The generation game, yet again

At Inside Story, I’ve had yet another go at the silliness of generational analysis, reworking some material I’ve posted previously, but improving the analysis in some ways, I think. In particular, I think the intro helps to explain the persistent appeal of generational cliches in the face of repeated refutation.

Every generation thinks it invented sex, and every generation is wrong.” As that quotation from the American writer Robert Heinlein suggests, we all experience as unique and revelatory the transformations we undergo through the course of our lives, from childhood to puberty, adulthood, parenthood and old age. As a matter of logic and observation, though, these processes are experienced at all times and in all places, and differ more in detail than essentials.

This is the paradox at the heart of the otherwise inexplicable durability of claims that people’s characteristics can be explained by their membership of a “generation” (baby boomers, generation X, and so on).

12 thoughts on “The generation game, yet again

  1. I wonder if the increasing granularity of generational analysis is due to an obsession with “presentism”. Whilst generational analysis is easy to refute when applied to individuals it does reveal what society is most anxious about.

  2. Agreed on almost everything. It may be worth saying that on rare occasions, talk of generations may capture real disconinuities in experience and life-chances. In many countries, men born in 1890-1900 had very different lives from those born in 1880-1890. But these come from cataclysmic historical events, which are luckily uncommon. Most of the time change is gradual and does not follow the clock. I was young in 1968, but played no part in the exciting revolutionary fantasy camp that marked many others.

  3. The trouble I have with your analysis John is rather than go back to square one and analyse what is really going on you seem to want to refute the generational narrative using mainly….. another narrative with one graph and some selective data thrown for good measure. Do you have a more considered analysis reflecting your mathematical skills? If so the link would be of great interest.

    To be clear I’m not dismissing your criticisms or disagreeing that you are seeing genuine faults in what is presented as ‘generational analysis’. But there is a third way to view all this.

    As James Wimberley points out, different generations do experience different historical events. Our parents for example experienced directly, or the outcomes of, two great depressions and two world wars which apart from killing many of them. And they really believed in God. Such drivers cant but help have put a stamp on their psyches which is largely absent from ours.

    Less remarked upon but still a big change is the average level of education provides, wealth sufficient that few actually starved as is the case today or went unclothed. Then there is globalization. The list goes on. The current housing unaffordability trap is and emerging one which is not yet mature but will make its mark if it is not addressed (this is only just starting because most people got their houses earlier but to get out of the mess the economy may have tank). If it is addressed that will be cataclysmic too though for who its too early to say.

    So I just cant accept a dismissal of generational differences.

    What is more suspect though is stereotyping by no nothing pundits and treating each generation as though they are a monolithic block. You are absolutely correct there.

    So how to move on? I suggest the problem here is as with election analysis there is too much story telling based on prejudice and I suggest appealing to the market. The sources you describe as Zombies sort of arent interested in truth. They want first to sell product and gain good ratings. Or at least that is the sort of pundit that commercialism has selected for and so you get what you identify rightly as nonsense (apart perhaps from Avocado smashing).

    As to the answer I suggest 538 shows the way. i.e. analyse the underlying data and document and be open about your uncertainties at the end of the day. Maybe then we’ll be able to separate real generational changes (more likely in subgroups and social structuring) from smashed avocados.

  4. I know Australia doesn’t really name the generations the way, say, Japanese-Americans do, but there’s still a generational cohort effect there I think. Second gen kids tend to be labelled the “immigrant gang menace” of the decade, for example.

    In Australia there’s also “who was immigrating” as a confounding factor. If you grew up when the narrative was that immigrants were southern Europeans you’ll have a different experience than when they’re Vietnamese or Sudanese, let alone when it was British (but most of them are dead now, on both sides).

    Big questions about who exactly counts as a generation, as well. The 1960’s… growing up being called a wog, parents who escaped WWII and lived in camps when they got here? Or growing up as a skip in a White Australia with boundless plains to share? I know I’m seeing a very different view since I moved from marrickville to Lakemba, rather than Valcluse to Bondi, but still, “who is Australian” probably has a bigger effect than “which generation are you”.

