The generation wars

‘I can’t wait to read it because it’s going to be sick and I’m in it, and then I can give it to my mum so she can stop fucking asking me what I’m thinking all the time.’ So said Kurt, 16, to the journalist Chloe Combi about her new book, Generation Z: Their Voices, Their Lives. Generation Z, explains Combi, were born between 1995 and 2001. They have ‘never known a world without the internet’ and have ‘grown up with violence and porn at their fingertips via an object unknown just one generation before: a smartphone’; they are, also, ‘growing up in a world shadowed with economic uncertainty, shrinking job prospects, widening social inequality and political apathy’.

They are much discussed, fretted about, and caricatured. But who – or what – is Generation Z, really?

In the course of writing her book, Combi was often asked how she would label this generation – the teens and young adults of today. ‘Are they the Internet Generation, the Sex-Mad Generation, the Social-Media Generation, the Celebrity-Obsessed Generation or the Not-Much-To-See-Here Generation?’, she asks. ‘Technology, the media, sex, celebrity and apathy are certainly features of this generation. But there is so much more to Generation Z.’

Demonstrating this point, Combi interviewed dozens of young people from across the UK, ranging from those whose lives are painfully distressing and chaotic, to others whose lives ‘are so achingly normal that they worry if it rains too much’. ‘There was a temptation to string together all the most shocking and affecting vignettes, but this would have been disingenuous’, she writes. ‘The mundane is as much a feature of being a teenager as the fantastic.’

In consequence, the big strength of Combi’s book is its absence of analysis. Sure, the teenagers’ voices are edited into short snippets, arranged under particular themes – family, relationships, sex, school, technology, class and so on – editorialisation by the back door, if you like. But because we hear from kids with many different outlooks and experiences, Combi’s book spares us the sanctimonious generalisations usually associated with writing about ‘generations’.

Even the final chapter, ominously headed ‘Looking to the Future and Advice for the Next Generation’, is not completely dominated by worthy exhortations to work hard at school, plan for the future, take up sports and learn foreign languages. ‘I have nothing to offer but don’t use fake tan’, says Maggie, 17. ‘It lowers your IQ and makes you look like an Oompa Loompa.’ ‘This probably counts for boys and girls, but especially boys: don’t let anyone with braces give you head’, advises Oshane, 18.

The problem of generationalism

In opting not to play the label game, Combi has provided a badly needed corrective to the overstated claims about generational conflicts and differences that have become a prominent feature of policy and media debates today. In discussions about everything from pensions and housing to education and mental health, we are presented with claims about the ‘Baby Boomer generation’, ‘Generation X’, ‘the Millennials’ and now ‘Generation Z’, which seek to distil the experiences of a wide range of individuals, all of whom happened to be born in a particular historical moment, into a uniform outlook, and which also exaggerate the differences between the generations.

These debates feed into a wider discourse of generationalism, in which social and political trends and tensions are systematically presented and diagnosed with reference to the concept of generation. In recent years, this concept has become increasingly used as a way, not merely of characterising people who grew up in different eras, but of explaining an expanding range of wider social problems. Thus, as I have argued on spiked, politicians, policymakers and commentators have become increasingly comfortable with using the language of generations to explain such diverse problems as spiralling house prices (the Baby Boomers bought all the housing); badly behaved children (parents don’t know how to raise them); and problems with the education system (young people today think and learn in a different way to previous generations of children – with iPads!).


These problems are not, strictly speaking, generational issues at all. They are the product of wider economic, social and cultural shifts, which in more political times would have been thought about in terms of the values our society wants to promote, or the kind of policies that should be developed. Presenting them as ‘generational’ issues implies that there is a clear and significant gap between the experiences and expectations of different generations: that society is fragmented along generational lines. It also implies that this presumed gap between the generations is problematic, and that policymakers can and should intervene to address it.

The narrative of ‘Boomer-blaming’, which has been peddled by politicians and commentators from across the political spectrum, seeks a pat explanation for complex social problems, and personalises them in a way that can only incite resentment between the generations. Thus, former higher education minister David Willetts, author of The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back, argues that, because of the Baby Boomers’ size and the selfishness of their behaviour, ‘young people are stuck outside, their noses are pressed to the window, unable to get on the housing ladder, into a well-paid job or to build up a pension’.

