The generations game

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The stereotypes that limit us when we think about age groups

Generational thinking is a big idea that has been horribly corrupted by endless myths, stereotypes and fake battles between ‘snowflake’ Millennials and ‘selfish’ Baby Boomers.

Our understanding of generations has become so laughable that it is mocked in satirical social media posts. The hashtag #millennialproblems collects fake tweets that play to the absurdity of the cliches, and includes gems such as: “I cut my finger slicing open an avocado and now I can’t fix my topknot.” Two American 20-year-olds set up a Facebook ‘group where we all pretend to be boomers’, which has nearly 300,000 members, with content that is a mix of capitalised political rants (“MY GRANDSON FORGOT TO CALL ME ON MY BIRTHDAY. THANKS OBAMA”), disgusting medical queries (“Good home remedies for anal tremors?”) and inappropriate use of graphics (“I’M LOSING CUSTODY OF THE KIDS” above an image of party balloons).

These examples, mostly just good fun, are merely a side-effect of the much more destructive grip of generational stereotypes, focused on four key generational labels: Baby Boomers (born 1945–1965), Generation X (1966–1979), Millennials (1980–1995) and Generation Z (1996 to the early 2010s).

This dominance of lazy myths in generational discussions is a real shame, as a more careful understanding of the true differences between generations is one of our most powerful tools to understand change and predict the future.

Some of the great names in sociology and philosophy believed that understanding generational change was central to understanding the dynamics of society. For example, in the early 1900s, the French philosopher Auguste Comte identified the generation as a key factor in “the basic speed of human development”, arguing that “we should not hide the fact that our social progress rests essentially upon death; which is to say that the successive steps of humanity necessarily require a continuous renovation…from one generation to the next”. Generations do differ from one another, and that is a good thing. It prevents society turning into a “stagnant pond”, as Canadian demographer Norman B. Ryder argued in the 1960s.

Tracking generational differences is one of the most powerful tools we have to help us understand major societal shifts of the past and anticipate those on the horizon. Since I started analysing these differences around 20 years ago, I have found that this perspective provides unique and often surprising insights into how societies and individuals develop and change.

That is because generational changes are like tides: powerful, slow-moving and relatively predictable. Once a generation is set on a course, it tends to continue, which helps us see likely futures. That is true even through severe shocks like war or pandemic, the kinds of events that split time and separate our lives into before and after. Instead of diverting our course, they tend to accentuate and accelerate trends that were already under way. Existing vulnerabilities are ruthlessly exposed, and we are pushed down paths we were already on, just further and faster.

To see the true value of generational thinking, we first need to identify and discard the very many myths that surround it

Because we tend to settle into our value systems and behaviours during late childhood and early adulthood, generation-shaping events have a stronger impact on people who experience them while coming of age. It is crucial that we start to understand what this pandemic will mean for the generation at their most malleable when Covid-19 sent the world grinding to a halt. The pandemic is still unfolding, painfully slowly, but there are already vital lessons – and warnings – we can draw by understanding generations that came before.

Yet, in place of this big thinking, today we get clickbait headlines and bad research on Millennials “killing the napkin industry” or how Baby Boomers “ruined everything”. We have fallen a long way. To see the true value of generational thinking, we first need to identify and discard the very many myths that surround it.

For example, Gen Z and Millennials are not lazy at work or disloyal to their employers. It is true that younger generations work fewer hours than young people did in the past, but that is because we all do, as working weeks have seen a long-term decline. It is nothing peculiar to this generation of young, despite the headlines claiming otherwise.

It is also the case that younger generations move jobs more than older people, but that has always been true, and young people today are no more flighty than in the past, in contrast to claims they mark the ‘Death of Loyalty’. In fact, it is older workers who are moving more frequently than in past generations and, if anything, the young are holding on to their jobs tighter than in the past, given the tougher economic environment.

There is also an endlessly repeated narrative of today’s young being particularly obsessed by material concerns: the ‘Generation Me’ memes for both Millennials and Gen Z highlight how today’s young “are very interested in becoming well-off and less focused on meaning than previous generations”, as US author Jean Twenge puts it. And this has stuck with the public: in a global survey of 20,000 people conducted by Ipsos for my book, the second most popular adjective picked out to describe Gen Z was ‘materialistic’ (behind ‘tech-savvy’).

But this misreads the reality. It is true that young people are around twice as likely as older people to say it is important to them to be rich, but that is more a feature of youth than a true generational difference. As Millennials have aged, they have attached less importance to material ambitions, just as Gen X did before them, and Gen Z will next. We are mixing up lifecycle and generation effects to create lazy headlines based on fake differences.

Our generational stereotypes are also riven with contradictions. While one group of myths claims the young only care about cash, another (equally wrong) set of assertions paints them as an entirely new breed of ‘social justice warriors’ who are obsessed with equality and ‘brand purpose’.

