A Cosmopolitan Perspective on the Sociology of Generations

Cain and Abel, by Odilon Redon (1840-1916) 

While Will Hutton was proving me right by treating the LSE crowd to a series of misinformed exaggerations about China, such as the claim that it is causing irreversible environmental damage to its territory at the rate of 5% a year – which means that in 10 years it will have destroyed 50% of its current landmass – Ulrich Beck was instead giving a parallel lecture to the more sociologically-aware on global generations in a worldless society.

While his monotonous German voice caused many people to leave during the event, and one to even fall asleep on my shoulder, his ideas were in fact deeply interesting, and at times unsettling. His starting point is that 9/11 – just like 1989 – was one of those hugely traumatic events that shape the consciousness of an entire young generation (allegedly mine), which is growing and exists in a cosmopolitan, globalised world.

This global generation is living in a simultaneous common present, connected through the power of the media and the Internet, but it is not sharing a common past, nor is it looking at a common future: the construction and perception of risk and the anticipation of a post-utopian catastrophe draw a faultline between the rich West and the poor South, in which global inequalities arise by means of comparison and two young generations are pitched against one another.

On the one hand, the rolling-back of the state and the liberalization of markets have created a first generation of young people in the West facing – unlike their forefathers – huge levels of insecurity. On the other hand, the increasing global inequalities – and conscious awareness of them – has led a second global generation in the South to stake its rightful claims to a better life. It has done this by crossing borders and joining the wave of global migrations, or by rejecting outright the lures of Western capitalism in the name of a reclaimed religious morality.

This faultline is not uniform or neat, but the result of miriads of overlapping fractions. In the resulting patchwork, an activist periphery rallies against a centre that fights to defend the undefensible, because it is well aware that this is based on a global injustice. So fortresses are constructed, walls are built, fences are erected, but these will not prevent the tide from rising above them and submerging what they are trying to protect.

Beck’s final note was one of concern for the erosion of those principles of modernity – rationality, liberty and democracy – which constitute society’s tissue. His urgent call was for a huge process of mutual explanation across this global generational divide, which is the only thing which might prevent society from being eventually torn apart by the forces of globalisation.

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