Mehrgenerationenhäuser – multi-generational meeting houses – are attracting growing interest outside their home in Germany. In this piece we examine what they are, how they function, and their relevance to some key issues faced by local communities – in particular around ageing. We will also look at the role of social pedagogues within them and some issues with Mehrgenerationenhäuser .
Contents: introduction · the origins and growth of Mehrgenerationenhäuser – multi-generational meeting houses · how Mehrgenerationenhäuser work · the relevance of the Mehrgenerationenhäuser approach · Mehrgenerationenhäuser – multi-generational meeting houses – social pedagogy and community · some issues · conclusion · further reading and references · acknowledgements · how to cite this article
There have, of course, been institutions that bring together people of different ages within local communities for centuries. Faith groups and churches, and many community organizations and enthusiast groups (for example around fishing and amateur dramatics) are obvious examples of this. However, with growing concern about the needs of an ageing population, attention is being given to cross-generational work and activity. It is part of a process of rethinking of how we approach ‘social care’ so that people may live decent lives and flourish within local communities (McNeill and Hunter 2014: 4). Strengthening neighbourhood networks so that people remain connected and socially and physically active is an important element in creating change. McNeill and Hunter comment:
[I]n contrast to countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Japan, the UK is lagging behind in cultivating these types of networks on a national scale. We argue that Germany is an exemplar for the UK. Germany’s Mehrgenerationenhäuser (multi-generational houses) are funded by the federal government and are a key part of Germany’s ageing population plan. These community spaces provide support in daily activities for older people, crucially alongside other age groups. This national scheme is popular with families, employers and local public services as well as older people, because each benefits from the mutual support they unlock, which is simple in itself, but which cumulatively creates abundant value.
This focus on the needs of older people in some current debates can easily miss the point of Mehrgenerationenhäuser – they are multi-generational meeting houses, places where all can meet and hopefully flourish. They host youth groups, childcare services, day care for older people, advice centres and support for different groups such as young parents.
Much of the exploration has focused on the institution of the house, here we will argue that it is also vital to reflect on those that animate this activity, who foster care, and who create the opportunity for mutual activity and learning. Mehrgenerationenhäuser – multi-generational meeting houses – lead us to the figure of the social pedagogue and the world of informal education and community learning and development.
The idea behind multi-generational meeting houses bears a strong resemblance to the concerns of those pioneering social settlements and settlement houses over a century before, and to the development of community centres in Britain from the 1930s onwards. However, the immediate origins of Mehrgenerationenhäuser – multi-generational meeting houses – lay in local initiatives in Germany in the early years of the 21st century. Perhaps the best known of these was the SOS-Mütterzentrum SOS (mothers’ centre) in Salzgitter (SOS Kinderdorf undated). The then family minister Ursula von der Leyen opened the centre in 2006 as the first multi-generational house. It was part of a new Federal action program. Von der Leyen argued that, ‘Multi-generational houses provide a response to the changes in social life. They see themselves as contributing to the development of functioning neighbourhoods with encounter and contact between young and old (op. cit.). At its core lies a belief that local communities needed settings where:
… all generations have their place and naturally encounter each other in everyday life and new social networks can be forged. New assets may grow and different ways of linking can be tried. In an equal and cooperative partnership, people bring their everyday life and family skills and can learn alongside professionals (op. cit.).
The basic idea was to ‘bring together under one roof groups that had previously operated in isolation from one another, i.e. childcare groups, youth centres, mother centres, community centres for the elderly and advice centres’ (Deutschland.de 2013). Such centres can create much needed ‘public living rooms’ where people can learn from one another, feel needed, and share:
… nowadays, it is becoming increasingly rare to find the traditional extended family model where several generations live under one roof or in the immediate neighbourhood. The multi-generation houses are designed to offer an alternative for older people who feel lonely and for young families who need support but have no grandparents living nearby (op. cit.).
This picture of multi-generational homes – of the large family where several generations live under one roof and where experiential knowledge, and skills and interests can be shared – is frequently evoked. Mehrgenerationenhäuser are portrayed as meeting places where cooperation between the generations can be actively lived. (Mehrgenerationenhaus undated)
In 2012, the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth launched its follow-up programme Multi-Generation Houses II, with funding for 450 centres.
Here I want to focus on four aspects of the model: mixing animation, pedagogy and care; subsidiarity; open meeting spaces; and fostering group life and mutual aid.
