Time to join the generation game?

As regular readers will know, I’ve spent a generation or more [1] deriding what I call the generation game – the idea of dividing the population up into birth cohorts (categories based on year of birth) such as Boomers, X-ers and so on (Millennials weren’t invented when I started) and assigning them various supposed characteristics.  Most of the time, this exercise is little better than astrology. To the extent that there is any semblance to reality it simply reflects the fact that young people are, and always have been, different from old people.

But just as I have managed to get some traction with this idea, genuine cohort effects have emerged in politics in many countries. The sharpest case is Britain, where people over 65 voted massively for Brexit in the referendum and the Conservatives in the recent election, while those aged 18-24 went even more sharply the other way. As the map linked here shows, if only 18-24 year olds were voting, based on current polling data, the Conservatives would not have won a single seat. If only those over 65 voted, the Conservatives would win 575 and the combined opposition 54.

This is a massive difference and can’t as far as I can tell be explained by differences in education, ethnic composition and so forth.  It also represents a huge shift on the part of older cohorts, who were part of the electorate that gave Labour three terms not long ago. While there is some tendency for people to become more conservative as they age, it’s normally much more limited than this.

The explanation in simple terms, is Brexit. Most of the time, elections involving competing visions of the future – in the UK case, hard-line neoliberalism vs Third Way Blairism.  In the course of such debates, both sides routinely claim to be on the right side of history, to own the future and so on. By contrast, Brexit represented an appeal to a (partly imaginary) past, against the present and the future. With the exception of a handful of neoliberal ideologues, who saw Brexit as a path to a free-market future, most Leavers were motivated by nostalgia for the glories of the past, and were willing to sacrifice the interests of the young to make a gesture in that direction.

What’s true of Brexit is true, though not to quite the same extent, of the culture war politics that have now become dominant on the political right in much of the English-speaking world. It’s driven in large measure by old men who lost the cultural battles of the 1960s and 1970s, and have never got over the fact.

The result is a situation where the right is appealing directly to members of older age cohorts with the result that younger cohorts are moving left.  The most immediate effect has been to wipe out the support base of centrists of the Blair-Clinton-Keating type, who fail to appeal to either group

Having said that, there are some important qualifications. First, this does nothing to rescue  nonsensical generational divisions drawn at specific years. The older the birth cohort, the more rightwing its members are, on average, but there is no sharp division at some particular year marking a distinction between, say, X-ers and Millennials.

Second, the current situation is probably temporary.  If current trends continue, the political right will be doomed by demography to permanent minority status.  In time, that will presumably produce a political realignment in which culture war issues are no longer a dividing line.  On the other hand, if leftwing governments are elected and fail to deliver on their promises (or worse, implement their promises and fail disastrously) their support among currently young cohorts may be replaced by permanent oppositions.

In the meantime, though, the age gradient is striking. Yes, Virginia, there really is a Generation Gap.

fn1.  There was a time when the term ‘generation’ referred to a span of 30 years or so. But in current parlance, each generation lasts 15-20 years.

19 thoughts on “Time to join the generation game?

  1. “If current trends continue, the political right will be doomed by demography to permanent minority status.”

    This sounds a lot like Marx’s prediction of a dictatorship of the proletariat, with the universal franchise providing a permanent majority for the working class to lord it over the capitalist class. It didn’t quite work out that way, with enough of the working class voting for right wing parties on cultural grounds to provide them with majorities in most countries most of the time. Tax cuts for the rich at the expense of the working class? Doesn’t matter because culture [T]trumps money, not every time, but most of the time.

    It’s not obvious why this pattern, which long predates the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s, and really has been going over of a century, will stop. It used to be about sex and the traditional family. Now it’s about immigration from alien cultures. Tomorrow it will be about something else. The tactics change, but the strategy stays the same. And why not? It’s a proven winner.

  2. If demography is fate, it does not certainly predict a left future. The demographic transition in most countries implies ageing of the pyramid. People tend to get more conservative as they age. They also tend to stick with their youthful views. The two tendencies pull in opposite directions. In the Brexit vote, there weren’t any youthful views of the élite European project to fall back on.

  3. “The most immediate effect has been to wipe out the support base of centrists of the Blair-Clinton-Keating type, who fail to appeal to either group.” – Never a truer word, albeit not centrists, sell outs, one per center shills.

  4. James Wimberley

    Today’s decrepit old farts who hang off Alan Jones’s every word and nod sagely to Sky News after dark marched against the Vietnam war and voted in Gough. Their parents were ecstatic when Kerr installed Fraser but between the wars thought the Soviet Union represented the future of humanity.

    ‘Twas ever thus.

