Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Intergenerational and Sustainable Development

  • Vincent T. LawEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_89-1


This entry introduces the notions of intergenerational development and sustainable development and presents important relevant concepts such as generation, generativity, justice, as well as sustainability. Although the notion of sustainable development is a contested concept and may be political in nature, it plays an important role in industrial and societal development. The concepts of generativity and intergenerativity at individual and family levels can be linked to sustainable development of the society in a holistic manner. The concept of sustainable development is applicable to promote justice within the same generation (intragenerational justice) and that between different generations (intergenerational justice). This entry concludes by relating sustainable development with intergenerational development and highlights viable approaches from the societal perspectives.


Generativity Intergenerational equity Intergenerational development Sustainability Sustainable development 


The concept of intergenerational development is the process of associating different generations which are interrelated. The notion of sustainable development has been defined in various ways (Toman et al. 1995). It was commonly defined as “development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” by the Brundtland Report Our Common Future (WCED 1987).


Generations of human beings persist and conflicts exist between generations. The notion of sustainable development has been capturing academic and business attention since the Brundtland Report Our Common Future which defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987). However, sustainable development is a contested concept without an authoritative definition. Nevertheless, the notion of sustainable development embodies practicality and can be conceptualized as the triple bottom line (TBL) – economy, environment, and society. In societal perspectives, the concept of sustainable development can be applied to promote both intragenerational justice and intergenerational justice. Relating intergenerational development with sustainable development may help sustain the society to persist over generations.

Intergenerational Development

The notion of intergenerational development has been developing and attracts growing research interests. While the notion is related to different generations and their interrelationship, it is also related to justice and sustainability.

Generation and Generativity

The concept of intergenerational development builds on generations, and generations are not isolated from one another. Generation can be defined in terms of age or line of thinking. Based on birth years, Westerman and Yamamura (2007) defined a generation as a group which shares the same birth years and significant life events. Instead of age, Crumpacker and Crumpacker (2007) defined generation based on worldviews in which a generation is a group with similar worldviews grounded in defining social or historical events. Values, attitudes, and preferences may vary with generations and thus result in intergenerational misunderstanding (Shaw and Fairhurst 2008).

Conflicts between generations have been foreseen. Friedman envisages the clash of generations in his famous quote: “When the Cold War ended, we thought we were going to have a clash of civilizations. Turns out we’re having a clash of generations” (Friedman 2011). Aging may lead to more conflicts between generations over issues such as financial resources and employment. Hence it is necessary to establish and guide the next generation (Erikson 1963). The notion of generation can be expressed at either family level or community level (Villar and Serrat 2014). Generativity is associated with variables such as life satisfaction (Villar et al. 2013), personality traits, and emotional stability (de St. Aubin and McAdams 1995), and it can be classified into biological, parental, technical, and cultural generativity (Kotre 1984).

Justice and Equity

Baumgärtner et al. (2012) view justice as a mixed normative idea about the quality of relationships among members of society. Rawls (1971) affirms that justice would arise between contracting parties under moderate scarcity and limited generosity. People must imagine themselves as members of an ongoing society enduring over time (Freeman 2007). From the standpoint of impartiality, members of a community may mutually claim on one another for fairness (Baumgärtner et al. 2012). Justice can be commonly classified into two categories: intragenerational justice is the justice between currently living persons, and intergenerational justice is that between members of present and future generations (Baumgärtner et al. 2012).

The world is unequal where there is disparity in equity between generations. Based on an equity perspective, human development depends on the expression of generational, intergenerational, and interspecies justice (Borim-de-Souza et al. 2015). While equity within the current generation includes equality between men and women (Coulson et al. 2015), UN Women (2013) realizes that women bear a disproportionate burden of the impact of social and environmental inequalities.

Intragenerational Equity

Intragenerational justice refers to the justice between currently living persons (Baumgärtner et al. 2012). Some (e.g., Dobson 1999; Jacobs 1999) view intragenerational equity as concerning with issues such as the elimination of poverty. While Lessmann and Rauschmayer (2014) adopt a capacity approach to achieve intragenerational justice, Frazier (1997) views such achievement can be done by immediate adjustments in power and wealth by the current generation.

