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Taking Intergenerational Solidarity Into Our Own Hands

By Justine Winnie, former Co-President of Washington Emerging Labor Leaders and one of the younger PSARA members

Solidarity is a concept that has great historical and current importance in social justice movements. Instead of fighting alone, we look to others with shared interests, needs, and beliefs and join forces—that’s often how pivotal victories are won. In the labor movement, a national imperative is to reach out to community groups to strengthen our impact. “Divide and conquer” is an odiously familiar strategy to those of us working for social justice. We see it used to undermine movement-building along lines of race, ethnicity, language, gender, sexual orientation, and more.

Solidarity between the young and the old– or the lack thereof — is not necessarily a well-known or often-discussed idea.

There are so many negative stereotypes of young- and retiree-aged people. Why is “old” such a dirty word in our culture, signaling a loss of relevance and vitality? “Never ask a woman her age.” “He’s pretty sharp for an old guy.” And why does “young” bring to mind objectifying beauty standards, naiveté, or the often-racist trope of the “hoodlum”? Both groups are marginalized, discredited, ignored– and vulnerable to bad policy, be it on health care, student loans, or cost of housing. Our earning power may be less than that of people in the prime of established careers, our voices may be quieter, and our platforms may be smaller.

Here’s where intergenerational solidarity comes in.

Intergenerational solidarity refers to how people of different generations live together, help and depend on one another in their daily lives, and how they perceive the social policies that support individuals at different life stages. –“INTERGENERATIONAL SOLIDARITY IN IRELAND,” http://www.icsg.ie/content/ intergenerational-solidarity-ireland

There is a rich potential area of connection and alliance between people who are already working for or share interests in the work of social justice.

Younger and older people may think the other disregards their future, their interests, and their well-being, but we actually have a lot in common.

Too often we only see one side of the story: younger workers, sometimes resentfully, paying taxes to support older workers’ retirement benefits and healthcare costs; or the heavy duty of older generations to preserve the environment and social safety nets for those to come. Generational solidarity is a call to end individualism, to explore human connections and relationships in new, deeper ways, and to create change that is based in strong communities.

All communities and all movements are built on relationships. We need to communicate with each other to understand each other. Communicating with allies often requires some intentionality and strategy. Working with any identity that spans all racial, ethnic, sexual orientation identities can be tricky. There is no such thing as “all women,” for example— lived experiences can’t be disregarded, or we will never work successfully together. Similarly, there is no monolithic Youth or Age.

When examining the idea of intergenerational solidarity, we also have to realize that we’re talking about solidarity between different generations, not simply between people of different ages. Just as being raised in different countries or having different religious beliefs can create breaches within a workforce or a movement, different generational life experiences can create distance between young and old. Many young people today remember grandparents who lived through the Great Depression and ever after rationed everything from clothing to toilet paper. We may also have parents whose formative years saw the civil rights movements of the 1960s, and older siblings who formed their careers during the economic boom of the 1980s. Or perhaps, today, we are parents watching our college-educated kids move back home for lack of work– or grandparents, wondering what kinds of lives our grandchildren will have without job security, health insurance, or pensions.

These relationships shape how we see the world, our responsibilities to it, and our power to create change.

It’s true that different generations may communicate differently, have contrasting ideas about etiquette, strategy, and goals, or prioritize social issues differently. We don’t, however, have to let these rifts divide us as we work for stronger, healthier communities.

Often the idea of the family comes up when we’re talking about connecting with and working with different generations. Most people in North American societies don’t have much occasion to connect with older or younger people outside the extended family, so this becomes a point of reference. We have to recognize, however, that we are not each other’s grandparents or grandchildren, but individuals coming together on an equal platform of respect.

As we begin to ask not “What do we owe each other?” but “What can we achieve together?” — new relationships, alliances, and even new “families” can begin to emerge.

I would like to invite you to talk with older and younger people in your community and your life about the idea of intergenerational solidarity. Here are some questions to help you think about your generational perspectives — its strengths, weaknesses, special assets.

  1. What social movements were occurring as I was growing up? How did I learn about them?
  2. What defining historical events happened during my childhood, and how did they shape my ideas about the world?
  3. As a child and young adult, did I feel empowered or disempowered to create social change?
  4. What has my generation achieved in the realm of social progress?
  5. What have the biggest challenges of my generation been?
  6. What policies particularly affect people of my age group or generation? How can other generations support positive policies around this issue?

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