Behind the myths about the Generation Wars

One of the greatest myths of the 21st century is the idea that we are living through an era of generational conflict. Thanks to a clash of values between old and young, and the pinch on social and economic resources caused by an increasingly ageing population, the conventional narrative holds that, in the West at least, we’re on the brink of generational war.

The only problem is, as Bobby Duffy argues in his new book, it’s simply not true. Duffy’s research shows that on key social issues such as climate change, the attitudes of younger and older people in the UK are fairly well-aligned. When you analyse the data, as he has, it turns out that people don’t fit the generational stereotypes that have been assigned to them.

For example, when it comes to ideas about gender roles, attitudes have changed across every generation. Back in 1983, the view that a woman’s place was in the home was shared by four in ten British people; by 2018, fewer than one in ten held this view. It is not generational identity that determines such attitudes, but changes in the wider social and cultural context that frame them.

This will not surprise researchers who have spent years investigating the existence of generational conflict in the UK and US, only to find the evidence elusive. Policies designed to promote “intergenerational equity” in public spending are largely top-down constructions designed to justify the rationing of welfare resources. Meanwhile, even studies of generational differences, with regard to attitudes or behaviours, tend to be far more nuanced than newspaper headlines about “Millennials” or “Gen Z” imply.

With all the nonsense talked about generations, it’s tempting to dismiss the “tired stereotypes” that Duffy rightly criticises. But that would ignore why they retain both an appeal and some value in making sense of the times we live in.

Generations have long operated as “concepts of existence” that help us to understand ourselves in relation to the world. Laura L. Nash, writing in 1978, traced generational thought back to its Greek origins, where it was as a relative concept marking “allegiance, time of life, span of years, sameness with one group and otherness from the rest”.

From around the late 18th century, economic and political modernisation encouraged Europeans to regard themselves as part of history; both as a product of the times in which they were born and having a role to play in shaping their historical moment. Being part of the “younger” or “older” generation became symbolically attached to wider ideas about progress, the future and the past — with conflict between the “old” and “new” sometimes expressed in generational terms. By the mid-19th century, Ivan Turgenev used Fathers and Sons to depict the social changes sweeping across Russia as a clash between the conventions of the past and aspirations for the future, personified in members of the older and younger generations.

Generations, then, have a strongly cultural dimension — and, as a result, can influence the way we think about the world around us. This was the central argument presented by the sociologist Karl Mannheim in the Twenties, whose influential essay The Problem of Generations drew on philosophical, historical and sociological thought to understand the impact of wider social events on the development of consciousness.

Mannheim’s theory of “social generations” was based on the understanding that periods of accelerated social change could provoke a distinct kind of consciousness within those coming of age during that time, born out of their “fresh contact” with the “accumulated cultural heritage”. Following this approach, we can see how some of the “generation labels” used today capture a shift between old and new worlds, precipitated by significant historical events.

From the “Generation of 1914”, symbolically associated with the trauma of the First World War, to the “Baby Boomers”, apparently embodying the cultural upheavals of the Sixties, a certain section of youth came to symbolise the Zeitgeist. This didn’t mean, of course, that they represented their entire birth cohort, whose experience was more profoundly framed by class, ethnicity, and where they grew up. War poets and hippies spoke to a moment in time, not a personality type.

Over the past decade, however, wild stereotyping about “selfish” Boomers and “entitled” Millennials abounds, alongside a crude determinism that casts the so-called “Covid generation” as forever victimised by the pandemic. Imagined in this way, generations become mere ciphers for wider cultural attitudes and prejudices that our society is grappling with. This is a problem, both for our understanding of generations as “concepts of existence”, and our perception of the people forced into such boxes by their birthdate.

Mannheim would have been horrified by the crass way in which “social generations” have become weaponised. While he theorised a relationship between wider social events and generational consciousness, he rejected the idea that generations were mere products of their time. Generational consciousness is a dynamic process, whereby “new participants” encounter the cultural heritage and shape it in their own way. The transmission of the past, through older generations embodying that heritage, was crucial for the development and renewal of society.

For generations aren’t only abstract concepts — they are embodied in people. These people are our parents, children, teachers, colleagues and fellow citizens; people upon whom we rely for understanding our world and making our own place in it, and depend for love, care, and solidarity. Research such as Duffy’s is a valuable reminder of why evidence of generational conflict is hard to find: people don’t see themselves as representatives of a particular perspective, but as individuals with their own views and experiences; they don’t regard their elders or youngers as a threat but as a relationship to be nurtured, with clashes of opinion forming part of that human experience.

Mannheim understood this when he spoke of the importance of social renewal through the “continuous emergence of new participants in the cultural process”. The continuity of generational transmission — that one dies, and is born, every minute — reduces the level of friction that might otherwise result from having to induct a whole group of people into the cultural process all at once.

The dynamic nature of this interaction, in which young and old continually learn from each other, allows society, as a whole, to retain the “elasticity of mind” that would ossify if we weren’t continually having to engage in a process of “social remembering”. Although times of accelerated change do provoke tensions, it is the conversation between the generations that allows us to weather the storm; retaining our historical memory while adapting to new events and understandings.

The upheaval provoked by the Covid-19 pandemic has made this conversation more important than ever. As we emerge from the shock, we may well see a particular kind of generational consciousness emerge, as young people begin to process and express the meaning of the “new normal” in a way that is quite different from those of us who came of age in different times.

The experience of being able to take nothing for granted — from being able to see your friends to sitting the career-defining exams you have spent years working towards — has occurred at a formative phase of life for them. What many of us may have experienced as just a few weeks or months of boredom, before resuming the pattern of our lives, meant something quite different to children for whom established rites of passage were simply stripped away, and cannot be revisited.

Perhaps most significant, the effective collapse of educational assessment has brought pre-existing anxieties about the value of knowledge starkly to the fore. Put bluntly: if a cohort that has received less education than a previous one gains better grades as a result, what value do we attach to the accumulated cultural heritage in the first place? If the rules of life can so swiftly be rewritten because of an “unprecedented” situation, what do we expect our children to learn from history?

These are uncomfortable questions, to which there are no easy answers. Nobody can predict the form that a new generational consciousness may take. But we can at least take seriously our role in social remembering: ensuring that the younger generation have more to work with than a blank slate. That means, first and foremost, reckoning with our responsibility to educate young people about the past, and entering into a genuinely open discussion about what we have learned from the hiatus of the past couple of years.

Most of the discussion about the problem of education during the pandemic has focused on the failure of schools and universities to take responsibility for keeping the lessons going. But there is a far deeper issue, to do with our defensiveness, as adults, about the norms and values that we grew up with ourselves, and what we want to transmit to our children. The risk is that, in attempting to move on from the pandemic, we will deceive ourselves that we have little of worth to say to youngsters whose experience has been so novel and distinct.

But like every generation before them, today’s young need to understand the world as it was, before they can make it into the world they want it to be. They cannot do that on their own. That is why the conceit that generations exist in separate, polarised boxes is such a problem. It denies young people access to the tools used by those before them to made sense of their lives, and the resulting sense of mutual incomprehension makes conflict more likely.

It is fashionable to argue that our responsibility to the young requires greater thinking about the future — but it requires an equal commitment to the knowledge we have gained from the past.

First published on UnHerd

I was also quoted in The Times on 1 September on the question of generational conflict and lockdown. 

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