As the link between private and public worlds, generations influence every aspect of our lives together. The fight for a diverse and equal coexistence is being fought at breakfast tables and in parliaments, in online petitions and on the streets. The relationship between the generations alternates between solidarity, dissociation and vociferous protest. There is not always agreement on what a fair intergenerational contract should look like, partly because an unequal balance of power prevails in many situations. Older people often have greater political influence, wealth is only passed down in a few families, young people’s concerns are not always heard, and gender equality is still a long way off. But intergenerational coexistence does not only cause conflict, it also presents opportunities. New ideas are emerging all over the world for a generationally fair future, and young and old people are working together on housing, education and life projects. Established companies can benefit from the fresh ideas of the next generation, while start-ups can learn from the experience of traditional family businesses. The conflict lines presented by generations, the point at which they turn away from ascribed labels, and the ways in which they advocate for each other all need to be continually renegotiated.
Hardly any issue rouses younger and older generations today more than how to deal with climate change. Political protests for sustainable change are being driven by a generation of young people around the world. At the same time, an older generation of politicians in many countries are shaping a future they will not experience themselves. It is precisely because the decisions of the past have left us with the radioactive legacy of nuclear power that we must now reflect on the long-term consequences of the technologies of our era. The far-reaching implications of demographic change – which is well underway – are also transforming intergenerational relationships. While the architecture of the future is seeking new ways to stay abreast of this change, businesses and politicians face the challenge of reconciling the contradictory goals of sustainability and growth. The issue of generations also arises in connection with the global COVID-19 pandemic, which poses a particular threat to the health of older people, while its long-term economic consequences hit younger generations the hardest. These asymmetric relationships raise fundamental questions of responsibility, solidarity and power sharing between the generations.
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Who we are, where we feel we belong, and how we write our own histories – our identities are always shaped by the past. Looking back is more than mere recapitulation. It shows us which narratives are being heard and which perspectives are struggling for visibility. Current debates about global right-wing movements are just one example of how the traumas of the past often do not vanish entirely but instead unleash their impact over generations. Looking back is always connected with the question of which images of the past we should break away from. While younger generations are negotiating their ideas of love, sex and partnership within new frameworks, customs and traditions that have been handed down are still defining elements of our societies. Faith and traditional values can provide support and direction – or lead to a rupture with one’s own family. When generations are no longer able to communicate with each other, this reinforces tendencies of individualization and loneliness, which in many countries do not only affect older people. In this tension between yesterday, today and tomorrow, we need to think about what shapes us and what stories we want to tell future generations.