Inside Story

Can generational analysis be saved?

A sociologist offers a more sophisticated take on generational differences, but problems remain

John Quiggin Books 30 October 2023 1755 words

Baby boomers: postwar children in poverty-stricken Bradford, West Yorkshire, in 1953. Daily Mirror via Getty Images

The idea of generations as distinct groups, shaped by their early experiences, is an old one. It was formalised by the Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim in 1928, though it didn’t appear in popular culture — as the “generation gap” — until the 1960s.

Early in that decade the first-born of the children who made up the postwar baby boom began to challenge their parents with slogans like “Never trust anyone over thirty.” Those parents — retrospectively labelled “the greatest generation” for having endured the 1930s depression and the second world war — had come to regard their kids as lazy and spoilt.

As the children born in the 1940s became thirtysomethings and the youth revolts of the 1960s faded away, the generation gap was mostly forgotten. Its revival in the 1990s came in a quite different context. By then, the lazy equation of “boomer” and “young person” was clearly obsolete.

The members of the post-boom cohort, who became known as generation X, were seeking to make their way in the world but found their way blocked by the much larger generation above them, who occupied all the desirable cultural niches and weren’t planning to move on any time soon. Mark Davis’s Ganglands: Cultural Elites and the New Generationalism was one of the earliest expressions of this frustration.

Davis’s work was well received in Australia. But the terms of the debate were set in the United States by William Strauss and Neil Howe in their bestselling book, Generations. As well as making the now-standard claims about the characteristics of the boomers, Strauss and Howe theorised that major events caused generations to cycle through four different types: idealist, reactive, civic and adaptive.

Strauss and Howe’s model was initially accepted uncritically. This mode of classification was a boon to marketers and lazy journalists, functioning largely as a more respectable form of astrology. Rather than engaging in tedious discussions of economic and foreign policy, for example, presidential campaigns could be discussed in terms of the generations to which the contenders belonged.

Pushback came soon enough, not least from me. (Disclosure: the fact that my cohort, generation Jones, 1954–63, isn’t recognised in standard generational classification predisposes me to dislike the entire generational punditry genre.) In a piece written in 2000, I made a number of not entirely original observations:

• Claims about generations are often restatements of longstanding clichés about the laziness and irresponsibility of the young or the rigidity and hypocrisy of the old. Demographers distinguish these “age effects” (as well as “time effects,” the influences that affect all age groups) from the “cohort effects” specific to those growing up during a depression, for example, or a long postwar boom.

• Differences associated with race, class and gender are mostly more significant than those associated with birth cohort. Donald Trump might share a birthday with a Black woman paid the minimum wage to clean one of his hotels, but that doesn’t mean they have any significant experiences in common.

• The boomer generation is particularly problematic because the demographic event after which it is named doesn’t match the cultural events with which it is associated. At one end, many of the leading figures in boomer culture were actually born during the war years — in other words, before the boom. At the other end, those born after 1954 were too young to experience either the full employment of the postwar economic boom or defining cultural events like the Woodstock rock festival or the fights over conscription and the Vietnam war. Barack Obama (born 1961) is classed as a boomer, but his political awareness was shaped by the presidency of Ronald Reagan (whom he saw as a role model) rather than that of Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon.

• More generally, the typical gap of fifteen to twenty years between their oldest and youngest members means that generations are too big for any real commonality of experience.

As criticisms of this kind multiplied, generational analysts lost credibility, though very slowly. It was only in May this year that the Pew Research Center, widely seen as an authoritative source of survey findings, conceded most of the points made above and announced that its audiences “should not expect to see a lot of new research coming out of Pew Research Center that uses the generational lens.”

Nevertheless, the generational bandwagon rolls on. A new arrival is Jean Twenge’s book Generations, whose title recycles Strauss and Howe’s though she rejects a good deal of their analysis. Twenge adopts a narrative format to apply the generational frame to Americans born in the last one hundred years, beginning with the silent generation (born 1925–45) and ending with polars, her own term for children born since 2013.

Twenge avoids some of the pitfalls discussed above. Most importantly, she pays attention to the distinction between age effects, time effects and cohort effects. She compares the experience of different generations at the same age, and tries to take account of long-run trends like the rise of computers. She uses long-running data sets such as the Panel Study on Income Dynamics to assure consistent comparisons of different cohorts at the same age.

