Generationalism backs ageism

Stefania Medetti interviewed me for her blog, The Age Buster. She wrote: 

Picasso had a Blue Period and I had a Russian one. For a couple of years, I devoured Russian literature, scavenging for unknown titles when the most famous ones had already found a place on my bookshelf. Russian literature has all the depths that an immense territory can inspire in an artist who, coincidentally, is free from our compulsive need of measuring time. Words fill the page, pushing the boundaries of conscience and experience. I was taken adrift by the subterranean current of these stories, the powerful iconography of the characters, and the existential questions infused in the plots. The opposition between the dramatic breadth and the deep knowledge of the human soul set up a unique space inhabited – for a long season – exclusively by the characters and me.

I would very much need a Tolstoy or a Dostoevsky today to condense in one powerful image the complexity of the relationship between generations, a topic I’m just beginning to frame thanks to conversations like this one with Dr. Jennie Bristow. Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University, and an Associate of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, Dr. Bristow is a commentator on the “new” generational wars and the author of Stop Mugging Grandma: The ‘Generation Wars’ and Why Boomer Blaming Won’t Solve Anything, The Sociology of Generations and Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict.

She introduced me to “generationalism,” a concept that entails the belief that all members of a given generation possess the same specific set of characteristics. This, in turn, separates them from the members of other generations. Basically, it is a concept that by over-simplifying enables rankings and provides ageism with raisons d’être. But there’s more. Before my exchange with Dr. Bristow I hadn’t fully grasped the role of generations in sense-making with reference to the historic events of one’s life. Albeit obvious (now that I have learned about it), it came as a revelation. The history and challenges faced by previous generations pave the way for the generations to come. Basically, the same dynamics that unify a family history can be found, on a bigger scale, amongst the generations. Recognizing the importance of a long-term perspective further makes me question the distance our culture imposes between generations and the theories that pitch one against the other. Grasping the inheritance of the battles fought by those who came before would allow us to tap into their experience to understand our presence in the “arc of history.” We would look for our space inside a chapter, instead of believing it to be the entire book.

What is the sociology of generations and what is its scope?

For sociologists, the concept of generations has a number of different meanings, which are often used together – making this a slippery concept, but one with a large scope. Perhaps most commonly, generation is used to understand family relations – ‘fathers and sons’ or two, three, four generations within a family. Reproduction, as the biological connection between parents and children, relates to the meaning of generation in the natural world, and is the basis of family relations. But families are also socially and culturally constructed – and so in human life, generation also speaks to the meaning we attach to reproduction and family.

Generation is also used to understand where individuals are in the life course, relative to others – for example, older and younger generations. In a wider social sense, generation is used to discuss cohorts, allowing us to consider how social phenomena impact on sections of people around the same age. Cohorts are often defined and discussed by using labels that capture their relationship to historical events. For example, Baby Boomers is a term widely applied to those born between 1946 and 1965, but also refers to this age group being born in the post-war economic boom, and coming of age in the 1960s as its aftermath.

Similarly, ‘Millennials’ is the label often used for young people born between 1981 and 2000, whose growing up is associated with events at the turn of the century. But different dates, or labels, have often been used – so we see that generation, in this sense too, is a social and cultural construction, rather than a ‘hard’ fact. Again, the question here is about the meaning we attach to social events, and the people who lived through them. That is why the sociologist Karl Mannheim, who developed and influential theory of generation in the 1920s, situated his analysis of ‘The Problem of Generations’ within a collection of essays considering the sociology of knowledge.

We tend to take generations for granted, but there are many connected implications. Can you tell us more about them?

The different, but connected, meanings of generation discussed above make it a powerful concept for understanding the social world. It is a way of considering the relationships between the individual, the family, and wider society, and understanding why particular events might have a differential impact on younger and older people. I am particularly interested in the way that the concept of generation allows for an embodied understanding of history: we are all shaped by what happens in the world around us, but might encounter and internalize these events differently depending on where we are in the life course.

However, all these connected implications also make the concept of generation quite difficult to apply with clarity and precision. Age groups are not the same as generations, yet they are often discussed interchangeably. Generation may account for some commonality of experience amongst peer groups, but experience is arguably more powerfully mediated through social divisions such as class, geographical location, ethnicity and gender. So claims made about what entire cohorts are like, or what they think or do, often miss these divisions, and end up being crude generalizations.

You wrote about “generationalism.” What it is and how does it play out in terms of range, consensus, consequences and contradictory character?

Generationalism is the attempt to exaggerate generational characteristics and differences to explain social, cultural, and economic conflicts. For example, in recent years we have heard claims that the Baby Boomers are an affluent and selfish generation, who have taken more than their fair share of social resources and bequeathed to the Millennials a struggling economy and broken political system. Yet the Baby Boomer generation captures a diverse group of people with different fortunes and only a small minority has been in political power.

