Pedro Vormittag, FGV-EAESP and Columbia University alumnus, explores how the collective intelligence of previous generations can help those of the present to resolve three of the world’s most pressing issues: Climate change, harnessing artificial intelligence, and the reinvention of the welfare state.
Generational Capital: Weaving tomorrow in a pact of generations by Pedro Vormittag.
On December 19th, 2021, a young political activist got a phone call from a businessman who had just lost an election. Gabriel Boric had just been elected the President of Chile, defeating 56-year old José Antonio Kast, thus becoming the youngest ever to hold such a position in any country. No more than 10 years separated that phone’s ringing from the demonstrations that Boric — now, President Boric — used to lead as a student in the streets of Santiago. In fact, by the time of his inauguration at the Palacio de la Moneda, he was just a few months older than the constitutional age threshold for Chilean Presidents.
Interaction between generations is not a new phenomenon. However, only recently has the relevance of that concept reached beyond economics and demographics to become pivotal to some of the most consequential dilemmas of humanity.
What is generational capital?
To begin with, there are countless ways of defining and categorizing generations. The Pew Research Center, for instance, frames one generation as a set of individuals born over a 15-20 year span. In Pew’s clusterization, the Millenials were born after 1980 and currently comprise the latest generation of adults. They are preceded by Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, and descendants of the famous Baby Boom Generation, born between the end of World War II and 1964. Finally, the Silent Generation, born between 1928 and 1945, is preceded by the Greatest Generation, of which few individuals are still alive, born before 1928.
But beyond our choices of categorization, an intriguing feature rises: distinct generations have come of age during historical contexts remarkably different from each other.
The concept of generational capital refers to the collective intelligence accrued by previous generations after their failed or successful attempts to solve the issues of their time. A form of immaterial capital, the substance of generational capital is made of values and lessons learned through historical experience, and stored in the collective intelligence of cohorts within a generation.
For instance, the Baby Boom generation (born between 1954 and 1964) acquired the bulk of its values during the aftermath of World War 2. Unlike the previous Silent generation (born between 1928 and 1945), which witnessed the landing on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, 1944, Boomers were never faced with a world where war was the only way out of tyranny.
On the contrary, the generation growing up after the Allied victory repudiated the Cold War and its various manifestations, from the dictatorships in Eastern Europe and Latin America to the war in Vietnam. On the Boomers’ generational agenda, rather, Woodstock, peace, love, and the dream of Martin Luther King Jr were a rallying cry for harder and faster realization of civil rights and diversity.
But despite different historical upbringings, both generations also share invaluable knowledge learned through historical experience. The threats of nuclear catastrophe, either from Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, or the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, prompt a generational insight: both Baby Boomers and the Silent generation can testify that humanity is capable of bringing about its own annihilation.
In times of climate emergency, global pandemics and the rise of artificial intelligence, harnessing that knowledge that only history can teach is what generational capital is all about.
At any given moment in the future, values that flourished in previous scenarios can wake up from the silent place in which they filtered into the contemporary collective consciousness and resume offering insights about current dilemmas. Through the mobilization of generational capital, values such as the preciousness of life, the sacrifice that ensures liberty, the awareness that humanity can be extinct, Martin Luther King’s warning that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere come back to the agenda.
Those of us facing contemporary global challenges can be inspired without having to live through the excruciating experiences that instilled those values in previous generations.
Why generational capital?
The concept of capital was originally invented to make sense simply of economic and financial phenomena, but the world has learned to mobilize for the understanding of broader realities. Drawing from that tradition, generational capital is yet another form of a non-economic expression of capital — siding with already established concepts, such as the natural capital defined by natural resource economics, or social and cultural capital as defined by sociology.
In practice, generational capital is a manifestation of collective intelligence, a concept that has been gaining traction in the research of thought leaders such as Sir Geoff Mulgan and the MIT Center on Collective Intelligence. For the purposes of our discussion, collective intelligence can be understood as the organization and mobilization of the vast array of different modalities of human knowledge – and even, more recently, artificial intelligence.
The generations roundtable
In interviews at the dawn of his presidency, Chilean President Gabriel Boric celebrated the historic firsts of the new Chilean government while reflecting upon the successful and failed attempts of previous leaders fighting for the same or similar paradigms. For the first time, women will represent more than half of Chile’s presidential cabinet members.
The young President is proud, but his statement on the matter remarks the failed attempt of his predecessor Michelle Bachelet to pioneer what is now Boric’s political victory to enjoy. When asked about his government’s formula for democracy and development, generational capital shows up again: through honorable mentions to the legacy of iconic Latin American leaders such as Brazil’s Cardoso and Lula and Uruguay’s Mujica — statesmen whose trajectories were defined by their handling of democratization and development challenges in their countries — Boric frames the essence of a doctrine for Millennials in government.
Harnessing generational capital is not about adhering to the acritical benchmarking of choices made by previous generations. Realizing that crucial point is mandatory for a successful intergenerational contract. Rather than examples to follow, what generational capital taps into are the lessons learned and the values that came out of experience — whatever their outcome was.
Applying generational capital to contemporary problem-solving
There are countless contemporary global issues to which investment in generational capital can contribute. But there are at least three fundamental global challenges of humanity that could immediately go through massive investment rounds of generational capital.
