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 "New Older Generation vs. Young Generation "

By : Benedicte SOILLY  

Conference of AFICS at the UN on October 30, 2002

I want to thank Helen Geffen Roht for her nice invitation and Susanne Paul who is the President of Global Action on Aging for her warm support.

I will try to help you know a little more about the place of old people in France but also toward the French young generation and to explain to you why I think this title of a famous French book: “ Old Age and Young Society: the missed meeting” is so true by Herve Marcillat.

 As a beginning let me give you two examples. A friend of mine took her French High School Diploma last June. One old man in his late 70’s was sitting two seats behind her. My friend noticed he succeeded when the results have been posted on the High School’s walls: his birthday was not exactly the same as the other students…

  One other story: Lionel Jospin, the former socialist leader who ran for the Presidency last April made an surprising off-record comment about his opponent. He described indeed Jacques Chirac, 70 years old, as quote a ” worn-out and old-looking” man, it made me smile but not the old citizens who had the right to vote … just as me!! The elder man, Mr Jacques Chirac won the election!!

These examples prove how the older generation has changed, I mean, in my eyes or in the eyes of the Young Generation.



Young people like me don’t know the meaning of “age”. Maybe because we think we have eternity in front of us: “ We have time to become old” is an old (!) song. Among the members of the generation born in 1800, only a third overtook 60 years old and 6 % only reached the age of 80. Among the members of the generation born in 1900, 55 % were still alive at 60 years old and 26 % at 80. In other words, to be 60 in the 19th Century meant to reach the old age, those who reached it were called “survivors”. It was already less common a century later and a large majority of the baby-boomers generation will reach their 60’s.


The Young Generation just begins to realize the disconnection between old age and pension. When we called somebody an “old person “, it can be seen as pejorative. It is more polite to call this person a pensioner especially when you are young and when you don’t want to be seen as rude. The pensioners are anxious not to be tied to old people, what implied a negative judgment of the old age and even of the age itself.


Maybe we have to make remind certain young people that the physical ageing begins from 20 years old…

In young people’s mind, it is not any more to live and to die that are henceforth associated but to age and to die.


The concern of not looking old prematurely, to be ‘with it” tends to become a rather widely shared preoccupation. When young people think about elected offices, they think older people deny them the chance to move ahead in, to let them get their own chance. In rural areas, old people expect youth to conform to the discipline and experience of elders. An old saying says "you will be regretful if you do not do as your elders tell you." The older generation feels that what they learn from life is correct and the young must accept this. Younger people have to be obedient, thinking that they themselves were really wrong, because "wise" ancient people had said so. The French Young generation is now trying to get out of this one-way dialog.


On the other hand, commercial advertisement constitutes another domain of preference of the ‘jeunisme’: to present to the screen children, teenagers and young adults. This is supposed to attract the biggest number of consumer. As if all were between 10 and 50 years old in a society that ages! This is called ‘agism’: segregation exercised toward a person because of its age.



We younger people do not think that the workplace is our personal playground. Nor do we feel that anyone over 30 should disappear. I am just 20 and enjoy working with older people and feel that I can learn a lot from them. However, it is nice when you are able to work with those who share your interests and goals. I have nothing in common with them outside of work. I hope you won’t call it ageism.



What is the generation gap? On one side: the twenty-somethings and younger. On the other: the sixty-somethings and older. I often listened to variations on these two conflicting point of views in France:

-Seniors are the ones who care about the broader community and are the backbone of volunteer programs and service organizations. Young people are selfish and don’t want to make commitments.

-Young people are the true activists today. Older people may do nice, helpful things as volunteers, but mainly the young are doing cutting-edge work for social change.

It is dismaying to see time and talent wasted on such silly debate. Today, the generation gap has not disappeared, but it is shrinking in many families. The old authoritarian approach to discipline – a starchy "Because I said so, that's why" – is giving way to a new egalitarianism and a "Come, let us reason together" attitude.


According to me, this is connected with changes in lifestyle and even with technical progress. Living standard has rapidly risen in latest years. Life became nicer, better but running faster as well. Therefore it seems shorter and that’s the reason why we became more egoistic. We want to live and don’t want to look after others. Another thing is that formerly, old people were an important information, knowledge and experience resource. Everybody listened to the interesting stories that grandparents told to their grandchildren. Old people used to be intelligence of the nation. They gave advices, helped, and assisted. We can say that old people were much more able and more conductive and helpful to the society. Today’s little child rather turns on the television than listens to grandmother. Today, old people aren’t significant information resource any more. They are in fact outcasts. We move them to old people’s houses. But I don’t reproach this solution. Old people like standstill and solitude. Maybe they don’t need the society so much. Many of them told me that, however I can’t understand that. Now I can’t imagine my life without many people that I meet every day. Another thing is that certain level of egoism is right.

Spending time with seniors makes the young people realize not all old people are grouchy. They find out they can have fun with them. On the other hand, old people learn the stereotype of 21st Century young people as Nintendo addicted, skateboard crazed, and drugs addicted is all wrong. This kind of stereotype against urban young people in France is still increasing in rural areas old people’s mind.


But to learn that the most majority of young people are all right, we both have to communicate. Many friends of mine believed that there should be more interaction between older people and school students. Many young people had no contact with older people, either because their grandparents had died, or lived in other regions or no longer played an active part of the families lives.


The family is the pivot around of which articulate the actions of natural solidarity. Grand parents contribute to the forming of their grand children’s personality. Moreover, this place is recognized by the French law, which grants to the grant parents specific rights (particularly in terms of visits when the parents have divorced).

Beyond this human dimension, the economic accompanying toward the young adults is strongly developed. Older people are very generous to younger generations in their own families. These financial intergenerational streams were estimated by the INSEE, French Public Institute for Statistical Studies, to 20 billion dollars for the year 1999.


The grand parents have as well a more traditional role of “bearers of memory”: an individual, domestic or collective memory. I always have wished to ask my grant father about the World War II when he was a prisoner in Germany not only because I am a history-holic person. I never dared: he was too unapproachable. He died 3 years ago: I wish I could turn the clock back five years and ask him about his story. So when my grand mother told me she is writing their memories of their life together, I feel delighted and relieved: this treasure won’t be lost.



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