  5. Still, it does not bode well for the current right, which is more reactionary than conservative. Culture war themes are unlikely to play well with people who do not have any idea what the fight is about. So the simplest right solution is to limit the vote – something well under way in many places.

  6. @ Peter Thompson.
    The current crop of zealots are not conservatives but nihilists whose sole goal is to break the State and its apparatus. They want and encourage chaos as they can operate more easily under such condition, especially to milk the public economy. Brexit is a classic example of this.

    This scenario needs to be spelt out by the likes of the ALP, we know from polling that Australians at least want the role of the State to be maintained (and are willing to pay for it).

  7. I have long thought that you are basically right with this stuff but that you overstate the case.

    You say regarding generational differences: “to the extent that there is any semblance to reality it simply reflects the fact that young people are, and always have been, different from old people.” This is mostly true. But not entirely true!

    People who became adults in an era when houses were cheap, relative to incomes, will have a very different experience of being 20- and 30-something than those becoming adults in the current era. People who graduated into a recession will have (long-lasting) different experiences than those who graduate into a boom. People who grew up using the internet will have very different experiences than those who didn’t. These and other differences in experience will shape attitudes, including political attitudes.

    So while I basically agree with you that the generational stuff is way overblown, that drawing hard lines at particular years is silly, and that most differences between people are age- rather than cohort-specific, I think you ignore or gloss over the very real material changes in the way people live their lives over time which generates differences between groups coming of age in different eras (albeit these differences are continuous rather than discrete).

  8. Chris Dillow made some useful points this week that are relevant to this discussion:

    “People in their 20s have spent their formative years living with the financial crisis and its aftermath. They are therefore more likely to be sceptical of capitalism than those in their 30s and 40s, whose formative years were spent in times of stable growth. It should, therefore, be no surprise that they are disproportionately supportive of Corbyn…”

    ‘Talking ’bout my generation’ http://stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/stumbling_and_mumbling/2018/09/talking-bout-my-generation.html

  9. “younger cohorts are moving left. The most immediate effect has been to wipe out the support base of centrists of the Blair-Clinton-Keating type, who fail to appeal to either group”

    But not in Australia, where the Labor Party has been able to contain the loss of votes to the Greens, and remains a major party.

  10. Labor has shifted well to the left of Hawke and Keating, a fact that has gone unnoticed because of the general perception of Shorten as a convictionless apparatchik. It’s happened more smoothly than in the UK and the US, but policies like a commitment to increase the top marginal tax rate aren’t centrist.

  11. @Matt I agree that I’ve stated the case too sharply at times, but I’ll still push back on the specific examples

    (i) If you read the 2000 article, I mention the effects of graduating into a recession.
    (ii) As regards home ownership, the effect of rising prices has been to make class even more salient, as young people depend on their parents for a deposit.
    (iii) On the Internet, I don’t buy the digital natives vs digital immigrants idea, that young people are naturally more skilled because they grew up with the Internet. What matters is the length/intensity of experience with the Internet, which is the product of a complicated interaction between age, education, social class and so on. It’s maximized for people who had Internet access before the rise of the Web, who are necessarily middle-aged or older, but of course only a small proportion of their cohort.

  12. The zeitgeist is favourable to higher taxes on the rich. Shorten is perfectly happy to do this because there are votes in it for him. If he was 20 or 30 years older, he would have been perfectly happy with Labor’s policies of the Hawke-Keating era.

  13. Smith9, up a way: It may be true that the people who listen to Alan Jones are of the same generation as those of us who marched against the Vietnam war, and voted for Whitlam (although I suspect they a more likely to be about 10 years older than I am), but I’ll bet that anyone who actually marched against the war wouldn’t be caught dead listening to Jones.

  14. JQ said “The older the birth cohort, the more rightwing its members are, on average, but there is no sharp division at some particular year”…

    Maybe we need better glasses (sarcastic).

     “”What we found was young people tended to see the young lady in the image, whereas with older people they tended to see the old lady,” Professor Nicholls said.””
    And Prof Nicholls suggests “”awareness programs on natural biases to continue to help counter automatic responses to people’s age and for different generations to mix more often.””

    No to glasses, yes to programs to counter auto responses. Natural or not.

  15. Smith9, I certainly haven’t changed that much, nor have any of my friends from that time. That’s not to say that some boomers weren’t always on the wrong side of history and haven’t moved.

  16. Yeah, must agree with DI (nr). My detestation of Jones and his type goes back to that era also. Over and over again MSM recycles new incarnations of Howard Beale tp replace the last discredited motormouth, to keep people anxious so they can’t think clearly about stuff and these overpaid cranks are as useless as hip pockets on a singlet.

    Smith 9 says some peculiar things at times.

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