Mixing animation, education and care
The particular ‘mix’ of practises that makes multi-generational houses work is social pedagogy. This tradition of practice is close to that of informal education and to the Scottish tradition of community learning and development. This way of working brings together in any one practitioner a mix of skills and understandings that cut across, and draw from, a number of traditions. These include:
- Care – caring for others i.e. attending to their needs, and caring about people and communities.
- Education – helping people to reflect, believe and act.
- Animation – joining with others to breathe life into situations
This mix is also underpinned by training in management and leadership, community development, and particular areas of specialism such as outdoor education, music, and art. The important point here is that while Mehrgenerationenhäuser may have workers drawn from different professional groupings, at its core is a single practitioner or small group of practitioners who are poly-professionals.
We explore in more detail later just what the implications placing pedagogy at the core later.
To appreciate the development of Mehrgenerationenhäuser – multi-generational houses – it is necessary to bear in mind the particular political and policy context in which they have been formed. In contrast to the highly centralized state found in Britain, German social policy is underpinned by a much stronger concern with decentralization and civil society. It embodies the principle of subsidiarity – what Zacher (2011: 68) describes as ‘the central formative principle of the liberal social state’.
The principle of subsidiarity has its roots in Catholic social teaching and is perhaps most clearly described as the requirement that decisions be made ‘at the lowest level possible and the highest level necessary’ (Clark 2012). The key statement of this principle came from Pope Pius XI in Quadregesimo Anno. Pius was worried about the growing power of the state and an increasing individualism – and what this meant for the common good of society (paragraph 78). As Meghan Clark (2012) has commented, the concern was that we could ‘end up with a social order in which there are individuals and the state – with no intermediary communities, institutions or levels’. In Catholic social thought, and within much of the more general discussion, subsidiarity and solidarity are linked and complementary ideas.
The emergence of Mehrgenerationenhäuser (multi-generational houses), and how they are organized, can be seen as an expression of solidarity as well as a concern for the welfare. In addition, the principle of subsidiarity has entailed a strong role as a matter of course for civil society organizations and local institutions like churches and faith organizations. In Germany, it is recognized that certain things are best done by the federal state – for example the provision of social insurance – others by the local state, and much is best organized and controlled by community institutions and organizations (often with some funding from the state). This also requires the state (at different levels), civil society organizations and individuals to work together. There are obvious tensions here, but subsidiarity does create ‘room for autonomy and allows the entire system in which the social takes place to breathe’ (Zacher 2011: 68).
The principle of subsidiarity can also be seen as applying to what happens within mehrgenerationenhäuser – multi-generational houses. This orientation entails looking to groups and individuals to take responsibility and to organize (see fostering group life and mutual aid below); encourages front-line management by practitioners; and is suspicious of the claims of state and organizational bureaucracies in decision-making processes.
The open meeting space
In many respects the design and character of mehrgenerationenhäuser echoes that of a large number of youth centres built in Britain in the 1960s. At the core are bistros or cafes specifically are designed to be welcoming and friendly. These ‘open meeting points’ or ‘public living rooms are where people of all ages can meet (deutschland.de undated). They are an invitation to conversation.
The open meeting offers people space to exchange ideas – many projects of the houses are born here. Over a cup of coffee or lunch together, people come up with ideas for new offerings and services – from play by and for young and old to care services for dementia sufferers…[It] is a place that allows all interested parties to contribute with their experience and skills and at the same time to benefit from the knowledge and skills of others. People of different generations can casually strike up a conversation with others and exchange ideas. People can bring their worries to the language or assist with their experience others. (op. cit.)
The open meeting space also works as a ‘door-opener’. It both attracts people into the house, and is a place where people can become aware of the activities and services on offer in the mehrgenerationenhäus and locally.
Fostering group life and mutual aid
In common with the British community centre model there is often an emphasis in mehrgenerationenhäuser upon the fostering of group life and mutuality in relationships. Pedagogues look to develop groups, much as within the social group work tradition, with two complementary objectives.
- The development of mutual aid systems – working with people so that all may share in the benefits groups bring.
- Helping the group to attend to, and achieve, their purpose (what they describe as the actualization of purpose) Urania Glassman and Len Kates (1990: 105-18).
In other words, pedagogues have to keep their eyes on the individual and collective goals that the group may or does want to work towards. They also need to intervene in the group where appropriate to help people to clarify and achieve these.
