The generation game
GENERATION NEXT:The need to categorise people has re-emerged with a much-hyped generation war between pension-heavy elder lemons and their indebted, overworked or underemployed children
NOWADAYS YOU can’t leave a noun or noun phrase alone without somebody putting a definite article at the start of it and the word “generation” at the end of it. The Glee Generation. The Negative Equity Generation. The iPod Generation. The L. Casei Immunitas Generation.
It’s Karl Mannheim’s fault. He came up with generation theory in the 1920s in his book The Problem of Generations. He hypothesised groups of individuals who were united not by nationality, class or religion but by, in the words of Dr Virpi Timonen of Trinity College Dublin, “a set of formative experiences that went on to constitute their identity in ways that actually made the generation a unified force of some collective significance.”
Hence the obsession with postwar baby boomers; cynical, uberironic Generation Xers; and carefree, internet-savvy Millennials.
Marketers may love such jargon, but sociologists are quick to point out that these terms don’t quite fit Ireland, even if the success of David McWilliams’s oeuvre suggests the public is gagging for demographic buzzwords of our own. (Hello to all you HiCos, Decklanders and Jaggers.)
This need has re-emerged this year with a much-hyped generation war between wealthy pension-heavy elder lemons and their indebted, overworked or underemployed children.
This supposed conflict has triggered a study, called Changing Generations, by the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology at NUI Galway and by Trinity College Dublin, and funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies. “There are notions in circulation, particularly in some European countries, that there’s some conflict arising between generations, mostly to do with the benefits accrued after the introduction of social-welfare policies after the second World War,” says Dr Catherine Conlon of Trinity College.
“The idea was that you’d pay forward for social protections you would get in your later life: pensions or social insurance for medical care or whatever. Then demographics changed, longer life expectancy increased the balance of people at work and those in receipt of the pensions shifted. The numbers of people working to support those in receipt of those benefits shrank, and there has been some suggestion that this has created conflict and divisions.”
Disappointingly, however, the research so far suggests not cross-generational conflict but intergenerational empathy. “We’re seeing a lot of empathy,” she says. “Each generation observes the prospects of the other, and how the other is faring, and tempers their own expectations for themselves so they can give care or support.”
For some sociologists the generational boxes beloved by journalists and salespeople can be provisionally useful ways of understanding social change. “To my mind these terms are all attempts to map movement from community-bound societies with traditional families to a much more individualised mobile and cosmpolitan society,” says Tom Inglis, professor of sociology at UCD.
“This is a society where people have become much more self-directed and are searching for fulfilment through personal and private means rather than through traditional forms of community or religion. That, to my mind, is the overall story of what has happened in western society. It’s part and parcel of the process of individualisation that is linked to consumer capitalist society.”
Most sociologists also strike a note of caution about taking stereotypes too seriously and hyping up a conflict between different age-cohorts when, in fact, relationships between the generations are more nuanced.