Generation wars: are the young being left out of their future?
A year and a half ago, few had heard of Greta Thunberg. Today, the teenage girl from Stockholm is a global icon. Her school-strike has inspired kids across the planet to skip classes and demand a more sustainable future to grow up in. Greta has been hailed by Pope Francis – and is even credited with changing a quarter of the German population’s views on climate change.
Much of the commentary about Greta Thunberg – who has become famous for her stern warnings about the need to take action on the climate crisis – has focused on the difference between the 16-year-old as a representative of a younger generation and the older politicians who she addresses. It is often said that such politicians are endangering the future of younger generations. But whether it’s climate change, Trump, Brexit, feminism or economic policy, the so-called ‘generational divide’ between old and young seems to inform most political debates today.
It is claimed that older generations voted for their interests and prejudices over the needs of the young, to whom the future belongs. The Baby Boomers are particularly demonised as a generation of selfish ‘sociopaths’ who have long monopolised welfare resources. This older generation is blamed for wanting pensions, buying houses and for exercising their undeserved clout in the political domain. In contrast, the younger generations are either heralded as saviours of politics, or the victims of greedy parents.
Post-Brexit, some in the UK have even suggested that the youth vote should be given more weight, as they will be living with the consequences of political decisions for longer than their elders. In Sweden in 2016, the governmental Democracy commission of inquiry suggested that the voting age in council elections should be lowered from today’s 18 to 16, as a way of including more young people in the decision making. Though some lawmakers have voiced their support, the Swedish parliament so far hasn’t agreed on lowering the voting age.
But is it really true that the political upheavals of recent years can be explained by the voting behaviour of a particular generation? And if so, what are the implications of valuing the needs attributed to future generations over the will of those who currently exist? Can young voters gain from arguments that seek to delegitimise older voters, when they too will one day be old themselves? Is it right to say that there is now a new ideology of ‘generationalism’? How do ideas about generation compete with other identity-based claims? Do we need to combat the (often ugly) politics of the generation wars – and make the case for intergenerational relationships?