An orientation to mutual aid has long been a significant part of social work and educational practice. We find it within, for example, in youth work (especially around the encouragement of young people to organize things for themselves). Borkman (1999) has helpfully defined mutual aid or mutual help as:
… individuals joining together to assist one another either emotionally, socially, or materially. Mutual aid can be neighbours helping a family rebuild a home destroyed by fire or members of a self-help group listening to one another and providing emotional support.
This orientation is basically concerned with strengthening the ability of people to organize things themselves with little or no direct ‘professional’, commercial or state help. It is an aspect of ‘civil society’ or what Borkman calls the ‘voluntary commons’.
Here I want to highlight the relevance of three particular elements of the approach for other countries and systems:
- The importance of a focus on fostering social capital, association and network building
- A key response to meeting the needs of an ageing population
- The contribution of pedagogical responses to dealing with social issues
The importance of a focus on fostering social capital, association and network building
Central to the approach taken within mehrgenerationenhäuser projects is a recognition that a focus on building local networks, and upon group membership and local organization brings with it considerable social, health and developmental benefits. These benefits have been recognized by researchers for some time now, but they have not been prioritized in policy initiatives or within state funding in many countries. Perhaps the strongest generalized evidence appeared in the re-emergence of interest in social capital in the late 1990s – and in particular in the work of Robert Putnam. He found, for example, that:
- Child development is powerfully shaped by social capital. Trust, networks, and norms of reciprocity within a child’s family, school, peer group, and larger community have far reaching effects on their opportunities and choices, educational achievement, and hence on their behaviour and development (Putnam 2000: 296-306).
- In high social-capital areas public spaces are cleaner, people are friendlier, and the streets are safer. (ibid.: 307-318).
- There appears to be a strong relationship between the possession of social capital and better health. (ibid.: 331). Regular club attendance, volunteering, entertaining, or church attendance is the happiness equivalent of getting a college degree or more than doubling your income. Civic connections rival marriage and affluence as predictors of life happiness (ibid.: 333). (See, also, Wilkinson and Pickett 2009).
More recent commentators like Hemmings (2011) have also highlighted the power of association – people coming together in groups of their own making to organize. However, there is also a significant political interest here that links back to the concerns of early advocates of community centres and community groups. As Mary Parker Follett argued nearly a century ago, local groups and neighbourhood can be developed as a political base for greater democracy (Follett 1918). Such associationalism is based on a simple idea, that, ‘human welfare and liberty are both best served when as many of the affairs of a society as possible are managed by voluntary and democratically self-governing associations’ (Hirst 1993: 112).
A key response to meeting the needs of an ageing population
There is a growing ‘family care gap’ in many countries. In England, as McNeil and Hunter have highlighted, the number of people in need of care ‘is predicted to outstrip the number of family members able to provide it for the first time in 201’ (2014: 7).
Overstretched services will struggle to provide extra care, with two-thirds of all health resources already devoted to older people and social care services facing a funding crisis. Adult children and partners will take on even gr eater caring responsibilities and more people, particularly women who outnumber men as carers by nearly two to one, are likely to have to give up work to do so.(McNeil and Hunter 2014: 3
As a result it is argued that there is a need to change our understanding of social care and to ‘build new community institutions … and adapt the social structures already in place, such as family caring, public services workplaces and neighbourhoods’ (op. cit.: 2).
Part of the change needed to our understanding of social care concerns looking to what older people can offer as well as what they need to live decent lives. As Allen (2008: 37) has commented, ‘Being able to maintain a role within the family and local area and participate in social and community life is seen as important for good emotional well-being’. However, there are many obstacles:
Changes in family formations and a growing number of people living alone are likely to lead to increased numbers of older people feeling isolated and depressed. Poor-quality housing contributes to poor physical and mental health for older people and just over a third of older people live in poor-quality housing. (op. cit.)
Mehrgenerationenhäuser – local multi-generational meeting houses – when combined with a focus on community learning and development, and the particular orientation and skill mix of social pedagogues, offer a direct route into generating change and mutual aid.
The contribution of pedagogical responses to dealing with social issues
The growing interest in mehrgenerationenhäuser has the additional merit of focusing additional attention on the role of pedagogy in working with social issues. Within the UK social pedagogy has attracted some interest – especially amongst those want to improved the experience of looked-after children. There is now a substantial development network and number of exploratory texts have appeared (the best of which is Cameron and Moss 2011). However, the notion of pedagogy remains rather under- or mis-theorized in much English language discussion. This is, in large part, because it became associated with school teaching. To capture its essence pedagogy needs to be explored through the thinking and practice of those educators who look to accompany learners; care for and about them; and bring learning into life. Teaching is just one aspect of their practice. In the UK and to some extent in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, the forms of practice that come closest to social pedagogy can be found in youth work, informal education and community learning and development.