> The endgame battle of climate change
Let there be no mistake about the historical novelty of the climate emergency. While humanity as a species has been endangered before – by nature (e.g. pandemics) and by itself (e.g. nuclear catastrophe) – the difference is that now every living man and woman is confronted by a natural threat triggered by human action.
But in a speech at the United Nations Food Systems Pre-Summit in 2021, economist Jeffrey Sachs framed the need for intergenerational thinking in a way that demands no further elaboration. “The Sustainable Development Goals are nothing more than our generations’ attempt to honor the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.
But the fact that the climate emergency is unprecedented in scale and scope does not invalidate the philosophical reflection of previous threats. In a Conference for UNESCO a few years after the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, French philosopher Emmanuel Mounier for the first time denounced that suicide had just become a collective possibility as much as an individual phenomenon. When it comes to the climate emergency, humanity is once again faced with the daunting ability to put an end to itself — an awesome, cruel power used to be within the exclusive reach of God or nature until a few decades ago.
The existential reflection about the meaning of an urgent matter such as climate change cannot afford to start from scratch — at least not when previous generations have bumped into relevant precedents that can be harnessed through generational capital.
On a more hopeful note, the aftermath of World War 2 and the enactment of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights has proven that the cold, hard borders that embolden national sovereignty can be softened to acknowledge and protect the value of life as universal regardless of nationality. In her book A problem from Hell, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Samantha Power tells the story of the decades-long struggle until the concept of genocide to become operational in international law.
However difficult, the idea that human beings have supreme dignity over other legal concepts did make its way to law and policy. That experience — in its complete dimension, failures and successes — must inform the contemporary discussion about how the protection of nature and climate balance must not bend to the anachronistic fences of absolute national sovereignty.
> The ethics and governance of artificial intelligence
Likewise, while it is true that humanity has never had to deal with artificial intelligence and the ethical dilemmas it entails, it is not the first time in history that humanity witnesses its technical brilliance outpace its ability to critically think about the ethical implications of its inventions.
In “The age of A.I. and our human future”, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, MIT scientist Daniel Huttenlocher and 98-year old diplomat Henry Kissinger point out that the discussion about the good, bad and ugly side of technology must expand beyond engineers and computer scientists, reaching the thoughts of social scientists, historians, and philosophers. At the heart of such a need is the vacuum of values to inform regulatory frameworks for the production and consumption of algorithms. Once again, a similar challenge was faced by the generation who had to come up with the concept of mutually assured destruction in order to operationalize the diplomacy of nuclear deterrence between the United States and the Soviet Union. The relative success or failure of that historical process cannot go to waste as humanity tries to balance the power of Chinese and American Big Techs in a new race for hegemony.
> The reinvention of the Welfare State
The current amount of structural demographic and labor transformations is so overwhelming that the reinvention of the Welfare state as we know is inevitable. In this realm, too, the likes of the structural transformation underway have rarely happened in history.
For the first time in millennia, the global population will cease to continuously expand. Across countries, but especially in the developed world, the elderly population will only grow. Conversely, in the developing world, springs of youth will persist for the coming decades, especially in countries like India and Nigeria (IHME 2020).
The obvious truth, for now, is that the contemporary social welfare state — still essentially standing on the same architecture as when it was created in the 1950s— will have to be redesigned to address new demands. Public education will have to go beyond high school and be able to teach the specialized knowledge without which it is impossible to thrive in the 21st-century technology-driven world of labor. Health policy will have to become global so it can be able to detect, prevent, monitor, and fight the COVID-19-like pandemics that most likely lie in the coming decades. Economic freedom policies such as Universal Basic Income have risen to the first order of business in many democracies.
Rather than figuring out how to create social policy from scratch, those tasked with redesigning a Welfare state in the 21st century must tap into the success and failure of those who reinvented the concept and roles of government in the 1950s. The fact that their creation has become outdated does not mean that its reinvention cannot draw from the disruptive mentality that brought it about in the first place.
A common thread for all generations
Probably the most successful franchise in film history, the Star Wars saga is all about generational capital. From hippie California in the 1970s, Baby Boomer George Lucas made history by picturing some of the most enduring questions tormenting humans — the eternal battle between good and evil and one’s persistent quest for identity — in the Zeitgeist of the space race age that defined the aesthetics of his and following generations, as Cass Sunstein put it. To this day, its narrative and characters drive millions of people to the movies, offering deep philosophical takeaways to fans.
One of the most remarkable takeaways from the saga is that generational capital does not necessarily have to mean absolute appreciation for the way through which any generation went about their challenges. In one of the most recent episodes of the Star Wars saga, legendary Jedi Luke Skywalker becomes skeptical of its own tradition and refuses to train his successor Rey in the ways of the Force. However, the narrative leaves no doubt that both Luke and Rey learned all they could from their masters — all of whom were greatly admired by these characters when Padawans (apprentices).
Moving forward, acknowledging and harnessing generational capital should be poised to be at the heart of a new cross-generational collaborative effort.
Figuring out a new intergenerational contract is one of the urgent needs in humanity’s toolkit for contemporary global challenges. It’s time the idea of generational capital reached the hearts and minds of people across the globe, young and old — so that the 21st century, despite its daunting challenges, becomes the best for humanity so far.
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