Today St. Gallen Symposium in Switzerland is the world’s most important platform for intergenerational dialogue. The 51st St. Gallen Forum explored in May 2022 current dilemmas and new more impactful models of collaboration. How should we strike a balance between independence and interdependence in addressing our most pressing challenges? In the face of the war in Ukraine, the Corona pandemic, the climate challenge and demographic change, it is becoming increasingly clear that Western societies must develop a new intergenerational contract. Decision-makers in politics, business and society are called upon to moderate the dialogue between the generations in the areas of pensions, education, public debt and ecology.
United Europe co-organised the panel discussion „A New Generational Contract: Visions for Business, Politics and Society“.
- Mamphela Ramphele, Co-President of the Club of Rome
- Claudia Plakolm, State Secretary for Youth, Austria and chairwoman of the ÖVP
- Friedrich Merz, Member of the German Bundestag, leader of the CDU parliamentary group
- Moderator: Prof. Christoph Frei, Political scientist, publicist and since 2006 Professor for the history of political ideas at the University of St. Gallen
Highlights of the discussion:
Prof. Christoph Frei: Ms Ramphele. Where do you currently see the greatest challenge with the view to intergenerational equity and fairness?
Mamphela Ramphele: I’ would like to start by quoting a fellow Club of Rome Member, Roman Krznari. In his book „The Good Ancestor“ he identifies what he calls the pathology of short-termism as the greatest threat we are leaving to the next generation. This short-termism is displayed fully in how we overconsume with little regard for the next generations. But also how politicians just look at the next polls making choices they know that they are not good for the next generations. Same thing with business. With an eye on the share price, they make decisions which are not in the interest of the future.
Indiginalised wisdom that is still embraced by many in the world embodies the privileging of intergenerational co-responsibilities as the core element of philosophies. Women in particular are trusted with keeping the seed. This reference for life gets passed on from one generation to another. Humanity is being challenged with multiple planetary emergencies because we do have not this wisdom. This has to do with our willingness to change our mindsets. And that’s not impossible because we are all born with an innate capacity for learning how to be human in a new way.
Prof. Christoph Frei: Mr Merz, if I may repeat that question: Where do you currently see the major challenge with the view to intergenerational equity?
Friedrich Merz: My first point is that we are seeing the beginning of a new world order in terms of how this war in Ukraine is changing our entire framework of doing politics. This war is more than just a local event in the eastern part of Europe. It changes our complete political order. We are seeing a new global distribution of power politically, militarily and economically. Two powers on earth are already identified: The United States of America and China. The open question is: Where will be the European position, the African position, the Pacific Area position and where will be the Russian position? The weakest player in this present politically is the European and we are wondering where we should go in terms of European unity and strength to provide our work to this new political order.
I fully agree with what Mamphela Ramphele said at the very beginning: We are suffering the pathology of short-termism. How can we overcome this issue? If we are not willing to reduce consumption and to increase spending and investments then we will not be able to resolve the problems. This includes our pension systems and I give you one number: More than 1/4 of our federal budget in Germany is spent every year to subsidise the pensions system. That’s why I’m focussing on the spending and the budget. This includes investments in infrastructure and investments in education. And that is what we are lacking here in Germany. And my observation is that we are lacking in many other parts of the European Union.
Prof. Christoph Frei: Thank you, Friedrich Merz. I may assure you that we have the same situation in Switzerland. Claudia Plakolm: Where do you see the greatest challenges when it comes to this issue of intergenerational fairness?
Claudia Plakolm: I just want to underline what Friedrich Merz has said. It’s not just only a challenge in Germany or Switzerland, we also have this big challenge in Austria and many other European countries. Intergenerational fairness poses a lot of challenges for many governments all over the world. One of the most pressing issues in our welfare state is to create a sustainable and fair pension system. And let me give you one example from Austria: In 1970 the average Austrian was retired for 8 years and nowadays the average Austrian is retired for 22 years. That brings many challenges, not only financial challenges but also topics like age loneliness.
Another aspect is that current times confront a key narrative which is long underpinned in society: the key narrative that each successive generation would become better than the generation before. In past, we have an implicit contract and an intergenerational agreement which says, that future societal needs should be met. We have Climate change as a big issue, we have worth conditions on our public budgets, and we have the technological change. And it shows us that we have to put the young generation at the centre of this discussion and talk more openly about intergenerational fairness.