It makes no sense to blame Boomers, as a generation, for the difficulties facing Millennials when it comes to higher education, limited employment opportunities, or the cost of housing – these are the result of deeper economic problems afflicting the labour and housing markets, and increasingly financialized higher education systems. Pinning the blame on this generation as a whole evades engaging with these deeper problems and the political decisions and tensions that have framed them. Worse, ‘Boomer blaming’ incites resentment against older people, and also invites a backlash against younger people, who then find themselves criticized for being entitled ‘snowflakes’.

As you noted, there is an increasing polarization among today’s generations. In what way is it different from the past?

As history develops, it gives rise to generations with different experiences of life – and this has been true for a long time. Similarly, people’s ideas are framed by where they are in the life course – a young person will come at life differently to a pensioner! But while such generational differences have long been acknowledged, they have rarely been seen as defining people’s outlook in the way that is often assumed today.

For example, the idea that there is a ‘youth perspective’ on politics or social issues assumes that all young people think the same way: that is a massive generationalization, and doesn’t take into account all the other factors that frame young people’s views. Nor does it take into account the way that people’s ideas develop and change in discussion with each other. Generation labels simplify complex differences within generations, and dynamics between them – and this hinders our ability to embrace the relationships between generations and the nuances of each age cohort.

What role does this construction of generations play in the spread of ageism?

Presenting generation as a defining identity polarizes young against old, in a way that I think is incredibly damaging. This artificially constructed conflict is inflamed by the context I discuss below – where societies have developed an uneasy relationship with their past, and tend to emphasize the value of the young and new in a one-sided way. This does contribute to ageism – though we should also be wary of the idea that young people are privileged by this situation as a result. The flattery of younger generations tends to be highly selective: it applies only when they are seen to be saying or doing the ‘right’ kind of things.

In the global response to the Covid-19 crisis, I have been struck by how quickly societies have dismissed their responsibilities to children and young people, by closing schools and detaching them from their peers and communities by locking them down. This does not mean that response to the crisis has privileged old people either; all age groups have suffered from the inhumane consequences of lockdown policies. But it does indicate that we should take the rhetoric of ‘thinking of the children’ with a pinch of salt: when confronted with a crisis, political elites have been quick to deprioritize young people’s needs in favor of promoting society-wide conformity to a particular, and contested, public health strategy.

By paraphrasing the sociologist Karl Mannheim: “The problem of generations is the problem of knowledge: how we, as a society, ensure that the world lives on through those whom we leave behind.” Are we transmitting a language of conflict instead of promoting integration? 

The current narrative of generational conflict reflects a deeper tension around how Western societies think about the past, and transmit their cultural heritage to younger generations. Over the past few decades – really since the 1970s – political and cultural elites have become increasingly uncomfortable with the norms and values associated with the past, and enthralled with ideas about the value of youth and novelty. Society’s ability to embrace change, and the role that younger generations play in the development of new ideas, is vital – Mannheim wrote about that at length. This process is constructive when it is mediated by a relationship between older and younger generations: this is how the tensions and opportunities between past, present, and future can become worked through. But today’s culture tends to place a one-sided emphasis on the problem of the past, which makes it difficult to transmit a positive understanding of what children can learn from their elders. The result is that relations between the generations can become tense and conflictual.

Today, socialization happens through additional agencies, like school and media. Do these agencies contribute to an artificial distance between generations?

Yes, I think they do. Partly this is because of how these institutions intersect with wider trends towards age segregation. For example, the extension and expansion of further and higher education means that young people spend a much longer period of their lives within their peer groups than if they were beginning in the world of work, where they would interact with older colleagues. Audience segmentation within the media means that readers and viewers are more likely to engage with news and entertainment aimed at their particular age group. More importantly, cultural institutions in recent years have tended towards an approach that is critical of the values and norms of the past, and tend to emphasize the superiority of present-day orthodoxies – which can mean flattering the perspective of the young over that of their elders.

I found it very interesting, as you wrote, that the generations express the Zeitgeist and therefore influence the ones who will follow. Is seeing us a part of a longer story a way to promote intergenerational solidarity and, in turn, to question ageism?

Absolutely! The concept of generation derives from our attempt to give meaning to the mediation between past, present, and future, as it is experienced and embodied within people living through history. The tensions between generations are part of that story, but these can generate creativity and deeper understanding. Presenting this story in terms of ‘conflict’ stymies the positive impact of generational renewal, by presuming that generations have a fixed set of opposing interests – that is just not true. Whatever the differences between generations, these are outweighed by what they have in common; and we should strive to learn from each other, rather than fueling the antagonism constructed by the phony ‘generation wars’.

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