It is true that young people are always at the leading edge of change in cultural norms, around race, immigration, sexuality and gender equality and identity. As Comte understood, that is how societies avoid going stale: young people are less set in their ways and more comfortable with change than older people.

But the key point is that the gaps between young and old on emergent cultural issues are no larger than gaps in the past. Indeed, in many cases there were bigger gaps between Baby Boomers in their youth and their parents than we see between young and old today. It is true that the issues have changed, for example, moving from sexual orientation to gender identity, but the size of the gap between generations is entirely unsurprising.

Again, we are mixing up effects. We do not have a particularly unusual cohort of young people. What has really changed is the more fractious political, media and social media context. Older people have always denigrated young people for their different cultural norms: in 400 BC, Socrates moaned about the youth of his day and their “bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect for elders”. But now we have the tools to communicate these constant human biases at scale.

It is not just young people who are swept up in this tidal wave of stereotypes. Indeed, of all the myths I examine, none are more dangerous and destructive than the claim that older generations do not care about climate change.

It has crept into so many discussions about climate concern that it has become an accepted truth. For example, when Time magazine named Greta Thunberg their person of the year in 2019, they called her a “standard bearer in generational battle”. The singer Billie Eilish was more direct: “Hopefully the adults and the old people start listening to us [about climate change]. Old people are gonna die and don’t really care if we die, but we don’t wanna die yet.”

But these stereotypes collapse when you look at the evidence. For example, in a survey conducted for the release of my book with the New Scientist magazine, around six in 10 Americans say that climate change, biodiversity loss and other environmental issues are big enough problems that they justify significant changes to people’s lifestyles; and this is utterly consistent across generations.

Generations Game

In fact, it is younger generations, rather than older generations, who are most despondent about the impact they themselves can have in tackling climate change: Baby Boomers are most likely to disagree that changing their behaviour is pointless, with 53% feeling that way, compared with 41% of Gen Z and 34% of Millennials.

The cliches are just as far from the truth when we look at how the different generations act. Claims abound that Millennials and Gen Z are ‘purpose-driven’ consumers, only supporting sustainable or socially responsible brands. But it is actually Baby Boomers who are most likely to have boycotted a company in the last 12 months, with Gen Z about half as likely.

The unthinking ageism that has crept into much of the discussion about climate change is a serious problem. It ignores the growing demographic weight and financial power of the older population. Creating or exaggerating differences between generations on climate is, then, a particularly self-defeating approach to a potentially existential challenge. If we want a greener future, we need to act together, uniting the generations, rather than actively trying to divide them.

 The real tragedy of this mess of generational myths, however, is that it distracts us from some vitally important, truly generational changes. Many of these flow from the undeniably tougher economic circumstances facing younger generations. Wage growth has reversed in the last few decades. Baby Boomers enjoyed significantly improved incomes in middle age compared with the Silent Generation, up around a quarter. But Gen Xers had 5% lower real incomes than Boomers when they were both 45 to 49, while Millennials earned 5% less than Gen Xers at 30 to 34.

And that is not even the main economic change, as private wealth has boomed and become much more important to our economic success than in the past, mainly to the benefit of older generations. For example, when they were in their mid-40s, Baby Boomers already owned an astonishing 40% of all wealth in the US, but when Gen X reached the same average age, they only owned around 15%.

 A large part of this wealth gap is down to the long house price boom and the changing profile of home ownership, where the probability of owning your own home has been hugely affected by when you were born. US Millennials, for example, are around half as likely to be a homeowner than generations born only a couple of decades earlier.

Another of the key reasons we are so susceptible to simplistic generational cliches is the increasingly separate lives young and old are living

Corner image At the start of the pandemic, there were real fears that the crisis would crash the housing market. But that ignores a generation-defining reality: that governments in countries like the UK will do almost anything to avoid significant house price falls, given how central they now are to economic sentiment among a core (high-turnout) segment of the electorate.

In the UK, this took the form of a stamp duty holiday to encourage continued demand. Analysis since has suggested this had little direct effect, as house prices rose to even greater heights under their own steam: it seems extraordinary that, during a once-in-a-generation global crisis, house prices jumped 13.4% in June 2021, compared with the same month in 2020. We cannot, therefore, count on a price correction to open up ownership to generations who are currently locked out.

Without significant intervention from governments, inequality will get worse, Generation Covid will set new lows of home ownership and face all the knock-on effects this brings: lower wealth, private renting housing costs that take a much greater proportion of their income, and less security.

This reaches way beyond the ‘bank of mum and dad’ providing deposits and mortgage guarantees: it has also been seen in the impact on Generation Covid’s education during the pandemic. In the first lockdown in the UK, for example, one survey found that 74% of children in private school were receiving full, virtual school days, compared with just 38% in state schools.