  5. Agree with you John. There is an inherent contradiction in the way the boomer generation is described now and the accusation in the 60s that we were lazy and only interested in drugs, sex and rock and roll. Does any boomer get accused of that now? I can also well imagine that in 50 years time the so called Y generation will have lost interest in social media, apart from boring their grandchildren with tales about long forgotten and antiquated sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It would be like trying to introduce your grandchild to Jefferson Airplane.

  6. I just can’t accept a total dismissal of generational differences either; societies do change over time and develop different values, attitudes and behaviours and having grandchildren, I see that there are some significant differences in the way children are raised now compared to the way I was raised in the ’50’s.

    Most of these social changes are gradual and I don’t think that it is possible to define or determine when a generation begins and ends but it is significant historical changes that underpin the changes in human societies that are apparent.

    I think it is true also that any generational changes that can be easily identified, are to be found in subgroups. For example, the hippies who believed in free love and communal living were not in the majority – we were a sub-culture – and we were only able to experiment with these very different values attitudes and behaviours toward sex because of the development of the contraceptive pill.

  7. @damien morris

    “the accusation in the 60s that we were lazy and only interested in drugs, sex and rock and roll. Does any boomer get accused of that now?”

    Keith Richards, though in his case it’s more a statement of admiration than an accusation.

  8. This proposition would underline the value of a “classical” education; people educated with a background of cultural references in the arts and philosophy is better placed to avoid “presentism” and see the universal.

  9. Newtonian, Julie and hc all raise valid points. It would be un-Marxist – and wrong from other perspectives – to claim that people’s attitudes, values and behaviours are not influenced by the historical (economic, technological, social, cultural, etc.) circumstances into which they are born and within which they are socialised. To take an important example, Australian women born in the 1970s have made and are making quite different life-choices with respect to education, work, marriage/relationships, childbearing, work/life balance, economic independence, etc., than did Australian women born in the 1930s.

    THat said, JQ is clearly right to call out generational stereotyping en bloc, and tabloidish attempts at social analysis that place generation above, or apart from, considerations of class, gender and race.

  10. Hi John,

    Are you or your readers able to make sense of the concept of generational accounting? It beats the hell out of me – I was trying to describe it for a friend, and the best I could come up with was this:

    What atrocities do your kids blame your generation for? Irreversible global warming? Not stopping the Rwandan genocide? The Spice Girls? And why do they mention these things with such an accusing tone? Like it’s directly your fault. As if you were the President, or Superman, or David Beckham, and had the power to prevent it!

    In the world of budget atrocities, generational accounting aims to give governments an empirical tool. To calculate the cost to future generations of current policies and fiscal positions. It’s about a generation’s ‘legacy’. But in numbers, not words.

    The generational accounting equation subtracts the remaining lifetime net tax payments of today’s adults from the fiscal gap – which is the projected gap between future public spending commitments and the means of paying for them. Only seven numerate economists with unnaturally long concentration spans know this for sure. As it’s so hard to understand.

    Critics of generational accounting are often childless. Or passionate about displaying the heads of African game in their drawing rooms. Or well-connected to the fossil fuel industry. But there are many of them. As the technique is so complex, relies on absurdly long-range projections, and does not offset for current spending’s intangible future benefits.

    The other problem with generational accounting is it assumes politicians and society actually care. About the interests of people too young to vote, and the unborn. Who, when they grow up, will laugh at your paunch and comb-over, and steal your wallet on Saturday nights anyway. Thus restoring a natural equilibrium, where the future generations take back from the old.

  11. @damien morris
    “It would be like trying to introduce your grandchild to Jefferson Airplane.”

    As it happens, my sons like a lot of the music from my youth. (I can’t speak for the Grandchild, as he’s only three.) I’m not sure about the Airplane, but they certainly like the Dead.

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