“We love good stories about who we are and who we are not,” says social researcher Bobby Duffy, highlighting the seductive appeal of the generational labels we see daily in the media.
Certainly, stories that poke fun at different generations – whether calling them “lazy” or “hyper-sensitive” – tend to grab our attention and cause a bit of amusement.
But as someone who believes in the value of analysing society in terms of generations – an academic pursuit that has engaged some of the world's greatest sociologists and philosophers – Duffy, Professor of Public Policy at King's College London, is worried that “terrible myths, stereotypes and clichés” about the generations are causing unnecessary division and distracting from real world issues.
Take climate change. From media coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking that older people care less about global warming than younger people. But a 2021 UK study by the Policy Institute at King's College London (where Duffy is director) and New Scientist magazine found different generations broadly agreed on the need for action.
So, focussing on differences is potentially “quite dangerous”, Duffy said in a TEDxNewcastle Talk in 2022, “because on things like climate change we need people to come together, but what we are doing instead is artificially dividing them across these generational and age-based lines.”
Similarly, newspapers are prone to whipping up generational conflict over social and cultural issues – with criticisms of the “woke generation” and “social justice warriors” – ignoring the fact that attitudes to issues such as race, immigration, gender equality and identity change with every generation for a wide range of reasons.
For example, had you asked people in mid-1980s Britain whether women should stay at home and men go out to work, he says, 60 per cent of the pre-war generation would have agreed, but only 30 per cent of young adults shared that view. Young people are just more likely to be comfortable with changing social norms because they didn't grow up with the pre-existing ones.
Meanwhile, throughout history older generations have invariably tended to criticise young people – whether it's their behaviour, manners or work ethic. But don't worry, says Duffy: “Generational tension is necessary in order to keep society going. If this were not the case, society would stop moving forward. It is no coincidence that some great thinkers, such as the French philosopher Auguste Comte, placed generational change at the heart of social change. As we get older, we get stuck in our own ideas, while changes in society instead demand new ones.”
What's needed is a deeper understanding of the forces at play in societal change. Duffy identifies three (separate and different) mechanisms.
“Cohort effects” are the ideas, behaviours and beliefs that unite people of a specific generation.
“Period effects” are events that involve and affect everyone: the post-Second-World-War economic boom, for example, the global financial crisis of 2008 or the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as slower trends in fashions and social norms.
“Lifecycle effects” come from the inevitable process of growth and ageing that we all go through as we pass through different stages of life.
Generations are influenced by all of these factors, “yet our analysis usually stops at the cohort effects, giving us a third of the overall picture of each generation,” Duffy points out. This is how those generational stereotypes have developed, fuelled today by a fractious and fragmented media that often exploits the tendency of divisive information to travel further and faster, and ways of living that often limit contacts between old and young – and are exacerbated by the rise of digital communication.
Real societal change
Using that richer framework, it's easy to put some of the generational myths to rest. While there's a digital divide between Baby Boomers (current ages 59 to 77) and Gen Z (current ages 11 to 26), for example, it's no surprise that this results from their relative exposure to technology, rather than any inability on the behalf of Boomers.
Generation X (current ages 43 to 58) grew up in a tougher economic environment than their parents, so calling them “slackers” misses the point.
Meanwhile, Millennials (current ages 27 to 42) may work fewer hours than previous generations, but so do the rest of us. “There is nothing to suggest that they are lazy or uninspired,” Duffy notes, “except the faulty memories of those who are no longer so young.”
Duffy's mission then, in his book The Generation Myth, is to dismiss most generational analysis as a “mix of fake conflicts and an almost astrological approach” while holding on to the bigger picture provided by the generational frame of reference and the insights it reveals.
“When you were born does matter,” he stresses, “and generations do change society.”