Intergenerational Equity

Intergenerational justice is the justice between members of present and future generations (Baumgärtner et al. 2012). The interaction of cultural demand and inner desire propels a conscious concern for the next generation (Villar and Serrat 2014). While some (e.g., Watene 2014) doubt whether the current generation ought to think in terms of the capabilities for future generations, Harding (2006) regards the present generation is obliged to maintain and enhance the health, diversity, and productivity for the benefit of future generations. The current generation has various impacts on the future generations (Scholtes 2010), such as affecting the lives of future generations and future social, political, economic, and environmental circumstances (Watene 2014). The current generation faces tough decisions since resources are limited but whether today’s decisions bring good outcomes is uncertain (Watene 2014).

Intergenerational equity is affected by various factors. First, the built environment influences intergenerational interaction (Melville 2014). Second, healthy adults become more concerned with intergenerational relationships (McAdams 2013). Third, the social and economic structures of the current generation may affect the future generations. Anand and Sen (2000) view nourishment and better education of the current generation as a beneficial investment for future generations. However, as people age, the achievable returns by incremental investments in human capitals are lower (Heckman 2006). Hence one way to achieve intergenerational equity is to invest in early children development (ECD) (Sachs 2015). ECD measures include providing children of poor families with adequate health care, nutrition, and enriched environment (Sachs 2015). Sachs (2015) advocates strong investment in ECD would pave the success of children to become productive citizens in the future. Fourth, intergenerational equity is affected by social disparity. Based on a study of 13 high-income countries which included the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, Corak (2013) found that the higher the Gini coefficient, the higher the inequality, and thus lower social mobility.

Intergenerational Development

Intergenerational development is the process of relating different generations. Development is the process of expanding real freedoms that people enjoy (Sen 1999). Development thought must incorporate environmental concerns so as to achieve long-term success in improving human well-being (Carr et al. 2007).

Intergenerational development is promoted by generativity and intergenerativity. Generativity may enhance a sense of attachment to communities so as to leave a valued legacy for succeeding generations (Wiles and Jayasinha 2013). The concept of intergenerativity is multidimensional, and it is related to various domains in living (George et al. 2011). It involves the interaction between people of different ages while changing their competences, attitudes, and behavioral repertoires (Villar and Serrat 2014). Intergenerativity gives opportunity for development (Villar and Serrat 2014), as well as sustaining and connecting persons of past, present, and future generations (George et al. 2011).

Human being would be committed to generative action if they place hope in the advancement and betterment of human life in succeeding generations (McAdams and de St. Aubin 1992). Indeed, adults play pivotal roles in promoting intergenerational development. Zucker et al. (2002) find the transition from young adulthood to middle adulthood generative interests and behaviors which persist in older age. Healthy adults begin to contribute back to the society by promoting the development of future generations (Villar and Serrat 2014). Generative adults are life examples and models for their children. They are also valuable resources to guide development and foster generative concerns in succeeding generations (Villar and Serrat 2014). McAdams (2001) shows how adults come to behave generatively. In particular, middle-aged adults also play a role in reinforcing social institutions, enriching social networks, and ensuring continuity across generations (Villar 2012). Midlife adults provide support to younger generations as parents, mentors, teachers, leaders, or volunteers (McAdams 2001).

Parents and grandparents play an important role in intergenerational development. Highly generative parents are more satisfied and more committed to parenting (Abrantes and Matos 2010). Generativity in grandparents perceived child care tasks as a contribution to their families and specifically as an expression of good parenting (Villar et al. 2012).

Furthermore, Villar and Serrat (2014) see the possibility to enhance intergenerational, generative activities from both individual and social community perspectives. First, individually, training or educational programs that facilitate people to participate in intergenerational interactions can be provided. Second, at the community level, structures can be built to facilitate citizen participation and social contributions. The success of changing human behaviors depends on how the society organizes learning, integrates knowledge, and promotes collective wisdom through generations (George et al. 2011). It can be optimistically envisaged that unprecedented results can be achieved if intergenerational relationships and collaborations are established (VanderVen and Schneider-Munoz 2012).

