’Being young in an ageing society means growing up among contradictions’

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Karin Böllert © private sourceKarin Böllert © private source
Here in Germany we are living in an ageing society. In future, there will be more older people, fewer children and young people, fewer people of working age, and increasing immigration from other countries. This will have a wide range of consequences for living together as a society. In this interview with Kathrin Nolte, Dr. Karin Böllert, Professor of Educational Science with a focus on social pedagogy, explains the effects which demographic change is having on the young generation.

What are the consequences of demographic change for different generations and the way they live together?

It is qualitative aspects which are decisive for how different generations live together. If we look at things from the angle of the younger generation, relations between the younger and the older generation have never been as relaxed as they are today. Data from research among young people, for example, show that the majority of them want to bring up their children just as they themselves were brought up. When they have worries or problems, it is their parents that they want to turn to - regardless of the increasing importance of their peers. And the involvement of young people in the government’s Demographics Strategy a few years ago showed clearly that young people are prepared to take on responsibility for the older generation - as is also true, the other way round, for the older generation. As far as the welfare state is concerned, demographic change means that the "contract" between the generations which characterises our social security system is becoming less and less sustainable in its traditional structures as the ratio of people in work to those no longer in work becomes increasingly unequal.

What does it mean to be young in an ageing society?

Being young in an ageing society means growing up among contradictions. For one thing, over the past decades there was hardly any attention paid by politicians to "youth" as a phase of life in itself. The Corona pandemic, in particular, showed young people very clearly that their needs, interests and problems only very gradually played any role. The separate youth policy which had gradually taken shape over the past few years - and which, not least, found political expression in Cabinet approval for the initiative "In Joint Responsibility: Politics for, with and by Young People" - didn’t turn out to be resilient in a crisis.

What would you say shows up the failure of youth policy?

Today young people are still demanding more protection against Corona. More than 100 representatives of school-students wrote an open letter, and, under "#WirWerdenLaut" ("#We’reRaisingOurVoices"), they were able to collect thousands of signatures from school students calling for more protection in schools and preparation for the coming autumn 2022. The National Network of Representatives for Child and Youth Welfare has published a paper calling for bold policies. The Federal Youth Board (Bundesjugendkuratorium) stresses the urgency of bringing in the regulations necessary for social and educational policies, and for these to be systematically drawn up with the broad involvement of young people from different social situations and constellations. To this end, there needs to be a focus on young people’s social, emotional and mental health and well-being. If equal opportunities - also in education - are to be achieved, and participatory rights embedded, then crisis-proof conditions and non-discriminatory access to a wide range of infrastructures need to be developed which are geared to the specific needs of young people and, especially, young people in precarious situations.

It seems that the challenges are being faced predominantly by the young generation. But what opportunities does demographic change offer young people and young adults?

As a result of medical progress, and if they are in good health, most of them will reach an age which their (great-) grandparents could only dream of. On the jobs market they are more in demand than ever before and there is a wide range of training and employment opportunities for them to choose from. The lack of skilled workers is leading to greater competition for qualified workers. In this situation, demands for family-friendly working conditions can no longer be brushed aside. In order to benefit from these positive effects of demographic change, young people need good education and job training. Also, they depend on living conditions which are not significantly different from region to region but are, rather, comparable. Up to now, demographic change has increased these regional differences in living conditions appreciably. This means that, also during a period of demographic change, reducing inequalities in the education system and creating equal living conditions remain as challenges.

How is the relationship between young and old changing?

To answer that question, let me give two examples. Fridays for Future is one of the largest youth movements to have emerged and it is also supported by older generations in the form of Scientists for Future and Parents for Future. In April 2021, the German Constitutional Court gave a ruling on the need for improvements to be made to the government’s climate protection legislation, and the Court stated that the original piece of legislation deferred the dangers posed by climate change to a period after 2030 - which was, therefore, to the detriment of the younger generation. In its ruling, the German Constitutional Court placed an emphasis quite decisively on intergenerational fairness, and it pointed out that Article 2a of the Basic Law (the German Constitution), which says that the State protects natural resources as a responsibility towards future generations, also applies to climate change.

The war in Ukraine is also a source of concern and stress for the younger generation. For older people, the images of war in the Ukraine bring back painful memories, fears and worries. The younger generation, which has never known war in Europe, is having to cope with unfamiliar feelings of helplessness and with feeling threatened. If the generations talk together about it, this can help in dealing with the stress triggered by the war, as well as with the loss of what had been a natural process of waking up in the morning to a life in peace.

How is the younger generation involved in social and political processes?

Young people and young adults experience their youth not only as a transitional phase between childhood and adulthood. It is an age in which the ground is laid for their future. Politicians are therefore called upon to "let this phase - youth - happen", as the 15th Report on Children and Young People puts it. Nowadays, youth is influenced more than ever before by school, vocational training and tertiary education. But youth is more than a phase for acquiring qualifications. It is also a special time in which young people position themselves and learn to be independent in daily life. In this process, young people have to meet not only society’s expectations, but also their own. Precisely because nowadays, at all political levels, there is a wide range of activities relating to youth policy - 2022, for example, is European Youth Year - the question needs to be asked whether youth policies really do reflect effective participation on the part of young people.

What needs to happen to advance co-determination on the part of young people?

Local government in particular has a great responsibility as far as its youth policies are concerned, because this is the political level closest to young people. Currently, the most concrete opportunities for this co-determination are to be found at the local level. This is where youth policies can be experienced - in families, in (self-)organisations, in associations and clubs, in municipal bodies, and through numerous initiatives. Participation by young people does not, however, mean just listening to them. Youth policies are only effective when the older generations are prepared to share - or even relinquish - (agenda-setting) power. But effective youth policies must also include opening up opportunities for participation to young people who are disadvantaged through social exclusion and who have so far been under-represented in activities relating to youth policies - i.e. young people who grow up in poverty and who lack access to successful educational careers, young people with an immigrant background, and young people with disabilities.