My grandmother’s existence within contemporary society is a microcosm of a more profound transformation, one that has ruptured the hierarchy demarcating society’s young and old. In his groundbreaking book Homo Deus, award-winning author and historian Yuval Noah Harari brilliantly articulates this development. Harari provides the example of a peasant society in 16th-century Spain.
In the hundred-year span from 1501 to 1600, the mechanics of life in rural Spain changed marginally — if at all. Bound by the constraints of space and time, the customs, techniques, and values of people alive during this period remained relatively constant. In that environment, aging meant something different than it does today.
As we continue the drift into unfamiliar waters, the wisdom of old age can no longer serve as a guiding compass.
Lived experience is most valuable when the circumstances of our lives remain relatively stable. As we progress through life, we gain an appreciation of the mechanisms that underpin our respective societies. We develop a broad understanding of the institutions, moral codes, and cultural practices that shape and direct human experience. This is why cultures around the globe have traditionally venerated older members of society. The historical hierarchy between young and old reflects the fact that older generations generally come to understand the world more comprehensively than young people.
However, daily existence in the year 2018 bears no resemblance to 16th-century rural Spain nor many other points in history where little cultural change happened in a single lifetime. Rapid advancements of the last two centuries have ruptured the natural hierarchy between young and old, calling into question the utility of lived experience. As one grows older in today’s age of flux and uncertainty, mainstream culture becomes exponentially more unfamiliar.
Consider the following value sets typically attributed to generations alive today:
- The post-war generation practiced stoicism in the face of adversity, even at great cost to their mental health. Many have unresolved trauma. My grandmother has therefore never been able to offer my parents advice on how to openly express their feelings, nor has she understood the therapeutic benefits of doing so.
- To avoid the poverty and hardship experienced by their parents, the Baby Boomers came to place a premium on job security and stability. My parents can, therefore, offer me little advice about how to navigate an increasingly complex labor market characterized by contract (as opposed to full-time) positions and scarcity.
- As a millennial, I came of age at a time when the development of digital technology exploded. I, therefore, have limited advice to give to the generation after me who are growing up in a world in which technology has become an inextricable component of everyday existence.
These dynamics detract from the ability of generational groups to relate to one another, and they give rise to a plethora of generational conflicts as well. As articulated by American journalist Walter Lippmann in his 1922 book Public Opinion, “Each new generation is the casual victim of the way a previous generation was conditioned as well as the inheritor of the environment that resulted.”
Never has this fact been truer than it is today. Consider contemporary society’s many struggles: climate change, women’s rights, gun control, LGBTQ acceptance, work-life balance — at the core of all of these issues lies divergent generational judgments concerning how society ought to function. In other words, each of these struggles is the expression of a broader contestation between the overarching ideals of different lifetimes.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that our governments — institutions comprised of a core of senior decision-makers — are increasingly viewed as inflexible and out of touch with the majorities they supposedly govern. In the past, when the pace of change was a bit more stable, it made considerable sense to place senior members of a society in positions of authority. However, as we continue the drift into unfamiliar waters, the wisdom of old age can no longer serve as a guiding compass.
Governance is going to need to become more flexible and adaptive to a shifting political landscape.
If you pause and reflect on the age of world leaders, all save a few are members of the Baby Boomer generation. Angela Merkel, Xi Jinping, Donald Trump, Theresa May, Shinzō Abe — such individuals belong to an age group conditioned by unique historical developments. On the surface, the values shared by these leaders may not be obvious. Yet, peer a little deeper and their worldviews are strikingly similar. A prime example is the eerie semblance between Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan and Xi Jinping’s “The great revival of the Chinese Nation” (in Chinese: 中华民族伟大复兴). These slogans, championed by the presidents of two opposing countries, demonstrate the centrality of nationalist thinking among Boomers.
In contrast, consider the more recently elected leaders of Canada and France: Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron. Members of Generation X, aged 46 and 40 respectively, the prime minister and president have coalesced on several prominent issues. For one, their policies are demonstrably more internationalist. Both warn against the perils of rising populism and nationalism gripping much of the Western world. Another shared characteristic: Each of them is pushing for action on climate change. In line with the 2015 Paris Agreement, the two leaders agreed on a new France-Canada climate partnership in April 2018, advocating for a global price on carbon and reductions to transport-related emissions. In fact the recent riots and yellow vest protests in France were partly in response to a fuel tax hike directly related to this second committment. A final observation of Macron and Trudeau reveals both agree on the issue of net neutrality. Although it would be erroneous to assume that age is the only determining factor affecting the policies and values of world leaders, it’s undeniable that there’s a strong correlation here.
This argument is not intended to antagonize age groups or pit them against one another. On the contrary, it’s an attempt to shed light on the repercussions that the accelerating pace of technological progress is having on intergenerational understanding and negotiation.
We inhabit a rapidly changing world. As society continues to change, we’re becoming less adept at relating to one another while our institutions fail to keep pace with evolving values. To account for this dynamic, governance will need to become more flexible and adaptive to a shifting political landscape. To be successful, the politics of tomorrow must depend on the balanced input of different generations and perspectives.