Generational Conflict

My principal area of research investigates the development of the New Generation Wars in political and policy discourse. Current debates about generations often have a metaphorical quality. Scratch the surface and we find that these debates tend to be motivated by wider anxieties to do with, for example, social policy and the allocation of resources, such as pensions and healthcare; the role of the family, and the relationship between adults and children in wider society; the relationship between demographic trends and social events; ageing and the role of the elderly; and broader existential questions relating to knowledge and time.

I explore these questions, and their implications for culture and policy, in a number of recent books and articles. My research suggests that the enduring problem of generations remains that of knowledge: how society conceptualises the relationship between past, present and future, and the ways in which this is transmitted by adults to the young. Developments in education, teaching and parenting culture seek to resolve tensions of our present‐day risk society through imposing an artificial distance between the generations. The likely effect of policies designed to reduce the appearance of generational conflict, for example through strategies promoting ‘generational equity’, will be to inflame it.

See reviews of, and interviews about, Stop Mugging Grandma here.

Related publications:

Parenting Culture

As an Associate of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, I have worked with colleagues over the past 14 years on the increasingly fraught and politicised question of childrearing. My research and writing in this area has addressed:

  • Intergenerational contact and the problem of safeguarding
  • Parent-training and ‘expert advice’
  • Childhood, risk, and independence
  • ‘Helicopter parenting’ and ambivalent adulthood
  • Infant feeding
  • Abortion and family planning.

The 2017 ‘Policing Pregnancy’ conference, a collaboration between the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Birthrights, and Engaging Sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University, explored changing ideas about pregnancy, motherhood, responsibility and risk, and the impact of these ideas on women’s experience and professional services. Speakers were drawn from a range of academic disciplines, including Sociology, Anthropology, History, Law, Philosophy, and Social Work, and from Third Sector organisations working with pregnant women. The event was attended by over 100 students, academics, campaigners, and midwives, and attracted coverage across the national and local UK press.

Related publications:

Generational Encounters with Higher Education

From 2017-2019, I led a study of the academic-student relationship and the meaning of the university experience, funded by a BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grant. Through a detailed analysis of policy documents and media accounts, and interviews with students and academics, this study compares student and academic accounts of the university experience with the dominant discourse of the ‘student consumer’. Principal research questions explore:

  • Experiences of the difference in school and university from an educational perspective;
  • How the consumer context of higher education frames the relationship between academic and student;
  • The role of university in the transition to adulthood, including social and emotional pressures;
  • Generational differences in the overall university experience.

A book based on this study, Generational Encounters with Higher Education by Jennie Bristow, Sarah Cant and Anwesa Chatterjee, was published by Bristol University Press in March 2020.

Generations Network

With University of Surrey Research Fellow Helen Kingstone, I was awarded a Wellcome Trust Small Grant in the Humanities and Social Sciences, running from October 2019 until June 2021. The award provided funding to develop an interdisciplinary network of academics and Third Sector organisations actively working with ‘generation’, to map how this concept can best be used, and to improve understanding of the relationship between generations, wellbeing, and public policy.

The network aimed to transform the ways that generation is discussed among scholars (where there is currently little dialogue between disciplinary fields that are using the concept in parallel but separate and contradictory ways), and between academics and policy-facing organisations. It further aimed to transform the way that ‘generation’ is used in media and public policy discussions, promoting a more nuanced and constructive understanding. To this end, we held a series of sequential workshops:

  • Generations in the family and the problem of ‘parenting’.
    University of Surrey, January 2020.
  • Generational identities and the problem of ‘presentism’.
    Online, 1 April 2020.
  • Intergenerational relationships.
    Online, 24 June 2020.
  • Generational identities and historical events.
    Online, 10 September 2020.
  • ‘Generationalism’ and the problem of social policy.
    Online, 14 January 2021.
    Read our briefing paper, ‘Talking about generations: 5 questions to ask yourself‘.
  • Consultation workshop with policy-makers and third-sector representatives.
    Online, 24 February 2021.

An edited collection based on this work, Studying Generations: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, was published by Bristol University Press in 2024, and is available Open Access. See here for more about the generations network workshop series.