Mannheim, K. (1928), Das Problem der Generationen, in: Kölner Vierteljahreshefte für Soziologie, issue 2, pp. 157-184.
Karl Mannheim writes about the problem of generations, or how different groups of people born in different time periods can have different experiences and perspectives that shape their worldviews. He discusses some fundamental facts about the phenomenon of generations:
- new cultural carriers (people who transmit and shape culture) constantly replace older ones;
- the carriers of a particular generation only participate in a limited period of history;
- the accumulation of cultural goods requires the continual transmission of these goods from one generation to the next.
Mannheim suggests that by considering these phenomena, we can understand the formal sociological relevance of the elemental aspects of the problem of generations. He also notes that our society, characterized by the continual change of generations, is different from a hypothetical one in which a single generation lives forever and there is no change.
Mannheim explores the relationship between the past and present in society, and how different generations encounter and interact with these two concepts. On simpler levels of social life, there is an unconscious selection process at work, in which the past is more compressed, intensive, and virtual in nature. Certain areas of culture are made more conscious and reflexive when traditional, semi-conscious transformations are no longer sufficient. Mannheim suggests that the reflexive aspects of culture are often a function of the unreflexive rather than the other way around. He differentiates between acquired memory and individually earned memory, and notes that only truly self-acquired knowledge is firm and binding. The experience of the elderly can be an advantage, but the lack of experience among the young can also be a benefit in terms of the burden of the past. The problem of generations is not simply a matter of the past influencing the present, but also of the present shaping the past and determining how it is remembered.
Each generation has a different set of opponents or challenges to confront, both within themselves and in the world around them. This shifting of the polar experience leads to a non-linear development of history, particularly in cultural spheres. The necessity of transmitting cultural goods from one generation to the next creates certain structures, such as the incorporation of the new generation into inherited attitudes, values, and outlooks. Much of what is unconsciously transmitted and absorbed in this process is the oldest and most fundamental layer of consciousness, which tends to become stabilized as a natural worldview. In the first stages of youth, individuals absorb reflexive cultural elements in an unproblematic way, much like the deeper layers of life, and only later these elements become problematized and reflexive. The problem of generations can be understood as a dynamic process involving the interaction of past, present, and future.
Generations are not just defined by chronological age, but also by their shared experiences and social conditions. Tradition and inheritance shape the experiences and perspectives of different generations, and the relationship between generations can affect social change. The modern trend towards individualism may be a departure from previous generations and this can affect social structures. A generational unit, is a group of individuals who share a common historical and social context and are able to actively shape their own experiences and identities within that context.
The idea of freedom was important for a certain liberal generation unit not only because of the specific demands it contained, but because it allowed geographically and otherwise dispersed individuals to unite. However, it is not specific ideas themselves that primarily unite people, but rather the formative forces through which these ideas gain meaning and direction. These forces can often have the same formative tendency, and their social significance lies in their ability to allow individuals to socially connect. The deep emotional meaning of a slogan, a genuine gesture, or a work of art lies in their ability to not only convey content, but also to socially connect and differentiate. The same concept of freedom can have a completely different meaning for different generation units. Thus, analyses of meaning can be used to differentiate between generation units in the context of the generation context. The most essential aspect of this process is the fundamental intentions and design principles, which are truly socializing factors in social and historical events. It is necessary to become immersed in these factors in order to truly participate in collective events. Modern psychology increasingly acknowledges that human perception is shaped by social context, and that socialization is a lifelong process. It is through this process that individuals learn to understand and interpret the world around them, and it is also through this process that they learn to connect with others and form a generation unit. A generation unit, is not a concrete group but rather a group of ideas that are shared by individuals of a particular generation. These ideas often originate from a specific group, but they become more influential and expansive if they are able to accurately express the typical experiences and characteristics of the generation. Additionally, these ideas can sometimes extend beyond their original group and influence individuals of different generations if they are particularly relevant or applicable to the current time period. A generation unit is similar to a class ideology, since both can influence individuals beyond their specific group or class if they are able to accurately represent the experiences and characteristics of that group or class.
The generation unit is formed by a core group that sets the tone and direction for the rest of the generation. The speed of societal and intellectual change can affect the ability of a generation unit to form and solidify its ideas and principles. Some generations may not have the opportunity to fully develop their generation due to too rapid or slow societal change, and may instead align with the principles of a neighboring generation. Past or future generations may influence the development of a current generation; certain collective events can have a crystallizing effect on the formation of a generation unit.