Intergenerational Practice vs Intergenerational Justice

Antony Mason sees the potential for conflict, but argues that finding common ground serves all parties better

The younger generation have reason to be angry: for decades to come they will be burdened by the spending spree of previous generations – national debt, unfunded government pensions liabilities, debts from student fees, paying for the windfall profits in housing…

The older generation – baby boomers and their parents – will naturally be defensive. “Why blame us?” they protest. They simply made the most of the choices on offer to their generation, as any generation would.

There is the potential for conflict here – and indeed all over Europe young people have taken to the streets to protest at their lot in one way or another. The recent demonstrations in Israel – the largest protests in the nation’s history, mainly directed at the housing crisis – are only the latest in a growing list.

Justice and Practice

The Intergenerational Foundation is not in the blame game. The main thrust of our work and research is to target policy-makers and make them take the long-view, in the interests of future generations – something that previous governments have signally failed to do. This comes under the heading of “intergenerational justice” or “intergenerational fairness”.

“Intergenerational practice” tends to refer to something subtly different: promoting understanding and good relationships between the young and the old to the benefit of both. It is a lively field in the community and voluntary sector. As the name suggests, this is primarily practical, as opposed to political or theoretical.

In the context of intergenerational practice, there are an increasing number of “Intergenerational Centres” – buildings, run by local authorities or independent trusts, where participants can gather, such as the pioneering Acacia Intergenerational Centre, run by Merton Council in South London. Scotland has a government-funded organisation called the Scottish Centre for Intergenerational Practice, which operates support networks across the nation.

A number of universities have courses in intergenerational practice; for example, the University of Wales offers the Lampeter Certificate in Intergenerational Practice.

Perhaps the best-known organisation in this field is the Beth Johnson Foundation, which has its own dedicated Centre for Intergenerational Practice.

Conflict resolution

Intergenerational conflict tends to occur where generations have become isolated from each other and stratified. There is a danger of this occurring inBritain, where housing arrangements tend to split families into small units, often isolated geographically and socially from other generations.

A recent research report by the Intergenerational Foundation, entitled “The Poor Perception of Younger People in the UK”, showed that people in Britain believe that we have very negative attitudes towards young people, scoring lower results in this field than any other country in Europe.

By contrast, Italy appears less vulnerable to intergenerational conflict – despite the profound social and economic problems faced by its younger generation, including a youth unemployment rate of about 30% – because there is generally better communication and mutual support between generations.

The lesson seems to be that taking aggressive – accusatory or defensive – standpoints in intergenerational issues, pitting one generation against the other, serves little purpose. Solutions lie in finding common ground from which to work to secure a brighter future – for those alive today, and for future generations.

Those who campaign for intergenerational justice and those working in the field of intergenerational practice tend sometimes to see themselves as coming from mutually antagonistic points of view. But the cause would be far better served if they both worked in tandem to secure this common ground.

Posted on: 4 October, 2011

One thought on “Intergenerational Practice vs Intergenerational Justice

  1. John Miles

    I’ve been watching this site since it started and wondering when you’d discover your near namesakes!

    Advocates of generational equity and intergenerational practice are alike both in thinking something is wrong, and then in finding it difficult to convince sceptics that they have a point. Advocates of generational equity struggle to convince those of us for whom class is still the main source and driver for socioeconomic inequality. Advocates of intergenerational practice puzzle those of us for whom the parent/adult-child dividing line (at any age) is still the major source of stress and ambivalence between generations. Something may well be going on – I rather think it is – but whether it concerns relations between age-groups, birth cohorts, or family ranks (or all three simultaneously), or one in one context and two in another, is proving very difficult to pin down.

    So three comments in relation to this piece. First, when you say ‘intergenerational conflict tends to occur…’ what do you mean? What does inter-generational conflict actually look like? Last year’s student protestors invaded Millbank Tower not the offices of the National Pensioners Convention or Age UK. I suspect you mean what sociologists would tend to call ‘generational conflict’ whereas it’s the IGP people who are concerned largely with non-proximate age groups. But where is it? How is it being made manifest? When you segue from Britain to Italy you imply there’s a connection between youth movements and generational relations, but active youth protests in Britain have been on a much smaller scale than in countries (like Spain) that retain something of the Mediterranean family system. Meanwhile, the three main party political leaders in the UK are (unprecedentedly) all in their early forties: are they just a front for the old? When Manchester United play Chelsea a man who could comfortably be the grandparent of his younger players confronts a manager who is younger than one or two of the team he sends on to the pitch. Has the hierarchy of opportunities ever been less fixed among the elite?

    Second, both types of intergenerational advocate could pay more attention to the sociology of generations. There’s no consensus, as you would expect among academics, but one strand (following the work of Bryan Turner and others) might repay attention: this suggests there have been two significant episodes of generational conflict in the twentieth century, in the nineteen-twenties (in reaction to the first world war), and in the nineteen-sixties (in a delayed response to the second world war). Both raise some doubts about investing too heavily in the rhetoric of thwarted youthful aspiration. Both offer interesting benchmarks for what might, or might not, be happening at the moment – particularly with respect to anxiety about the future and the scale of social change in relation consumption and communication. It’s tempting to think that demographic change offers a new dimension and this is often asserted – but we don’t know really.

    Lastly, there’s this IF report on the ‘Poor Perception of Younger People in the UK’. I’m sure you’ll agree that this type of desk-top survey only takes us so far, but despite that, the depiction of a sourness towards young adults in the UK is cause for considerable concern. But if you look at the final chart, where the respondent is asked for their own views, it could still be argued that, while in Britain we rate people in their seventies overall higher than people in their twenties, we still award the latter over 6 out of ten. A decent pass mark in my school-days. Moreover, it seems to be only in Turkey where envy of people in their seventies comes anywhere close to the envy felt for people in their twenties. Otherwise, envy of older people seems pretty strongly correlated with their financial security (so that it exceeds Britain only in Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland and Switzerland) suggesting that cultural factors largely come second to factual knowledge. It would be interesting to see the envy data broken down by the age of the respondent: overall, it suggests that people would still rate the prospect of a grim future higher than that of actually being old.

    Go well. John

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