The tradition of community education or community learning and development in Scotland provides an interesting case in point. This is how the Scottish Executive (2003) described it:
Community learning and development is a way of listening and of working with people. We define this as informal learning and social development work with individuals and groups in their communities. The aim of this work is to strengthen communities by improving people’s knowledge, skills and confidence, organisational ability and resources. Community learning and development makes an important contribution towards promoting lifelong learning, social inclusion and active citizenship.
This perspective can be contrasted with those concerned with traditional care and case management on several levels. It is:
- Totally oriented towards learning and change rather than maintenance and containment.
- Pedagogy with a social focus. It is concerned not just with individuals but also with cultivating groups and networks that bring well-being to their members and to communities in general. It looks to strengthen civil society and family and communal relationships.
- Located firmly in the daily life of participants. It takes place for the most part in the communities of which people are a part and in settings that where they have a significant degree of control over what happens.
- Driven by conversation. Agendas are built by participants and do not follow pre-formed checklists. Educators and animateurs accompany participants on their journey.
- Long-term practice. Pedagogues are based in local areas and work with people over a significant period of time to build community institutions and networks.
In short, pedagogical approaches of this kind because they strengthen and open up local networks, and increase participation in groups and local institutions can have a profound impact of local communities. The scale of the contribution such activity can make has been shown by the work done on the benefits of social capital. As Putnam (2000) demonstrated, for example, there appears to be a strong relationship between the possession of social capital and better health. ‘As a rough rule of thumb, if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half. If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss-up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining’ (ibid.: 331).
As has already been noted, much of the English language treatment of mehrgenerationenhäuser is focused on the institution of the house rather than the pedagogical process involved. As Schmidt (2008) has argued there are distinctive pedagogies involved that have a particular worldview and orientation to community. In addition, it is important not to underestimate the sophistication of this approach to educating and animating, and the level of training and development required. Mehrgenerationenhäuser work well where the pedagogy is right.
Many people encountering mehrgenerationenhäuser for the first time will be unfamiliar with continental understandings of social pedagogy. The term ‘social pedagogy’ has been used in countries such as Germany, Holland and Hungary to embrace the activities of youth workers, residential or day care workers (with children or adults), work with offenders, and play and occupational therapists (Galuske 2009). It has also been used to describe aspects of church work and some community development activity. In a few European countries the notion of animation is utilized to cover a similar arena of practice. As an idea sozial pädagogik first started being used around the middle of the nineteenth century in Germany as a way of describing alternatives to the dominant models of schooling. However, by the second half of the twentieth century social pedagogy became increasingly associated with social work and notions of social education in a number of European countries. Within the traditions that emerged there has been a concern with the well-being or happiness of the person, and with what might described as a holistic and educational approach. This has included an interest in social groups – and how they might be worked with.
Some of its practitioners translate it as ‘community education’ others in more social work terms – for example around care. It can be seen as having three key pillars or traditions. A concern with:
- The nature of man and, in particular the extent to which individuals can only develop fully as part of society. Within this tradition of social pedagogy there is an emphasis upon social integration and socialization. This tradition has been described as ‘The Continental tradition’ by Eriksson, and Markström (2003)
- Social conditions and social problems. This tradition of social pedagogy found expression in the work of the university and social settlements in Britain and North America and in the development of social work. Eriksson, and Markström (2003) talk about this as ‘the American tradition’ and by this they are really focusing on social work. Within this element of the tradition there is an emphasis upon working with individuals, casework and providing care. In others there is more of an interest in and lessening the impact of inequalities in society, and dealing with social problems.
- Pedagogy – this tradition of social pedagogy has its roots in the work of educational thinkers and philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and John Dewey. More recently Paulo Freire has been especially influential in terms of helping people to frame their thinking.
As a result there are various debates about the nature of social pedagogy but the subtitle of a book edited by Claire Cameron and Peter Moss ‘Where care and education meet’ (2011) helps to set the scene.
As a starter it may be helpful to bear in mind the following elements. It is:
- A form of pedagogy and as such is rooted in education – and in the philosophy of people like Rousseau and Pestalozzi.