The more left-leaning Francis Beckett, author of What Did The Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?complains that ‘six decades after its birth, the welfare state is in the worst danger it has known’, because of the selfishness of the Boomers: ‘We created a far harsher world for our children to grow up in. It was as though we decided that the freedom and lack of worry that we had inherited was too good for our children, and we pulled up the ladder we had climbed.’

For the British Millennial writers Ed Howker and Shiv Malik, ‘the children of the Baby Boomers, the so-called “Boomer echo”’ – a demographic ‘lump’ that ‘begins in 1979 and continues until 1994’ – is a generation that has been ‘jilted’ out of its rightful future. The American Millennial writer Anya Kamenetz sums up the plight facing ‘Generation Debt’ in the subtitle: ‘How our future was sold out for student loans, bad jobs, no benefits, and tax cuts for rich geezers – and how to fight back’.

Politicising relations between the generations is a destructive pursuit. It encourages people to conceptualise social problems in personal terms: in the case of Boomer-blaming, placing the problems of the world squarely at their parents’ door, and castigating ‘the old’ for standing in the way of ‘the new’. It presents a rigid view of history, in which a younger generation is simply waiting in the wings for its chance to move up ‘the ladder’ – as though life was ever as straightforward and as neatly organised as that.

Generationalism also has an expansionary logic, which means that it is not limited to the critique of one particular generation. In a discourse that presents the problems of the young as the result of the failure of the old to share their wealth, time is a great leveller – give it a few years and today’s ‘young’ will be in the hot-seat, too. Not to mention the backlash: for every article whinging about the myriad ways in which the Millennials have been diddled out of their future by their grasping Boomer parents, there now seems to be another bemoaning the selfish sense of entitlement exhibited by the Millennials, their lack of resilience, and their reluctance to grow up.

But does this mean that we should not be talking about generations at all? No. Properly understood, the concept of generation is a powerful one, which can help to explain how and why people born at different historical moments might work up their experiences in different ways. Understanding the relationship between generations can also take some of the heat out of feverish worries about intergenerational conflict today.

What’s important about generations?

Generations are often discussed as distinct and polarised categories – the ‘older generation’ versus the ‘younger generation’, and so on. But the study of generations is really the study of a series of interactions, all of which occur at once. It involves relations between individual and family, between biology and society, between culture, social structures and historical events; it is shaped by time and place, and given meaning through the context in which it occurs. The concept of generation has been redefined throughout history, and its meaning remains continually contested.

Almost one hundred years ago, the sociologist Karl Mannheim sought to make sense of ‘the problem of generations’ in a way that embraced the very difficulties involved in the study of generations. Their sociological significance, contended Mannheim, could not be comprehended through a focus either on their quantitative existence or their qualitative experience: the sociology of generations is neither a question of numbers, nor the introspective study of everyday life. What matters is the interaction between ‘new participants in the cultural process’, and the society in which these participants are born, develop and, in turn, transform. In this respect, 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.

In this sense, generations are defined neither in the narrow cohort sense (a group of people born around the same time), nor by the more individualised ‘life course’ approach. Rather, following Mannheim, they are defined as historical, or social, generations, whose self-definition is forged by the circumstances in which they come of age. As such, we see the problem of generations as a problem of knowledge – how society’s accumulated cultural heritage is transmitted from generation to generation at a time when the status both of knowledge itself, and those charged with passing it on, is in question.

Mannheim presented the ‘problem of generations’ as a dynamic interaction between cohorts of individuals, the tempo of wider social change and cultural moments (the Zeitgeist). Dislocation and disorientation provide the basis for an emergent generational consciousness; a distinctive interpretation of the Zeitgeist borne out of the experience of coming of age in a time that is, in Hamlet’s terms, out of joint.

So, for example, the ‘Generation of 1914’ was forged by the turbulence of the early 20th century and a traumatic and world-changing war, in which the expectations and experiences of the younger and older generations came starkly into contrast. The Baby Boomers came of age during the social, cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s, and became emblematic of that brash, permissive culture, with their fashion, music and activism. In this sense, the clash of wider social forces can lead to a distinct generational identity. Knowledge stands in question; time seems to shift on its axis. As the historian Arthur Marwick said of the 1960s, ‘I cannot improve upon these two clichés: there has been nothing quite like it; nothing would ever be quite the same again’.

In explaining the way that history could give rise to a distinctive generational consciousness, Mannheim argued that ‘youth experiencing the same concrete historical problems may be said to be part of the same actual generation’. However, those groups within an actual generation, ‘which work up their experiences in different specific ways, constitute separate generation units’. This has proved a powerful insight within the sociology of generations, since it explains how a cohort can experience the same wider events, but develop a different relationship with them. What defines that generation is not the common experience of all of its members, but the way that a particular ‘generation unit’ has most clearly expressed and shaped the Zeitgeist.