Intergenerational Programs

Research on intergenerational programs has gained momentum recently (Jarrott 2011). Programs that involve intergenerational contacts and engagement may encourage generative thoughts and feelings (Pratt 2013). In Europe, a program called “Big Foot: Crossing Generations, Crossing Mountains” was launched to reduce marginalization of vulnerable groups and bridge generational gap of those living in rural, mountainous areas (Big Foot Project 2018). Intergenerational shared sites (IGSS) were developed in many countries to serve the needs of multiple generations (Melville 2014).

Sustainable Development

The notions of sustainability and sustainable development have been defined, interpreted, and analyzed in various ways (Toman et al. 1995). It is necessary to understand these two notions and delineate their roles in intergenerational development.


Sustainability is a contested concept (Lélé 1991; Harding 2006; Hahn et al. 2010) which cannot be defined in specific terms without controversy (Wu and Wu 2012). Khan and Gray (2013) see sustainability as a floating concept, perhaps an empty signifier. It is also difficult to operationalize sustainability (Hahn et al. 2010).

Sustainability can also be viewed in various perspectives. For example, Coulson et al. (2015) view the notion as involving the interaction of financial, natural, human, and social capitals. Borim-de-Souza et al. (2015) view sustainability as the capacity to maintain diverse social systems functioning which aim at promoting sustainable development. Nogaard (1988) views sustainability as combining natural resources, social expectations, and economic concerns via a human-logic approach.

Sustainability is related to the interaction between economic development, social development, environmental quality, as well as equity (Hoepner et al. 2016). There is an intimate link between wealth, measured by an adjusted measure of net (genuine) saving, and sustainability (Pearce and Atkinson 1993; Pezzey 2004).

Sustainability Development

Sustainable Development Is a Contested Concept

Sustainable development is an overarching concept under which an array of research takes place (Bebbington and Larrinaga 2014). However, sustainable development is a vague (Pesqueux 2009) and contested concept (Harding 2006; Hahn et al. 2010). There is hardly a clear or basic definition of either “sustainable” or “development.” While it is necessary to address what is being sustained (Hamilton and Naikal 2014) or developed, why does it need to be sustained should also be examined (Frazier 1997). Jacobs (1999) argues that the complex and normative nature of sustainable development leads to political struggle. This is in line with Boehmer-Christiansen (2002) that the “meaning” of sustainable development is political. The notion of sustainability also lends itself to a nearly unlimited range of action principles: sustainable tourism, sustainable consumption, etc. (Allemand 2006). It is also difficult to define what sustainable development means in an organizational context (Gray and Milne 2004).

Definitions of Sustainable Development

The famous Brundtland Report Our Common Future defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987, p. 43). This WCED definition is probably the most widely stated expression of sustainable development (Tregidga et al. 2013). In 2002, the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) viewed the integration of the three components of sustainable development, i.e., economic development, social development, and environmental protection, as interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars (WSSD 2002).

Both the WCED and WSSD definitions arouse diversified discussion on the context and impacts of sustainable development. However, Sen (2014) argues that the Brundtland’s way of understanding the problem is incomplete; in particular, the Brundtland’s consideration on “needs” and their “fulfilment” are imprecise. Emerging references view sustainable development in relation to future generations and concerns about equity issues (Milne et al. 2009). For example, Frazier (1997) views sustainable development as an enabling tool for the poor to be developed into human capital for enterprises. Crabtree (2014) views sustainable development as the process of expanding the real freedoms that people value in accordance with uncontested principles. Sachs (2015) defined sustainable development as the way to understand the world as a complex interaction of economic, social, environmental, and political systems. Pesqueux (2009) sees a development feature (social and economic) and a strictly environmental feature within sustainable development. Broadly speaking, sustainable development is multifaceted and touches the country, industry, and consumer levels (Pesqueux 2009).

