Media narratives suggest that we are in the middle of a generational war: Baby Boomers are selfish sociopaths who are steeling the future of younger generations and Millennials are narcissistic ‘WOKE’ obsessed snowflakes.
For example, at the end end of 2019 Great Thunberg was named Time magazine’s person of the year, with the magazine calling her a ‘standard bearer in a generational battle’, but this characterisation of there being a ‘battle’ between the generations around climate change isn’t born out by the statistics: old people are just as likely to be concerned about the environment as young people.
However, while there is a growing separation between the young and the old, with resentments mainly concerning economic, housing and health inequalities, the generations share more in common than you might think and there is still a decent degree of intergenerational goodwill.
This goodwill was demonstrated during the response of the younger generations to the Covid Pandemic: the vast majority obeyed lockdown rules to protect the older generations, despite the fact that the chance of young people dying from the virus was very small.
In order to truly understand the differences in attitudes between generations, and thus the extent of any generational divide, we need to distinguish between three things:
- Period effects – the effect of big events on populations
- Lifecycle effects – how people change as they age
- Cohort effects – genuine differences between the generations.
It is only the later where we can really talk about there being ‘generational differences’, and in fact quite a lot of differences in attitude are down to the first two above.
For example, concern about terrorism tends to increase for ALL age groups when there is large scale terrorist attack (a period effect); people tend to get fatter as they get older (a Lifecyle effect); but church attendance is truly effected by cohort: older generations are more likely to attend church than younger generations.
To examine differences between generations without taking into account period effects and lifestyle effects is to ignore two thirds of ‘age based’ analysis!
IF we take the time to do ‘synthetic cohort analysis’ we find the differences between generations are not as drastic as the media would have us believe.
A Moral Panic?
The narrative of young people against old people makes for good headlines, but it is almost certainly something of a moral panic, and we must remember that:
- Young people have always been seen as a problem by older people, with moral panics about youth being recurring.
- Young people have always been more likely to adopt the latest fads and fashions.
- Older people have been stereotyped for decades, usually negatively
It follows that media criticism of young people as snowflakes or WOKE obsessed, and the ‘OK Boomer’ refrain from the young are nothing new: the old have always criticized the young, and the young have always seen the old as reactionary.
But there are generational differences
Having said this, there are differences in opportunities between the generations: young people do face economic, housing and health challenges that their parents and grandparents did not and do not, as a general rule.
And while the exact boundaries between the classic generational dividing lines are blurred (Baby Boomer, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z) there are meaningful differences in life-experience between them.
However, it is NOT helpful to characterise the generations as being at war, what we need to improve the lives of Gen Z, for example, is more intergenerational goodwill of the sort we saw during the Covid Pandemic.
Sources and Signposting
This post was summarised from Bobby Duffy (2021) The Generation Divide: We We Can’t Agree and Why we Should.
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