So, for example, the fact that the 1960s generation is culturally associated with hippies, the New Left, radical art, adventurous music, loud clothes and long hair does not express the way that all young people lived at that time. Rather, the relatively small group of young people who were involved in the counterculture and student-protest movement came to personify the spirit of the 1960s, and to identify with that moment as their own.

When it comes to making sense of generations, then, we are making sense of moments of history, and the people who are shaped by, and will shape, those moments. It is not a narrow understanding of ‘youth’, because younger people are shaped in their relations with other generations. (It has been argued, for example, that the ‘permissive’ parenting style associated with the Baby Boomers is itself a consequence of the relatively child-centred way in which they themselves were raised, by parents who had lived through the upheavals of war and were struggling to make sense of the changing rules brought by a fragile peace.)

A generational analysis is about knowledge – the relationship between past, present and future; the knowledge that endures and how it is re-made by those who encounter the wisdom of the past for the first time, shape it and make it their own. This brings us back to the question of how generations are defined, and how we might make sense of Generation Z.

Labelling generations

The familiar labels attached to various generations – Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials – are bandied around all the time, despite a marked lack of precision about what these labels actually mean. The dates attached to the cohorts represented by these labels vary quite widely. For example, the Baby Boomers in Britain are defined, variously, as those born between 1945 and 1955, and those born between 1945 and 1965.  Wikipedia says of the Millennials (also known as Generation Y), that ‘there are no precise dates for when the generation starts and ends; most researchers and commentators use birth years ranging from the early 1980s to around 2000’; while Generation Z is ‘most commonly defined with birth years starting in the mid-1990s, although the early or late 1990s and early 2000s have also been used as starting birth years for this generation’.

There is an ongoing attempt to find new labels for generations: the ‘me generation’ for the Millennials; the digital generation, or i-Gen, for Generation Z. And, of course, everybody wants to be the first to note the emergence of a new generation on the scene, with the implication that something has really changed. This is not a new game: back in 1960, Bennett M Berger mused that ‘from a “Victorian age” spanning about 60 years, we seem to have reached a point where a change in Zeitgeist may be expected at approximately 10-year intervals’.

Given the amount of self-serving nonsense that is involved in labelling generations, there is a temptation not to take it seriously at all – at least until the passage of time has shown that there was, indeed, something distinct about the generation being labelled. But while we should certainly take the labels with a pinch of salt, they do tell us something about how we make sense of the world we live in now.

So, following Mannheim, we can understand how the Boomers, as the 1960s generation, came to develop a distinctive sense of themselves, and in turn shape the Zeitgeist they came to express. But the generation that followed the Boomers – popularly known as Generation X, based on the novel by Canadian writer Douglas Coupland – was defined, if anything, by the absence of agency. This was the ‘slacker’ generation, born and raised during the end of class politics, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the disgrace of the 1980s, when it soon became apparent that a self-confident narrative of the free market was also on the wane.

Indeed, as we examine the generations coming of age in the more recent past, what is most striking is the way in which labels are globally searched for and applied, in advance of – or in place of – generational self-definition. The label of Generation X stuck, in part, because it chimed with the now-notorious cultural and political passivity of the lost, drifting generation born in the shadow of the Boomers. The trundle towards the end of the alphabet – Generation Y, Generation Z – conveys a wider sensibility of the end of history. With characteristic wit and perspicacity, one of Coupland’s recent novels is titled Generation A, and imagines a world in the near future, ‘where bees are extinct, until five unconnected people around the world – in the US, Canada, France, New Zealand, and Sri Lanka – are all stung. Their shared experience unites them in ways they never could have imagined.’

One paradox, therefore, of the heightened focus on generations in the present day is that it represents a search for a new narrative, rather than a response to a distinctly new generational consciousness. Generations are seen to be brought together by accident (a bee sting) rather than action. Generational labels tend to be applied globally, often with little regard for cultural and experiential differences, and politicised by claimsmakers to further their arguments for ‘intergenerational justice’ – a seedy mission that seems to rely primarily on calls to redistribute wealth from the old to the young.

