CENIE · 24 April 2023

Intergenerationality: are we doomed not to understand each other?

Intergenerationality is one of those long words that sometimes get stuck in your throat and, if you repeat it a few times, it seems to cease to have any meaning. In fact, the first question would be to know if it has any meaning at all. It would be a word worthy of a prize in one of those American spelling contests. What is intergenerationality? What does it mean? Why does it matter? There has been a lot of talk about it (it?) lately but it doesn't seem to be very clearly defined anywhere. 

As a researcher (or as a curious person) the first thing I would do would be to look up its definition in the dictionary, but it turns out that the RAE does not list intergenerationality as such, but the closest it gives us is "intergenerational". As we have to know how to play with the cards we are dealt (or the words that do appear defined), we start by knowing that, according to the RAE, intergenerational is an adjective. So far, so good, but don't drum roll expecting me to unveil many more mysteries. All the dictionary tells us is: "occurring or taking place between two or more generations". According to this, "intergenerational" is a "something" that occurs between people born at different times. OK, we're back to where we were. Shame on you, RAE. At least (and contrary to popular belief) the RAE never accepted "cocreta" as a valid form, but you will agree with me that with this definition it hasn't helped us much.

Considering that "intergenerational" is an adjective, we will always find it accompanied by other words. But which words? Words like "competition", "confrontation", "contract" come to mind (and to the Google search engine).  Although the idea of "intergenerational" occupies more and more space in the imagination, in the press, in political and social discourse, the concept seems to have limited applications. Most (if not all) of the associations made with "the intergenerational" have a predominantly economic basis, in which (let us not forget) this "something that occurs or takes place between people of different generations" seems negative, as a kind of opposition, a confrontation. That is to say, a priori it would seem that intergenerationality in reality alludes to very distant positions, according to which two groups look at each other suspiciously from two very distant points, between which there is no encounter and which are irremediably trapped in the same closed space. The different meanings of the syntagms around intergenerationality have been stripped of the more human dimension and, it seems, of the capacity for sociability between people of different ages.

According to the construction of "intergenerational" offered by the media or a quick Google search, it seems as if people of different generations (two or more, we will come back to that) are irremediably confronted by different circumstances, in a situation of continuous competition for limited resources. For example, for the resources of the welfare state, for work, for life. Hence, when thinking about intergenerational issues, it is easy to see in the subconscious a kind of differentiated representation between "them" and "us". But is this really the case, are we so different, are we condemned to competition?

The prevailing view today is based on an understanding that refers to two (perhaps more) differentiated and opposing groups that do not wish to meet, that do not recognise each other mutually, neither as an aspirational future (a fortunate future, because it means that age has been reached) nor, perhaps, as the past (what is gone, what we were). Even the most social conceptions or applications point to the exchange of goods rather than to cooperation. I am thinking of the more widespread concept of "intergenerational solidarity". Even this approach seems to start from an idea in which one group receives and another one gives, without horizontality or reciprocity. These conceptions and visions forget that ageing is a social phenomenon (it affects us all, as a group) and an individual, continuous one. Unstoppable, if things go well for us. We get older every day and there is always someone younger than us. 

Contrary to this idea of confrontation and in an attempt to analyse intergenerationality and use it as a tool to turn challenges into opportunities, CENIE carries out different activities and studies. As part of these activities, very recently (on 15 February) we presented the Guide to Intergenerationality at the Economic and Social Council, a project directed by Eleonora Barone, which contains the analysis of 13 areas of knowledge and which has the participation of 20 experts, 20 different entities and numerous international examples.  

Following this line of work, on 12 April 2023, Pablo Muñoz, as coordinator of the Economics of Longevity Area, and I, as coordinator of the Quality of Life and Long-lived Societies Area of CENIE, presented some ideas on intergenerationality and the need for a more positive and constructive approach in the Social Rights Commission of the Spanish Senate. You can see it here.  But why does this intergenerationality issue matter?

To understand the need to give a place to this issue and to claim the importance of talking about and about intergenerationality, it is necessary to emphasise (and I know I am repeating myself) that the greatest achievement of society is the increase in life expectancy. This means the democratisation of reaching old age. Greater survival at all ages (I insist: our society's success story) means that, since more people are living longer, the greatest intergenerational coexistence in history is taking place. In practice, this means that in Spain there are currently people living together who are between 0 and 116 years old (which is the age of the longest-living woman today). 

It is worth remembering here that "generations" are not two, not three, not four (boys and girls, young people, middle-aged people, older people) but many, many more: by generation we mean the group of people who are born at a given time. They are people who share, therefore, a series of historical experiences, without this nullifying their individuality or homogenising their life experience. We perceive belonging to a generation, for example, when we refer to issues that characterised our childhood and yet are alien to people who were born several years later or several years earlier. Belonging to different generations can be perceived in our experiences. 

The intergenerationality that characterises our society will be greater in the future. The probability of interacting with people much younger and much older than us will be enormous: in 2035 life expectancy at birth will reach 83.2 years for men and 87.7 for women. In 2069 Spanish women could reach 90 years of age. It will be more likely to interact with people with almost a century of age, experience and experience. 

Undoubtedly, this greater coexistence is a good reason to redefine the concept of "intergenerational" in a positive way. At this point, it is important to remember that the confrontational approach may benefit some particular actors, but never the public or the common good. The need for a positive re-signification of intergenerationality, based on the idea that there are new forms of social exchange and sociability between the different generations (larger generations that will live together for a longer period of time), are those that can give rise to a mutually supportive society. 

For this reason, it is necessary to reconceptualise intergenerationality as a key tool for converting the challenges of long-lived societies into opportunities. Specifically, the social ones, all those that presuppose a social fracture, a misunderstanding. Intergenerationality means betting on the community, returning the protagonism to the common and the social space. From the point of view of research and the design of public policies, we must start from the intergenerational perspective as a transversal issue in the analysis of our societies and in the design of proposals and solutions, in the same way that we apply the transversal gender perspective and in such a way that age does not produce structural situations of exclusion from above or below (neither towards the youngest nor towards the oldest).

Under the framework of: Programa Operativo Cooperación Transfronteriza España-Portugal
Sponsors: Fundación General de la Universidad de Salamanca Fundación del Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas Direção Geral da Saúde - Portugal Universidad del Algarve - Portugal