Prof. Christoph Frei: Dr Ramphele: I like to confront you with something Friedrich Merz said: “The war in Ukraine changes everything.” I wonder, how that resonates with you. To bring us back to this topic here, to the intergenerational equity, after all, on the African continent demographics are slightly different from what we see in Europe. Young people do makeup society in Nigeria. The median age at this point is 18 years. So the intergenerational issue must be a different one in African societies. Could you elaborate on that?
Mamphela Ramphele: First on the war in Ukraine: There is a saying in African culture: “When the elephants fight, the grass suffers“. This is a global challenge. Africa cannot stand outside. But I also would like to call the wisdom of one of our good ancestors, Desmond Tutu: “There can not be neutrality when an elephant is standing on the tail of a mouse.” And so we have to address the war in Ukraine as an entire human package.
I come back to the issue of demographics. Yes, Africa is blessed with one of the youngest populations, but Africa is also cursed with the oldest median age of its leadership. This mismatch doesn’t work! And this is the aftershock of the colonial conquest. And so for us, on the continent, the challenge is, how to relearn the wisdom of intergenerational shifts in leadership. The eldest are respected not because there are running but because of stepping beside so that the young people can bring the wisdom and the creativity needed in each new challenging era.
Yesterday we have listened to the former minister of trade and industry from Botswana, Bogolo Kenewendo, one of the youngest politicians in her country. She transformed Botswana’s registrational businesses from 49 days to less than 7 days. Why? She’s not afraid of change, not afraid to explore the unexplored. But we have also heard yesterday from Switzerlands President Ignazio Cassis who challenged the young people: „Don’t wait for my generation to do things to prepare for your future. No. You are the changemakers, you are the ones who have to seize the moment. Each generation must find its mission.” My plead to the young people in this room and elsewhere on the globe and particular on the African continent is to repeat what President Cassis said: „We need a revolution!“ A revolution of mindset so that we can see the benefits of the wisdom of interconnectivity and interdependence.
Prof. Christoph Frei: Where do we start changing mindsets? How do we go about changing mindsets?
Mamphela Ramphele: The beauty of mindset changing is that we don’t need a school. It’s a question of having conversations in safe spaces where ever you are. It starts with challenging yourself. We at the Club of Rome are proposing that the only way we can emerge from these multiple planetary emergencies is to be willing to learn again, to learn how to be human again. Those conversations should be taking place in every community, in every business, in every government, cabinet, and in every parliament so that we always can ask ourselves: Is this really a good decision to make if we are thinking about the new generations?
Prof. Christoph Frei: Let’s go back to you, Friedrich Merz and to more subjects, you have been emphasising for a long time and that is budgetary responsibility, and financial sustainability For you the issue of intergenerational equity has a lot to do with how much we earn and how much we spent. Do you stick to what you say?
Friedrich Merz: Yes, I stick to that what I’ve said. But this is not austerity! This is in my view fiscal discipline to have enough room for spending on investments and education. So my plea or my idea is, that we should come back to what has helped us in the past and what will help us in the future. You might have heard that our chancellor created the word „Zeitenwende“. But what does that mean if we take that seriously? „Zeitenwende“ means, that we have to change almost everything within our priorities. And that is my point. To set up new priorities means that we have things or ideas or projects which are extremely important and that is of course defence but also education, infrastructure and investments, but behind that, we find consumption and subsidising our pension system. So that is what I mean. It’s not austerity, it’s just fiscal discipline to create enough room for spending on new priorities. This is not the politics of austerity! This is the right opposite of that, it’s the politics of being able to invest. And that is what we have to do in most European member states including Germany, Austria and others.
Prof. Christoph Frei: Claudia, tell us, what could be done to make that intergenerational dialogue really engaging?
Claudia Plakolm: The problem is the demographic element. We have a big challenge to give the young generation a voice also in decision making. In Austria, we are some kind of frontrunner, since we implemented 15 years ago the voting age at 16. We are one out of two European countries, the other one is Malta. It has a big impact on politics because politicians focus more on the young generation, they put youth politics in their programmes. What consequences has a law on children and young people concerning financial issues or environmental issues? We should not divide the generations, we should collaborate.
Prof. Christoph Frei: Friedrich Merz: With you as a political leader would we see an ageing vote in Germany coming down to 16?
Friedrich Merz: This is part of the political programme of the German government and will be negotiated in a broader framework of our election system which has to be changed fundamentally. The court of the constitution urges us to reform our election system more or less completely. And that’s the reason why I can’t give you an answer yet. I very much hope that we will be able to do that this year.
We thank the organisers of the St. Gallen Forum and our panellists for the deeply interesting and lively discussion.
Please find the full recording of the panel discussion here (01:18:10).