- Holistic in character – as Pestalozzi says, there is concern with head, heart and hand.
- Concerned with fostering sociality
- Based in relationship and care.
- Oriented around group and associational life (in contrast to much social work in the UK). Educators become part of the lifeworld of those involved (Smith 2012).
A fig leaf for the state’s retreat from the care sector?
As Philip Olterman (2014) has reported, some critics say the Mehrgenerationenhäuser programme is just a fig leaf for the state’s retreat from the care sector. The government line is that ‘intergenerational centres were never intended as a replacement for proper social services, but as an attempt to recreate the kind of social networks that have withered away since it has become rare for generations of the same family to live in the same house or even in the same city’ (op. cit.). Any policies pursued at a time of austerity and that directly or indirectly relate to cutbacks in public services are bound to be tarred with the same brush (see, for example, O’Hara 2014) but the point is well worth making – Mehrgenerationenhäuser are a complement not an alternative to state-funded care arrangements. Their particular contribution lies in the way that they contribute to the quality of life of their users, and in the strengthening of informal neighbourly networks.
How mutual is the approach?
There is a particular problem around mutuality given that much of the debate and underpinning for the Mehrgenerationenhäuser programme in Germany was framed around the needs of the growing population of older people. Are mehrgenerationenhäuser truly multi-generational in terms of the benefits or are young people involved, for example, simply to service others?
For these institutions to work over a sustained period of time there needs to be a proper balance between the needs and benefits of the different groups involved in mehrgenerationenhäuser. This involves recognizing that each group requires its own space and programme and seeing that it gets its fair share, and that multi-generational interaction and activity is fully encouraged and facilitated. This inevitably brings us to questions around how houses are run and what voice different groups have within them.
When multigenerational meeting houses are seen as as ‘hubs’
Some representations of mehrgenerationenhäuser have looked to them as ‘hubs’ – as ‘mechanisms for building strong networks of intergenerational mentoring, activities and support in communities’ (4Children 2011: 25). This is a highly problematic way of conceptualizing such facilities as research into the English myplace programme shows (Spence et. al. 2011: 99-100). The issue with the hub model is that in the process of bringing together a range of services in one place the needs of the services tends to overrun the needs of local people and particular neighbourhoods. In other words, it leads to a larger ‘professionalized centre ‘servicing’ a number of neighbourhoods . In the process practice misses out the cultivation of local networks and communities. We can see the problem in the hub metaphor itself. Hubs are useless unless they have spokes and outer rims. Classically when hubs are built in times of austerity funding flows to the centre – and the very things elements they seek to cultivate are destroyed. Multigenerational meeting houses will only work if they are local and relate to a particular neighbourhood or small geographical area.
Mehrgenerationenhäuser – multi-generational meeting houses – are an interesting development of practice. The focus on the needs of older people in some models can miss the point of Mehrgenerationenhäuser – they are multi-generational meeting houses, places where all can meet and hopefully flourish. Furthermore, a focus on the institution of the house can overlook what is distinctive about the approach – the pedagogy involved and the concern with the social.
When thinking about them, it also worth bearing in mind that the process of transferring policy initiatives from one country to another is fraught with difficulties – especially when they are shawn of the local conditions and thinking that sustains them. Here it is worth noting two particular elements that are in play within mehrgenerationenhäuser and that we have discussed here.
First, such houses only make sense when the notion of subsidiarity is brought into play. There needs to be a significant degree of local discretion and decentralization and a proper recognition of the significance of civil society. This has to be balanced by proper state funding for housing, education, income support and care.
Second, attention needs to be given to the character of the pedagogy involved and to the development of a suitably trained workforce of social pedagogues.
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Acknowledgements: The picture – MSG – Jena is by Michael Panse. It was sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) licence. https://www.flickr.com/photos/michael-panse-mdl/9098807245/ Picture: Zu Besuch im Mehrgenerationenhaus in Döhren by Sven-Christian Kindler. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence. https://www.flickr.com/photos/sven_kindler/6940743973
This piece includes some material from another infed article: Smith, M. K. (2009) ‘Social pedagogy’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/social-pedagogy-the-development-of-theory-and-practice/].
How to cite this piece: Smith, M. K. (2014). ‘Mehrgenerationenhäuser – multi-generational meeting houses in Germany’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. www.infed.org/mobi/mehrgenerationenhausen-multigenerational-meeting-houses-animation-care-pedagogy. Retrieved: insert date].
© Mark K Smith 2014
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