Youth policy topics

Promotion of intergenerational dialogue in youth work


Back in 2005, the European Commission's Green Paper on "Confronting demographic change: a new solidarity between the generations" (COM(2005) 94 final) discussed the challenges facing EU Member States as a result of demographic change. Increases in longevity and continuing low birth rates are causing a shift in the ratio of old and young, and as a result the proportion of older people is rising. This trend is reinforced by the fact that the "baby boomers" – the large generational cohort of those born between the end of the war and about 1960 – are now slowly reaching retirement age. In addition to a higher proportion of "older workers", European society is therefore also faced with a rising proportion of pensioners and a steadily growing number of the very elderly, i.e. people who are 80 and over. At the same time, the number of children, young people and adults at an employable age is declining. As a result, the demographic dependency ratio will rise from 49% in 2005 to 66% in 2030 (cf. COM(2005) 94 final, p. 4). These shifts in the balance between working populations and pensioners are giving rise to fears that the burden of keeping present systems of old-age security upright may gradually fall on the shoulders of dwindling numbers of young people, and that these imbalances may cause tensions between the generations. According to the Commission's Green Paper, the impact of these trends can be mitigated only if European societies make changes, including in the following areas (cf. COM(2005) 94 final, p. 8-11):

  • The younger generation must be given a better education, and young people must be better integrated into the employment market.
  • More possibilities must be opened up for senior citizens who are no longer in employment to maintain their position in the midst of society. The active participation of this demographic group must be encouraged.
  • More solidarity must be exercised vis-à-vis the growing number of elderly people in need of care and support.

A Communication from the Commission entitled "Dealing with the impact of an ageing population in the EU" (COM(2009) 180 final) examines these problems, placing special attention here again on the increased impact of demographic change resulting from the current economic and financial crisis (cf. ibid., p. 6 ff.).

What is "dialogue between generations"?

The gradual ageing of our populations has far-reaching consequences for the social security systems of EU Member States. For instance, "the need for public provision of age-related transfers and services will increase" (COM(2009) 180 final, p. 4). As a result, public spending for pensions, health care and long-term elderly care will rise significantly (cf. ibid.) while at the same time young people will be facing increasing difficulties in accessing quality education and adequately paid employment (cf. European Youth Forum 2008; p. 3). These challenges pose a threat to young people's ability to live autonomous lives as equal members of society (cf. ibid; European Youth Forum 2009, p. 2).

To ensure that demographic change is not viewed only as a conflict and battle for resources between young and old but that the challenges it poses can also be understood as opportunities, there must be more dialogue and more solidarity between the generations. The objective is to improve contacts between different generations and ensure that all groups can benefit from these contacts. This will help reduce inhibitions and prejudice between the groups and promote intergenerational respect and solidarity. According to the European Youth Forum, intergenerational solidarity can be achieved by ensuring that prosperity is equitably distributed between the generations as well as by providing adequate livelihood possibilities for people of all ages. However, the debate on the sustainability of European pension systems that this will inevitably trigger should also be accompanied by exchanges between the generations. This way, young people can learn from the experience of older people, seniors can pass on their experience and share their knowledge with the younger generation, while the older generation can profit from the young people's knowledge and skills as well as from their energy and dynamic force. (cf. European Youth Forum 2009, p. 3)

Some approaches could be: exchanges of knowledge and skills between young and old, mutual assistance ("the young help the old – the old help the young": household or similar assistance for seniors provided by young people, seniors acting as mentors for school students etc.) or common activities involving certain social issues (cf. Centre for Intergenerational Practice 2009).

Activities at European level

During the 2008 Slovenian EU Presidency, the topic of dialogue between generations was discussed at a conference entitled "Intergenerational Solidarity for Cohesive and Sustainable Societies", which was held in the Slovenian town of Brdo from 27 to 29 April 2008. The conference was conducted in cooperation with the European Commission and a number of NGOs including AGE, the European Youth Forum, AIM and AEIP (cf. AGE - the European Older People's Platform 2009). It focused on the need for a positive structuring of relations between the generations as well as on the question of how social balance can be maintained under these conditions (cf. Slovenian Presidency of the EU 2008).

