The ‘social question’ dominating the end of the 19th century was the integration of the industrial workers, in other words, the pacification of class conflict. This was achieved by giving workers some assurance of a stable life course, including the institutionalization of retirement as a normal stage of life funded through public social security. At the beginning of the 21st century, class conflict seems to be defunct and its place taken over by generational conflict. It emerges from historical watersheds and from economic, demographic and cultural changes that create cleavages between generations.
However, it remains essential to assess the extent of the generational cleavage per se and the extent to which it masks the continued existence of the class cleavage between wealthy and poor (or owners and workers). It is also essential to differentiate between generations and age groups. There are moreover other cleavages that are usually categorized as “new” dimensions of inequality (in distinction to the “old” ones of class), such as those of gender and ethnicity (or “race”). Emphasizing the age or generational conflict as the new basic cleavage in society tends to downplay other inequalities, and by this, risks being ideological.
How cleavages turn into conflicts depends on the potential for mobilization. Class cleavages may be especially marked among the elderly, and may thus deepen in aging societies, but the potential for class mobilization seems to fade away. Age and generational cleavages may also deepen, not least through the current trends towards welfare state retrenchment. Until now, their salience has been low because of the powerful mediating function of political institutions (parties, unions) and of generational relations and transfers in families. The risks of (or chances for) a stronger mobilization along age and generational lines depend on the continued viability of these mediators in politics and the family.