Roles of Sustainability Development

Sustainable development captures numerous issues that are faced by the contemporary societies (Loucks et al. 2010). Sustainable development embodies practicality (Bell and Morse 2008) and balance (Tregidga et al. 2013). It requires organizations to consider and conceptualize the TBL together (Tregidga et al. 2013).

The notion of sustainable development is also closely related to corporate social responsibility (CSR) (Simionescu 2015). CSR refers to voluntary codes or declarations of sustainable development and includes the TBL of economic development, environmental quality, and social justice (Haalboom 2012). The emergence of CSR is partly contributed by increasing societal awareness and acceptance of sustainability as contemporary discourse related to long-term development (Ruwhiu and Carter 2016). Sustainable development goals (SDGs) are developed to serve as new global goals that guide the world’s future economic diplomacy (Sachs 2015), but they can only be largely met with clear and enforceable policies (Williams and Dair 2007).

Approaches to Sustainability Development

Within the organizational discourse, sustainable development will be effected through continuous improvement (Tregidga et al. 2013). Approaches to sustainability can be viewed along a spectrum of sociopolitical change, ranging from maintaining the status quo to transformation (Hopwood et al. 2005). van den Bergh (2014) promote the measurement of sustainable development via different indicators such as (1) ecological versus physical indicators, (2) stock (capital) versus flow indicators, (3) source versus effect indicators, (4) monetary versus other indicators, and (5) sustainability (environmental pressure) versus progress indicators (green/sustainable welfare). Sustainable indicators provide information on the state, dynamics, and underlying drivers of human-environmental systems (Wu and Wu 2012). However, various barriers such as cost, risk, time, and culture prevent sustainable development from being fully realized in practice (Brennan and Cotgrave 2014).

Intergenerational Development and Sustainable Development

The notions of sustainability and sustainable development are related to intergenerational development. Sustainability can be viewed as the potential of societies to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the next generations to meet their needs (Hoepner et al. 2016). Sustainability is suggested to request intergenerational equity (Baur and Lagoarde-Segot 2016).

Sustainable development must consider intergenerational justice (Sen 2014). As sustainable development has a global purview (Dryzek 2005), Gladwin et al. (1995) see the role of sustainable development in promoting human development with an inclusive, equitable, and prudent approach. Pesqueux (2009) views sustainable development as a notion that links together the social objectives of economic development, solidarity between present generations, as well as environmental conditionality of future generations. It is difficult to simultaneously address the two areas of sustainable development: the “development” area includes need satisfaction and intragenerational equity; the “sustainable” area includes ecological efficiency, ecological resilience, and intergenerational equity (Pesqueux 2009). Sustainable development can prompt the capabilities of present people without compromising capabilities of future generations (Sen 2014). Being sustainable can be construed as assuring intergenerational equity in access to resources (Frazier 1997). It is needed to sustain the freedom of future generations to live the way they like and to what they have reason to value (Sen 2014).

To conclude, the ethical dimension of sustainable development is based on both intergenerational accountability (over time) and intragenerational accountability (through space) (Pesqueux 2009). Ecological sustainability is simultaneously concerned with the current and future generations of mankind (Borim-de-Souza et al. 2015). Tertiary institutions need to ensure that there is a generation of skilled young people trained in public policy and sustainable development (Sachs 2015). The overall societal goal of sustainability addresses both intragenerational justice and intergenerational justice; hence it is good to utilize scarce resources efficiently to attain intra- and intergenerational justice (Baumgärtner et al. 2012). Overall speaking, a sustainable society can persist over generations and far-seeing (Ingman et al. 1999).


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Professional and Executive Development, College of Professional & Continuing EducationThe Hong Kong Polytechnic UniversityHong KongChina

Section editors and affiliations

  • Noor Adelyna Mohammed Akib
    • 1
  • Tehmina Khan
    • 2
  1. 1.Universiti Sains MalaysiaPenangMalaysia
  2. 2.School of AccountingRMIT UniversityMelbourneAustralia