The projections for the future impact of this lost learning are frightening. By the time the pandemic is over, most children across the UK will have missed over half a year of normal, in-person schooling. That is more than 5% of their entire time in school. Estimates from a recent review show that, in high-income countries, each year of schooling increases an individual’s earnings by 8%. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, just in the UK this equates to an astronomical £350bn in lost lifetime earnings across the 8.7 million schoolchildren.

The long-run negative effects seem increasingly likely to be concentrated amongst those from disadvantaged backgrounds, further widening inequalities and impacting on economic growth for the country as a whole. In our survey, three-quarters of respondents across generations said they expect inequality to grow in the years ahead. How we support Generation Covid is not just about helping the kids, but about shaping our collective future.

All of this has resulted in only a minority in developed countries thinking that the future for young people today is going to be better than for their parents. As far as we can tell, such pessimism for coming generations is a new trend: the proportion of Brits who think the future will be better for their children halved between 2003 and 2019, and the proportion of Americans who think it unlikely their kids will have a better future has nearly doubled.It is not just economic factors at play here in our gloomier assessment.

There is also a real cohort effect in experience of mental health disorders, particularly among recent generations of young women. A 2019 study shows that the proportion of US adolescents reporting symptoms consistent with major depression in the last 12 months increased from 8.7% to 13.2% between 2005 and 2017. Given that there were no corresponding increases among other age groups over this period, this looks like a pattern that has emerged among the current generation of young, rather than a more general trend affecting us all. And early signs are that the Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced this gap: younger generations are more likely to report increased mental distress than older groups.

It is impossible to understand how society is changing and what might come next on these issues without a generational perspective. But when there is such richness in the realities, why are there so many myths? It is partly down to bad marketing and workplace research, which has become its own mini-industry. In 2015, US companies spent up to $70m on it, according to The Wall Street Journal analysis, with some experts making as much as $20,000 an hour. Over 400 LinkedIn users describe themselves solely as a ‘Millennial expert’ or ‘Millennial consultant’. Of course, you may also call it, as a contributor to the article on the phenomenon suggested, “a racket” built on “pseudo-expertise, playing to executives’ anxiety that they don’t have their fingers on the pulse”.

Campaigners and politicians also actively play to these fake differences, where the focus on ‘culture wars’ often involves ‘taking campus politics national’ to score political points. Maybe less obviously, politicians such as Barack Obama repeatedly lionised coming generations as more focused on equality, when the evidence shows they are often not that different. These assertions are not only wrong but do help to create false divides.

Another of the key reasons we are so susceptible to simplistic generational cliches is the increasingly separate lives young and old are living. Before 1991, there was little difference in the age mix between town and country in Britain. But since then, villages and smallertowns have become much older and cities much younger. This mirrors similar trends in the US. As Cornell professor Karl Pillemer says, “We’re in the midst of a dangerous experiment. This is the most age-segregated society that’s ever been.”

This separation not only fuels stereotypes and tension, but strips away the benefits that study after study shows intergenerational connection provides. The short-term impact of the pandemic has been to separate the age groups more.

But this is one area where the longer-term impacts of the pandemic may help, as the greater incidence of homeworking is leading to early signs of a reversal in the long-term trend towards cities getting younger and everywhere else older. Joel Kotkin, a professor of urban studies at Chapman University, points out that, as the US population disperses, economic, cultural and generational gaps between coastal cities and inland communities may start to shrink.

This slow reversal of long-standing trends is still uncertain, however, and is working against powerful forces pushing us apart, including the use and abuse of generational labelling itself. Some academics have had enough, calling on the Pew Research Center in the US, who have been a champion of generational analysis, to stop. The thinking is that analysis of these generational groups from reputable organisations gives them a legitimacy they do not deserve.

Despite all the terrible myths my work has uncovered, I think that misses the point: it is how these generational labels are applied rather than the idea itself that is wrong. And these groupings have become so ingrained, the bad research and commentary will not stop.We should defend the big idea and call out the myths, not abandon the field to the Millennial consultants.

Bobby Duffy is Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, and author of Generations: Does When You’re Born Shape Who You Are?

Follow Bobby Duffy on Twitter here: @BobbyDuffyKings

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 2 2022.

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  • This is a welcome and long overdue critique of the ways in which generations are identified, stereotyped and mythologised. It is unthinkable to talk in broad generalised terms about a person or group of people on single characteristics such as gender, religious beliefs or cultural background. But for some inexplicable reason we seem to be happy to buy into highly stereotyped characterisations of individuals by generation. If we talked about women the way we denigrate the work ethic of Gen Z for example, we'd be rightly criticised. I've long felt uncomfortable with the prevailing categorisation of behaviours and values by generation be they positive or derogatory. Early work of people such as Jennifer Deal highlighted that people are fundamentally much more alike than different across generational categories and lifecycle is much more of a differentiator than (often) western paradigms associated with generational differences. Work such as Professor Duffy's should be elevated in an effort to dispel myths that energise the 'racket' of generational profiling.

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