Generation and intergenerational relationships

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Generation and intergenerational relationships Generation and intergenerational relationships adhere to the given that every human being is related to other people, young and old ones. Karl Mannheim has influenced the sociological discussion up to the present by offering three essential concepts to get to grips with this complex notion. He discerns “Generationslagerung” (the socio-historic context within which an age cohort lives), “Generationseinheiten” (cohorts and how they are acting in their respective social contexts). Together the two constitute what Mannheim calls a “Generationenzusammenhang” – the whole ensemble of cohorts and how their lives and actions are co-determined by previous generations. For our purposes Mannheim’s theory is important in that it distances itself from dividing (young) people simply into age groups by date of birth (cohorts). Generation points to connectedness with place and time within their members’ lives and that of former generations. Therefore if we analyze the life circumstances and life chances and risks of young people in European countries, we will have to take into account the cultural, political, economic etc. conditions and traditions which contextualize their lives. It will then show that and how cohorts between and within a country (a region, a city) differ and show common traits. It is this multi-layered interplay between groups which makes analyses complex (for example the relationship between children and their parents [teachers] who belong to the 1989-generation). Differences and commonalities exist between parent and children generations on account of cultural developments such as peer cultures, intimate parent-child relations, diminishing influence of ideology in youth work etc. Generation and intergenerational relationships also point to gender and ethnic-cultural background (ethnicity). The gender balance has shifted from uneven to more even in the course of the previous five decennia and opens more action space (agency) for present female generations in comparison to mother generations. And there is also a distinction to be made between intra- and intergenerational relationships. The first refers to old and young generations within one family and the other to different generations in general. Ethnic-cultural affiliations modify general trends so that new theoretical concepts are needed to disentangle not only cohort and time influences (cohort and periodic effects) and intra-/intergenerational relationships but also ethnic-cultural effects. Generation and intergenerational relationships are closely bound to life-course and transition (regime): how an individual’s life develops depends on the institutional settings within which he or she lives and is born into (see the highly informative debate article of Roberts 2007). Such settings suggest (demand) compliance with culturally agreed norms and behaviors which change over time (modernization). Present female generations realize generally different life-courses than their mothers’ generations (biography). While simple cohort research provides us with snap shots of the life situation of a certain age group, generation research by definition involves time and thus longitudinal methods. And because so many time-space related factors are involved, qualitative case studies are an apt approach (see the famous study of Elders 1974).


Mannheim, Karl (1964 [1928]) Wissenssoziologie, hrsg. v. K.H. Wolff (pp. 509-565). Berlin/Neuwied: Luchterhand.

(1952 The problem of generations, in Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Routledge, pp. 276-322)

Elder, Glen H. (1974) Children of the Great Depression: Social Change in the Life Experiences. Chicago.

Roberts, Ken (2007) Youth Transitions and Generations: A Response to Wyn and Woodman. Journal of Youth Studies, Vol.10, No. 2, 263-269.

(Manuela du Bois-Reymond)