One of the results of the conference was a proposal that 2012 be designated as the "European Year for Active Ageing and Intergenerational Solidarity". A European year dedicated to intergenerational solidarity would increase awareness of the contribution of older people to society and spread innovative measures which could help mobilise the full potential of the ageing baby-boom cohorts. During the consultation phase on the idea of holding such a special year, which lasted until 30 July 2009, ideas and suggestions were collected on how to achieve the best possible effect of a "European Year for Active Ageing and Intergenerational Solidarity", and on the basis of these ideas the Commission will now decide whether and how this European Year can be implemented (cf. European Commission 2009b).

After the Brdo conference, the Slovenian Minister for Labour, Family and Social Affairs Marjeta Cotman declared that the 29th of April would be a "European Day of Intergenerational Solidarity"; on the initiative of various organisations of civil society, this special day took place for the first time on 29 April 2009. On this occasion, the European Commission conducted a Flash Eurobarometer survey on the attitudes of Europeans to demographic change and intergenerational solidarity (cf. European Commission 2009a). One of the central results of the survey was that most Europeans do not consider the older generation to be a burden for society. Even though 50% of survey participants believed that in the coming decades governments will no longer be able to pay for pensions and elderly care, most thought that governments should make more money made available for these services. 66% of survey participants said that governments should make it easier for older people to continue working beyond normal retirement age if they wish to do so. Respondents agreed on the importance of the social contribution made by senior citizens who help their children and grandchildren financially or who work as volunteers, but three quarters of those surveyed expressed the opinion that the contribution of older people who care for family or other relatives is not appreciated enough. Most Europeans think that their governments are not doing enough to promote dialogue between the generations; only the citizens of Lithuania, Belgium, the Netherlands and Malta are satisfied with their governments in this respect. Across the EU, respondents thought that the role of public authorities in promoting better relations between young and old is very important (cf. Flash Eurobarometer Intergenerational Solidarity 2009)

Placing the topic in its context
Active ageing

According to the Communication from the European Commission of 29 April 2009, "Dealing with the impact of an ageing population in the EU", Europe's best chance of ensuring that ageing will not be perceived as a threat, but as a historic achievement, lies in not wasting the potential of the baby-boom generation. (cf. COM(2009) 180 final, p. 6f). On the one hand, people should work longer and retire later, while on the other volunteering by pensioners should be encouraged, so that the potential of the older generation can benefit society even after their retirement. (cf. Presidency Conclusions Stockholm 2001 and Presidency Conclusions Barcelona 2002

Lifelong learning

The knowledge and experience of the older generation is of great value, and younger generations should be able to benefit from it. Conversely, the younger generation has skills that it can make available to the older generation or use to support older people.

Therefore the topic of "intergenerational dialogue" at EU level is also part of the policy area on lifelong learning. Older people, especially retirees, should be encouraged to pass on their knowledge and experience to younger generations and, in other areas, to learn from the young. (cf. European Youth Forum 2009, p. 3)

For this reason, the Grundtvig programme was examined within the scope of the "Mainstreaming Intergenerational Solidarity" (MATES) project: all programmes authorised since 2000 were analysed from the angle of their contribution to intergenerational dialogue. Only twelve of a total of 850 projects had an intergenerational orientation, so that now the Grundtvig programme has set a new focus on "learning in later life" and on "intergenerational and family learning" (cf. Compendium Programme Lifelong Learning 2008).  

Integrating intergenerational dialogue in youth policies

One of the priorities of the future youth policies of the Council of Europe will be the integration of young people into society; among other avenues that can be taken, this can be achieved by encouraging intergenerational dialogue. (cf. Final Declaration of the eighth Council of Europe Conference of Ministers responsible for youth, 10/11 October 2008 in Kiev)

The Communication from the Commission on "An EU Strategy for Youth – Investment and Empowerment" stresses the importance of youth volunteer work for dialogue and intergenerational solidarity. It calls on Member States to make volunteering by young people easier by removing obstacles and to develop national approaches for promoting intergenerational solidarity through volunteering (cf. COM(2009) 200 final).