Cleavages and Conflicts in Aging Societies: Generation, Age, Class?
Fifty years ago, inequality in developed societies disadvantaged the elderly. Becoming old could mean falling into poverty, and some sociologists interpreted retirement as a form of social exclusion and alienation. Today, the tide has turned: the elderly have benefitted from the expansion of the welfare state, and some sociologists paint the bleak picture of a coming gerontocracy. The discourse of “intergenerational equity” faults the elderly for monopolizing resources and endangering our future.
However, it remains essential to assess the extent of the generational cleavage per se and the extent to which it masks the continued existence of the “old” class cleavage between wealthy and poor (or owners and workers). There are moreover “new” cleavages such as those of gender and ethnicity (or “race”). Emphasizing the generational conflict tends to downplay other inequalities, and by this, risks being ideological.
I will briefly retrace the stages of this discourse, and then examine the current extent of cleavages among generations or age groups in terms of economic well-being and social inclusion. How these cleavages turn into conflicts depends on their potential for mobilization, which I will assess by examining political attitudes, participation and voting. The result is that the salience of generational conflicts is (so far) low, which I attribute to the mediating function of political institutions and of generational relations and transfers in families.
Class inequalities cumulate in old age, and class cleavages may thus deepen in future aging societies, but the potential for class mobilization seems to fade away. Generational cleavages may also deepen, not least through the current trends towards welfare state retrenchment. Whether they will lead to generational mobilization depends on the continued viability of the mediating institutions in politics and the family.