Respect your elders? Why the generation wars feel worse than ever

I am cited in this perceptive article by Isabelle Aron in The Independent, 26 March 2021: 

“They think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it.” No, these are not the words of a disapproving baby boomer bemoaning snowflake millennials on social media or breakfast television, but a quote from ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle complaining about young people BC. Cross-generational conflict is an issue as old as time.

While the concept of “generation wars” might not be new, conflicts between different age cohorts do seem – at least on the surface – to have intensified in recent years. In summer 2020, Gen Z took to TikTok to mock millennials’ apparent obsession with Harry Potter, coffee, using the word “doggo” and describing adulthood as “adulting”. Then they came for millennial’s side partings, skinny jeans and the crying laughter emoji.

The battle lines aren’t just drawn here. Before the arrival of Gen Z, millennials’ primary adversary was the baby boomers. Who could forget the Australian real estate mogul (and every subsequent news columnist) who told millennials that the reason they couldn’t buy a house was because they were spending all their money on avocado toast?

And millennials aren’t just blameless victims sandwiched by dislike from above and below, the now ubiquitous “OK, boomer” emerged as a millennial way to dismiss baby boomers’ criticisms. The term was even used by a 25-year-old MP in New Zealand to shut down an older heckler in Parliament. The phrase is said to “symbolise the advent of a generational war in society”.

The Pew Research Centre defines the generational divides as follows: the silent generation (1928-1945), baby boomers (1946-1964), generation X (1965-1980), millennials (1981-1996) and generation Z (1997-2012). Of course, categorising people can be problematic in itself. Clearly a 23-year-old Gen Z-er will have a very different experience of the pandemic, for example, compared with a nine-year-old child who also falls into Gen Z.

This nuance is something that Eliza Filby, a historian who specialises in generations, is conscious of remembering. “As a historian, I’m trying to understand [society] through the prism of age,” she says. “But these cohorts are arbitrary. They describe some people but not others. It’s about teasing out the nuances of those categories.” Filby, who describes herself as an “old millennial” and a “bridger” (someone who bridges millennials and Gen X), says that “generations are a bit like horoscopes – they’re generalisations”.

Generations are a bit like horoscopes – they’re generalisations

Despite obviously not being a totally watertight metric, it is undeniable that generational divides are reflected in responses to real-world issues and in cultural conversations. Unsurprisingly, two of the biggest issues to affect modern society – Brexit and the pandemic – are frequent sources of generational conflict. While older people are more vulnerable to Covid in terms of their health (the latest ONS stats show that even though more young people have been infected, hospital admissions and deaths are highest among those aged over 65), research from Ipsos MORI suggests that younger people have struggled more economically.

A survey in April last year found that 35 per cent of Gen Z were worried about whether they would still have a job in a month’s time and 30 per cent were worried about paying bills, compared to eight and 10 percent of baby boomers, respectively. These tensions along generational lines also surfaced in the 2016 Brexit referendum, too – 75 per cent of 18-24-year-olds voted to remain, while 66 per cent of those aged 65-74 voted to leave. Lib Dem Vince Cable told a reporter: “The older generation shafted the young.”

And something about these descriptors clearly sticks in the public consciousness. An Ipsos MORI poll in 2019 asked Brits to describe different generations using a predetermined list of phrases and words. It found the top three terms associated with baby boomers were “respectful”, “community-orientated” and “well-off financially”. For millennials it was: “tech-savvy”, “materialistic” and “ambitious” and for gen z: “tech-savvy”, “materialistic” and “selfish”.

Historically, Jennie Bristow, a senior lecturer in sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University, who has written several books about generations, says age labels are often derived from key events that mark coming of age for certain groups and define the way they interpret the world. She points to the work of Karl Mannheim, a sociologist who wrote an essay in 1928 called “The problem with generations”. “He looked at why you get inter-generational clashes. His argument was that historically, you get periods where the world suddenly seems to change,” she explains, that this creates a rupture between old and new.

Bristow says events such as the second world war, 9/11 and the pandemic become “key moments’’ for those people that their worldview is shaped around. “They have an understanding of the social shift [during these times of upheaval] and it becomes part of their consciousness – this is what forges this idea of particular generations.”

