How Our Grandparents Became Our Enemies

Blagovesta Nikolova

Blagovesta Nikolova

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.

  • sanmartinian

    Interesting article.

    I would, however, recommend the author to look on the possibility of a not widely reported cycle: the third generation repetition of mistakes.

    That’s when living memory of events disappears

    That the the world is today repeating , mutatis mutandis, the thirties is obvious for hose who went through it: financial collapse after a silly bubble, deep recession, slight recovery, huge debt crisis, seemingly unrelated civil swars (Spain in the 30′s, now on front pages) and finally, in the 30′s, WW2.

    Hope we don’t go as far this time but I’m worried.

    I’m not a big fan of cycle theories but as Polonius there may more things on Heaven and and Earth than my philosophy contemplates.

    I recommend a perusal of the efforts of the State of Washington University researchers on the subject.

  • Boomer48

    I entered my last season of life at 57, in 2005, when my last employer decided that leasing a program to replace 15-20 older workers, and hiring 10 younger people (20 somethings out of college) to service it at entry wage / benefits, was good for the bottom line. My experience in looking for work and with medical care since then has led me to believe that there is a concerted attempt to limit the position of the elderly in our societies management. Ageism is REAL, (both in North America and Europe, I have dual citizenship) and I was unable to obtain another job commiserate with my abilities. The debts that I had forced me to bankruptcy in 2 years, The stress lead to heart problems and a date with a procedure called angioplasty; another medical date came in 2009, when I slipped on ice early one morning, severely damaging a knee; 1 1/2 months later they figured out that I had torn ligaments + thigh muscle and dislocated patella; after surgery, and recovery, I was given 8 sessions of physio therapy, just enough to prove the operation had got me on my feet, not rehabilitate my knee.
    Now at 65, I find that I have just missed the new retirement age of 67. But I am seeing other signs of the erosion of seniors care. Yesterday I read that the provincial government has slipped through a resolution limiting the number of diabetic tabs for measuring blood sugar. This means that someone who is controlling their illness via tablets or diet hasn’t enough for 3-4 a day, at meal times.

    To me it is clear that seniors are under attack, and being propelled into a smaller and smaller economic and health situation, whereby, the numbers will eventually decrease at a faster rate. This is the goal. Rather than line us up and put us in mass graves, they are killing us with the cuts of a thousand blades, to hasten the end of the age bubble begun with my generation, the Baby Boomers.
    While we are on the cusp of dramatic improvements in care and technology, I am led to believe that these will not be made available to my generation, other than as guinea pigs. Today, a heart valve is replaceable without open heart surgery, but only available for people at the high end of the Seniors age. This seems strange until you realize that it is new and experimental. Someone who gets it, will be on the last option for procedures before being consigned to the grave.

    What it all means to me, is that for the next 4 – 5 years, I have to improve my health myself, and my economic situation be managed accordingly. In other words, become independent of the society around me, because I cannot continue to count on it for my survival.

  • Guest

    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.

  • Giorgi Kankava

    Very good analysis. For the beginning, I would like to emphasize that generally, it is highly ironical that the young have missed the point that “very soon” they will become the elderly themselves. However, the more important are the term economization and the idea that “in the so-called western-style democracies a well-being of a polity is imagined exclusively in economic terms.” Actually, they depict the utilitarian narrative at work when it has become the dominant one in the social and political sciences, as well as in practice–defining neoliberalism, in other words. The narrative presents a concept of (social) reality where each is a means to an end, namely that to one’s socioeconomic success exclusively: in opinion of one “addicted” to the utilitarian narrative what lacks capacity for providing like services that transcends capacity for bearing any value too. As a result, its domination threatens not only the inter-age ties stability but also social cohesion as such, thus the the terms of the social contract too. In its pure form It is more likely to resemble Hobbes’ state of nature rather then the societal one, and thus no good economic activity conditions are supposed to exist in terms of its dominance. To balance the socially destructive trends the narrative opposite to that of the “economists imperialism” is needed; in this context, I propose the introduction of an absolute value into the social and political sciences: http://philpapers.org/rec/KANTCM

  • Luca

    ‘During the last few decades economically developed countries have expressed great concerns with regard to the demographic changes they experience’

    Yet what was done about it. Go to Sweden and you find a country where so much thought is given to making the country child-friendly that even steps on the streets have been simply adjusted to allow prams to be walked up or down them.

    The rest of Europe never even attempted to replicate the most basis elements of the Swedish approach which meant when it came to having kids in Europe there was little social justice to be found.

    The logic of the market indeed took over Europe and it was cheaper not to bother building a socially just Europe to support European’s having kids.

    • Patrick Butcher

      The coincidence of the social needs of children and seniors is worth some reflection. The adaptation of side walks for prams is a great assistance for seniors relying on some type of wheeled devise for their mobility.

  • MonicaMMA

    Madam,
    The title of your article reflects a deep sense of unease towards elderly people, based on moral standards in decline. Yours sincerely, MonicaMMA