The challenges younger generations face today can at times feel overwhelming. Often the source of responsibility is pointed at older generations who are presumed responsible for the mess younger people now have to deal with. I believe “blameworthiness” is an undercurrent that contaminates, rather than enlighten our ability to understand the dynamic of age cohorts sharing the contemporary at different phases of their lives. Instead of looking for dynamics in complex systems, scapegoating offers a more direct relief for frustrations. However, holding entire groups of people responsible for a harm presupposes that moral agency can be assigned to groups, which is at best philosophically problematic. I think this is why I think it is misplaced to hold groups based on nation, ethnicity, – even generations – responsible for global problems. Blaming older individuals based on vectors of real or perceived injustices overshadows the upsides of unprecedented opportunities younger generations might enjoy that were not available to their predecessors. In other words, the blame game often leads to a comparison of apples and oranges which is not very fruitful despite the pun.
I don’t mean to deny that some behaviors are more typical for one age group than another as the sum effect of individuals belonging to this group. In fact, I think this is precisely what feeds the inertia that makes us inadvertently cause future harm by not changing our behaviors even when we know the consequences are negative. The problem we are dealing here with is “” as well as “ .” E.g. if many individuals in a particular time period dump non-degradable waste in frail ecosystems, each small load might seem innocent at the moment, but will cause massive harm later. The incentives to change aren’t strong or clear enough. It’s an irony that the same dynamic that causes groups to perpetuate their “bad habits” is the same that makes it difficult to ascertain specific responsibilities later. If we do hold an entire group accountable, we risk including many people who had nothing to do with the damage or who even tried to combat it. As time progresses and the consequences of these actions become more urgent, laws or sanctions might come around, preventing younger generations from perpetuating the same behaviors. So in this case older generations got to enjoy undue privileges (if dumping trash is a privilege!), that younger generations can’t or won’t use for legal or moral reasons. But along with the changes in behavior there is usually also a change in time-contextual conditions and moral imperatives which we often overlook.
The paragraphs above do not mean that “blameworthy” historical events hasn’t happened in some time periods more than others. It’s just that we can’t accuse whole generations for it because we wouldn’t be able to measure the weight of responsibility at the individual level. Michael Shkreli is a millennial, but it’s not millennials’ fault that AIDS patients no longer can afford their medicine.
But unfortunately, I think we will still deal with the generational blame game, so I will mention a few things that I think younger generations will blame us for, deserved or not:
- Building entire infrastructures around fossil fuels which cause pollution and climate change
- Putting them through an antiquated educational system based on high-stress learning and standardized testing of memorized facts while failing to teach them critical thinking skills, creativity, adequate computer skills (especially coding and data mining) and entrepreneurialism.
- Making education and healthcare unaffordable
- Failing to quickly enough adapt our institutions to the Fourth Industrial Revolution with the consequences that we: 1) train kids for jobs that are destined to be taken over by AI. and, 2) allow markets to become extremely asymmetrical and in effect monopolized by a few digital platform companies based mostly in Northern California.
- Failing to do enough to protect their digital reputation, data privacy and cybersecurity.
- Allowing crisis to escalate in war-torn and depleted regions and antagonism among young people to fester to the point where we have chronic terrorist attacks and millions of uprooted people on desperate migratory journeys.
- Not solving the water crisis
The only way out of this is for all generations to work together. Because all generations bring a specific set of values and insights to the table – often wisdom and past experience from the elders and innovation and new thinking from the younger. This is closer to what could be called “generational anthropology” and is the opposite of ageism.
This article was first posted in response to a A2A question on Quora.