People turned on millennials in the same way, ‘as they got older and less cuddly and less sympathetic’.

As these groups grow older, our negative or positive perception does change. Bristow says that often we hail the younger generations in a positive way before a backlash emerges as they get older.  For example, she says at the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, there was a perception that “the boomers are going to rescue us” – they had rallied against the more conservative norms of their own parents in the 1960s and 70s – and “then by 2010, you get this massive backlash saying: they really messed it up.” She says people turned on millennials in the same way, “as they got older and less cuddly and less sympathetic”.

Of course it seems totally understandable that shifting priorities are naturally forged in the fires of change – for example, younger people became ever more vocal about the climate crisis as their futures are more interwoven with its impacts. But Filby says there are other manufactured reasons why, saying “[generational categories were] invented by the ad industry to segment their advertising audience”.

Regardless of the reasons behind it, whether social or economic, why do there seem to be ever greater hostilities between these groups – especially when people’s social networks are unlikely to exclusively exist within one? Families are, by definition, spread across these lines.

Filby says one of the biggest catalysts in the increasing divide between groups is the economic disparity we see today between the older and younger generations – millennials who witnessed a huge increase in higher education costs, entered the workforce during a historic recession, and live with a ever-closed housing market (one in four millennials have given up on buying altogether). “There’s a huge overriding factor of economic disparity,” says Filby. “That’s largely to do with boomers and the rest of us – because boomers are the exception, not the rule.”

Filby says that baby boomers are described as “a pig in a python”, referring to their large post-war population bulge, becoming a dominant demographic. “When baby boomers were young, society’s money was geared towards babies. When baby boomers were students, society’s culture and money was geared towards students. When baby boomers were buying houses, guess what? Society, politics and economics were geared towards buying houses”.

As well as resentment breeding over economic issues, Filby attributes the current particular intensity of generation wars to social media and technology. She says social media has “heightened division between the young and old” which has always been there but “feels more exacerbated and intensified”. She adds that “the impact that technology has on people’s behaviour”.

Matt Schimkowitz, senior editor at Know Your Meme agrees that the generation wars “would exist regardless of the internet”, but says the internet plays a role in terms of how and why people engage. He says that in the past, these kinds of conversations would be driven solely by mainstream media but now anyone can chime in. “If you catch the algorithm at just the right time, you can be the generational warmonger,” he says. “The internet will reward your usage of these polarising topics on Tik Tok…I’m sure this is what spurred on the millennial versus Gen Z ‘wars’. They’re very popular, so if you post about them, you will see your engagement numbers rise.”

As a millennial, Schimkowitz says he wasn’t actually offended by the videos. “They were nailing the stereotypes. I was appreciating the ribbing we were getting because that’s kind of the game – the younger generation replaces the older.” In fact, what he objected to was when millennials responded with their own Tik Tok videos and memes trying to defend their generation. “That felt a little OK, boomer-ish to me,” he says.

The thing with social media, particularly at a time of intense isolation, is it becomes the way that people constitute their identity

It’s likely that people being stuck at home during the pandemic and spending more time on social media has fueled this too. “The thing with social media, particularly at a time of intense isolation, is it becomes the way that people constitute their identity and try and seek meaning,” says Bristow. “So all the stuff that’s already there within the culture wars – the echo chambers, the fighting and search for validation – all of that becomes more intense.”

Is there a solution? “I would say the answer is getting rid of social media,” says Schimkowitz. “But that’s not going to happen.” In the absence of obliterating online culture wars completely, he thinks the answer lies in “better moderation from the companies that own these platforms” and “you have to allow people to opt in and out of that kind of level of engagement”.

Although it is the natural order of things to think your elders become out of touch, knowing less than your generation about the world and how it really works, each generation is certainly not the first nor the last to feel this way. But in the face of increasingly disparate economic and political weight – more Boomers voted to leave the EU and for the Conservative government (in the 2019 majority in the over 60s two thirds voted Tory versus around 20 per cent in the under 30s) – and a technological revolution, we’re seeing the chasms laid out clearer than ever.


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