immediacy of each person’s economic situation. The young and the elderly in contemporary western-style societies are encountered as opposing parties of homo economicus – single, profit-maximizing, and self-interested individuals.
In conclusion, for those in power who nurture such a temporal-economic ‘divide and conquer’ strategy the benefits are undeniable. This artificially created cleavage redirects the public’s attention from a more significant question: it is not about who should get a fair share of public money; it is rather about why we ended up in a situation in which such a dramatic disproportion in the distribution of wealth was allowed to materialize and why the most vulnerable – the young and the elderly – are being misled in a conflict against one another for scarce public resources, which in turn leads to compromised social cohesion and disjunct generations.