This approach yields some interesting insights. For example, the silent generation married and had children earlier than any previous or subsequent generation, and had more children per family. One interesting implication of early childbearing is that most of the later boomers were the children of parents from the immediately preceding generation, the silents, unlike the more common gap of two generations between parents and children.

Another, not particularly startling, observation is that boomers have been bigger consumers of alcohol and recreational drugs than any other cohort. That phenomenon has continued from the upsurge in youthful drug use in the 1960s to the present day. Younger generations like the millennials and gen Z are more abstemious, perhaps as a result of a lifetime of exposure to messaging about the dangers of substance (ab)use.

More fundamentally, Twenge makes the point that technological change has different impacts on different age cohorts. One claimed effect is increased individualism, though this ignores how the once widely held admiration for “rugged individualism” is now rarely heard in the United States.

Twenge is on stronger ground when she discusses the slower life trajectory created by two things: the need for young people to spend more time in education in a technologically complex society, and the longer life spans enabled by improvements in health. These changes inevitably alter the timing of the processes that define generations: leaving the parental home and forming new households, entering and leaving employment, old age and death. While they don’t really follow generational boundaries, they provide a useful narrative device.

Twenge concedes a related point. “It’s also true that generations are sometimes too broad: those born ten years apart but within the same generation have experienced a different culture,” she writes. “Still, too many micro-generations would be confusing and would make it harder to discern broad generational trends.”

Familiar analytical problems remain. Like nearly all generational analysts, Twenge consistently downplays the importance of class. This passage is truly striking:

The charming novel Nine Ladies, by Heather Moll, imagines the aristocratic Mr Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice time-travelling from 1812, when race, gender, and class were destiny, to 2012. He’s of course amazed by smartphones, airplanes, and restaurants, but the advice the born-in-1987 version of Elizabeth Bennet gives him the most often is, “Remember, treat everyone equally.” Equality is one of the unifying themes of cultural change over the last one hundred years, making it one of the unifying themes of generational change.

This claim would have been unremarkable if it had been made in the 1950s, when America was a proudly middle-class society. But the rise in inequality and the decline in social mobility have been central to the disasters that have befallen the US polity in the last few decades, culminating in the emergence of Trumpism.

Turning more specifically to generational analysis, there is the problem that the demographic baby boom from 1946 to the early 1960s does not match cultural and economic history, which shows a sharp break at the end of the postwar economic boom in the early 1970s. Economically and culturally, as I pointed out back in 2000, the Vietnam generation has a lot more in common with the “baby busters” (the last of the silents, born during and just before the second world war) than with baby boomers:

[M]ost of the cultural icons of the Vietnam generation were actually born before 1945. Obvious examples are the Beatles and Rolling Stones, not to mention James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. Throughout the 1960s, rock music was made by the children of the baby bust, who were in the fortunate position of having the largest audience in history. Other members of the baby bust cohort took the chance to establish themselves as the social and political voice of youth, a position which they then sought to maintain well into middle age.

Twenge implicitly concedes most of this, noting that the last of the silents were anything but silent.

A more coherent generational analysis could be achieved by having the boomer generation born between the late 1930s and the mid 1950s, too young to have real memories of depression and war but young enough to come of age during the seemingly endless prosperity of the postwar boom.

Then, following the suggestion of cultural commentator Jonathan Pontell, the rest of the (demographic) baby boom could be assigned to my cohort, generation Jones. The most appealing etymology for generation Jones is the slang term “jonesing,” referring to withdrawal after a drug-induced high. As summarised by Wikipedia: “Jonesers inherited an optimistic outlook as children in the 1960s, but were then confronted with a different reality as they entered the workforce during… a long period of mass unemployment.”

On this division, the remaining boomers would be a shrinking minority in their seventies and eighties, soon to pass from the scene altogether. And without the boomers, the journalistic generation game would cease to be of much interest.

Even in the toned-down version offered by Twenge and the Pew Research Center, generational analysis misleads more than it enlightens. For serious scholarly work, five-year birth cohorts, categorised by race, gender and class background, are much more useful. For entertainment purposes, astrology is just as good and less divisive. •

Generations: The Real Differences between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents — and What They Mean for America’s Future
By Jean M. Twenge | Atria Books | $32.50 | 560 pages