Generations and the problem of knowledge

The irony is that this focus on the importance of generational experience and difference evades the deeper questions, and downplays the extent to which younger generations are capable of engaging with them. For example, Howker and Malik’s Jilted Generation makes an interesting critique of the short-termism endemic in current political and economic thinking. What is ultimately at stake, they argue, is ‘the mechanism by which our society considers the past and future – our relationship with time’: ‘We believe that this relationship is dysfunctional, not because of “the Boomers” or because of the inherent nature of “capitalism” but because of a way of thinking that has grown to dominate our public discourse and our conception of ourselves.’

Many of the Millennial ‘whingers’ that self-identify as part of the ‘jilted generation’ are often making quite reasonable arguments regarding the problem of the spiralling cost of housing; or the overheated credentialism required to obtain relatively insecure jobs; or the impact of rising university tuition fees coupled with an increasing sense that higher-education is compulsory, and a decreasing sense of why it is worthwhile; or the difficulty of making adult commitments – to partners, or to having children – in a cultural context where these commitments are seen as problematic.

When Millennials demand better for themselves, it does not seem quite fair to dismiss them as merely ‘entitled’. At the root of these demands is, quite often, an understandable frustration with their own condition and an aspiration for a better, more meaningful life. Unfortunately, because these arguments are played out in the language of the jilted generation, they cannot progress beyond the childish demand that members of the older generations should do more to help them.

The attempt to explain the Millennials’ plight by pitching them against an imaginary Golden Age experienced by the Boomers also fails to engage with the more complex social and cultural factors that drive what is often described as Millenials’ ‘failure to launch’. For example, the BBC reported earlier this year that, ‘for the first time, in US records going back to the 1880s, people aged between 18 and 34 are more likely to be living with their parents than being married or co-habiting with a partner’. This trend has also been developing in the UK for some time, with more than 25 per cent of young people (defined as 20- to 34-year-olds) living at home with their parents.

Within a narrative of generationalism, these statistics are usually explained as a direct consequence of rising house prices. But the cost of housing alone cannot explain, for example, why young people seem to be leaving it later to form long-term, intimate partnerships, or why the creature comforts of living with one’s parents are now seen to trump, so decisively, the value of mobility, independence and beginning a family of one’s own.  These are much wider existential questions, which cannot be neatly answered either by the argument that the Boomers have taken all the housing or the assertion that Millennials are pathetic and crap.

Generationalism has become a way of truncating the question of knowledge, which lies at the heart of the generational transaction. That young people should work up their experiences of living in a short-termist, risk-averse culture in a particular way is exactly what we would expect. But when their critiques are fed back into a loop of one-sided parent-blaming, any attempt to figure out new solutions to genuinely new problems is stopped in its tracks.

The obsession with labelling generations gets in the way of understanding the significance of the relationship between generations, and important differences within generations. For example, it may well be the case that the contemporary Zeitgeist is best expressed by the parent-blaming Millennial and the radical jihadist – two deeply unappealing character types, who, in their different ways, set their faces against the ‘older generation’. But these generation units are not representative of the whole of the youth of today.

The implicit assumption that every young person can be explained as a mere product of their times leads to a fatalism among their elders: a sense that there is nothing we can do to shape young people’s ideas in a more positive direction. But generational identity is far less stable and rigid than the labels suggest, and for the majority of young people, the conversation between the generations remains as possible and important as ever. Engaging in a slanging match of ‘selfish Boomer’ versus ‘spoilt brat Millennial’ will get nobody very far, and cut all of those for whom life is more nuanced and interesting out of the debate.

A conversation between generations

So what, then, of Generation Z? If we even accept the label, this is a generation that is barely old enough to have a genuine sense of its role in the world. Yet already there is an attempt to determine its outcome – as a generation that has worse mental health than any before it; a generation condemned to a miserable and unstable life under austerity; a generation that exists at least half the time on the internet, where older generations cannot reach and have nothing to offer.

Commentators trying to make sense of today are scripting the end of the story for a bunch of kids who, as Combi indicates, are, at the moment, every bit as diverse and normal, miserable and happy, conformist and rebellious, sociable and introverted, as kids have been at any time in history. To the extent that discussions about Generation Z can tell us what (older) people are worried about in the here and now, they are interesting. Beyond that, we could do worse than to ‘stop fucking asking’ the kids what they are thinking all of the time, and just talk to them. If we continue the generational conversation, they will take some of our knowledge and experience on board, reject some of it, and interpret some of it in their own distinctive way. This is how the future gets written.

First published by spiked, 10 July 2016.

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