China is in a paradoxical stage regarding inter-generational relations. The first generation of single children was raised in a completely different way to the generation of today due to the radical changes in the past half-century. The inter-generational relationship in China is closely bounded by the traditional oriental values such as filial piety. However, despite these seemingly irreconcilable differences, I believe our younger generation is essentially created and shaped by the legacy bestowed by the former generation, and we therefore must build our kingdom upon their legacy. I view such paradoxical complex as a challenging opportunity for positive change and mutual benefits that can be used through our growing confidence, abilities and mutual understanding.
Therefore, I propose a new form of generational contract. I advocate the ability of empathy: be the generation we wish our successors to be. We have to support our past generation, economically and emotionally, as they have supported us, just as much as we want to be supported by the generation that follows us.
When we are at the same age
In 1976, my mother was 12 years old. In that period, schools were shut down due to the Cultural Revolution – one of the gravest disasters in Chinese history that affected her generation deeply. In 2002, when I turned 12, with my first personal computer, I was amazed by the magic that was the Internet and the whole new world I was able to discover.
In 1982, my then 18-year-old mother went to work without a college education after failing to stand out in the college entrance examinations that had an admission rate of only 5%. In 2008, I was admitted to the nation’s best university.
In 1988, when she was 24, my mother got married, joined the Communist Party and had to deal with a serious national economic crisis. Family burdens, financial needs and social obligations forced her to gradually work her way upwards. In 2014, I embarked my journey to Oxford for a doctorate without any formal working experience in my entire life.
I travel around the world while my mother cannot speak another foreign language. I multitask in all kinds of electronic devices while she still occasionally fails to facetime me. I am fortunate to be born and raised in the best period of China while she had to go to great lengths to make ends meet. Unlike for her generation, the world has seemingly limitless opportunities for me.
Indeed, it seems almost impossible for us to not clash as there are many differences between the generation of her and my own. It happens to every generation and everywhere in the world. But there are few inter-generations facing disparities that are as contrasting as in today’s China.
On the one hand, China is experiencing more radical changes in the past half-century than almost any other nation in the world. It was rebuilt from the ruins of World War II and the Chinese Civil War; the population lifted from poverty in the past decades in China surpassed the total population of the United States; the Open and Reform policy created unimaginable wealth and prosperity; social welfare and security systems were started from scratch; and incredible technological breakthrough has forever changed the face of the country. All those are in debt to the ceding generations. It was their effort and belief that creates the environment and resources for our generation and opens a multitude of opportunities for us to be different from them. Ironically, the more they created from nothing, the vaster the disparities are that could cause potential generational conflicts.
The generation of tomorrow is facing more challenges. The economic slowdown, heavy pollution, corruption, loss of ethical values and low confidence in the government, increasing youth employment, income gaps and a trend towards an aging society all contribute to our growingly complaints. We complain about what they have taken away from us—clean environment, job opportunities and all kinds of other resources. The generational contract is failing and today’s generational conflict has never been greater.
On the other hand, the traditional oriental values still closely bound inter-generational relationship. The western world favors individualism, which essentially restrains inter-generational economic and social connection. Meanwhile, in oriental cultures, parents maintain a certain degree of power and obligation, in the sense of custom rather than law, over their offspring throughout their livelihood. Children are also obliged to take care of their parents and the older generation in general as advocated by the traditional value of filial piety. If a generational contract is defined as a form of social contract, describing the rules of obligations and rights among generations in society, it is built more upon cultural and social traditions and values than mutual economic benefits. It can then generally explain why generational conflict is less harsh in oriental countries than in western countries and why China’s scenario is particularly paradoxical and complicated.
A new form of generational contract
I view this difference not as irresolvable but as a natural product of inter-generational relations that has been experienced by every generation and can be dealt with by our growing confidence, abilities and mutual understanding. It is a sign for positive change and an inspiration to find creative solutions to current problems.
The generation of tomorrow will experience what is being created by the generation of today. Our kingdom is bound to be built upon the legacy left by the previous generation, rather than upon a radical destruction of everything. After all, we embrace shared economic, social and cultural interests that form the foundation of tomorrow’s society.
On the economic level, it seems reasonable to expect a later retirement age to mitigate the increasing burden lying upon youth. What must be taken into consideration is how it will play a negative role in our effort of providing more jobs and the promotion of opportunities to the coming generation. It is urgent to tackle the rising youth unemployment rate and aging population in order to maintain economic prosperity, social cohesion as well as the foundation for the welfare system.
Youth unemployment is largely due to a lack of specific skills that meet market needs, while the loss of knowledge and skills held by the retried-to-be is viewed as a major concern for sustainable economic development (DeLong, 2004). As many scholars have proposed, “job sharing” can be a good way to solve this problem. Branine (2004) defines job sharing as a policy to allow two employees to share the same employment position. In that sense, apprenticeship job sharing can be used as a form of generational contract to provide more job opportunities and onsite training to young people to reduce unemployment and serves as a “slow exit”(Wheatley, 2013) to the retiring old. An interesting initiative can be seen in French policy (Labiad, 2013). Through inter-generational learning, the ceding generation is able to pass on their knowledge, skills and experience to the young people to better prepare them for future challenges and social responsibilities. It is a way to optimize their legacy and pave the way for the next generation’s rising.
On a social level, the intergenerational mutual benefits lie more in non-material matters. It is meaningless to try to erase generational differences. What is important is for the older generation to create democratic relationship within generations to reduce potential gaps and conflicts, and for the younger one to realize the necessity and importance to be confident to embrace the legacy left by the past generations, to tackle with the unsolved problems, to understand and support them in their ceding phase.
Confucius once said, “Do as you would be done by”. I propose: be the generation you wish for the next generation. Empathy is key to solve intergenerational conflict. We have to support our past generation, economically and emotionally, as they have supported us, as what we want to be supported by our next generation. We might not be able to entirely erase the generational clash, but we can embrace the double-edged legacy left by the past generation and be the model for next generation.
Branine M (2004). Job sharing and equal opportunities under the new public management in local authorities. International Journal of Public Sector Management, 17 (2): 136-152.
DeLong D (2004). Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wheatley D (2013). It’s good to share: job share as a solution to youth unemployment and ageing working populations. Proceedings of the 15th Conference of the Association for Heterodox Economics, London: 4-6 July 2013.
Labiad N (2013). Summary of the ‘Generation Contract’. The New French Law Project N: 492. ADAPT.
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