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.

Indeed, in Timonen’s opinion, attempts to box people into generations can be very limiting. The resultant terms are, she says, “now viewed as highly manufactured terms driven by the behaviours of subsections of the population rather than being in any way representative of what is really going on.”

She is keen to stress the diversity of experience within generations. “What absolutely jumps out from our research is that people’s experiences are so much more defined by class than by what generation they come from,” she says. “It’s a real underestimated force in Irish society.”

And so, with that thought ringing in your head, here is an unofficial guide to the Irish generations.


Also dubbed Generation Y (pop sociologists got lazy after inventing Generation X), they left school and university for a world filled with opportunity – only to watch that opportunity evaporate. “I suppose they took prosperity for granted,” says Catherine Conlon. “They were given a sense of security that they could make significant purchases and they hadn’t anticipated at all that it could all be so fragile.”

They’re well travelled, plugged in, hedonistic (by the standards of their parents), probably in debt, possibly emigrated. They say “I” a lot.

“During the Celtic Tiger a culture of self-denial, of family and community, responsibilities and duties became replaced by a culture of self-fulfilment,” says Tom Inglis. “Students during those years became much more self-confident and self-expressive and free about realising themselves as individuals and pursuing life, liberty and happiness. That wasn’t there before.”

Music of choiceMo Money Mo Problems, by The Notorious B.I.G.


According to some headlines, we are in the midst of a baby boom. Timonen says this is a bit inaccurate. “It’s only true in the sense that there’s a big cohort of people aged 30 to 40 and they’re now having children. It’s not that all of a sudden we’re having more babies per woman. It’s actually more or less the same number of children people had for the past 10 years.” Spoilsport. Anyway, the Nouveau Baby Boomers are a bunch of messy, angry, red-faced layabouts who cry when they don’t get their own way and are easily distracted by jingling car keys. To think the future is in their hands.

Music of choiceThe Wiggles.


Not a generation, as such, but a group of austere characters who in different ways built this nation and are proverbially spinning in their graves at the thought of what we’ve done with the place. This pantheon, when I picture it, includes Éamon de Valera, Archbishop McQuaid, Peig Sayers and Judge from Wanderly Wagon.

Music of choiceA Nation Once Again, the national anthem, the rain battering a bog, a woman keening.


A generation shaped by a monocultural, doctrinaire Catholic, poverty-ridden, youth-exporting state. They have a sense of perspective on our current situation.

“It’s interesting when we talk to people over the age of 70,” says Dr Virpi Timonen. “They talk about the recession in a different way. They can remember real grinding poverty.”

Music of choiceEmigration ballads and poor-mouth-themed gangsta rap.


The “digital natives” of Generation Z are the first generation to be born into a totally connected, digital world and the first to grow up expecting that world to be their social-networking oyster. (“They see themselves as part of a global western cosmopolitan club,” says Tom Inglis.) Employers’ groups continually complain that they’re easily distracted and can’t spel.

“They’re the one cohort for whom there might be a genuinely significant generational effect,” says Virpi Timonen. “This is because of the drastic levels of emigration. It affects those who leave, and those who are left behind are really conscious of their friends who are gone.”

Timonen also suggests that this group are often buffered by protective parents. “Some parents have fantastic resources and use their networks to embed their children in the labour market. Those without those resources are more likely to get stuck in a different scenario of long-term unemployment.”

But she says they are as capable of selfless sacrifice as anyone else. “We spoke at length to one 19-year-old from a very low socioeconomic group who is a full-time carer for her grandmother. She never expressed resentment at the situation.”

Music of choiceThe Edge of Glory by Lady Gaga. (Yeah, we’re pretty hip to the groove at The Irish Times.)


Americans refer to them as Generation X. They’re our baby boomers. They forwent the nihilistic anti-politics of their American peers to buy It bags and decking. Well, some of them did.

“The previous generation began to question the orthodoxies,” says Tom Inglis. “This generation began to see the orthodoxies as having nothing to do with them. They had moved beyond them. There wasn’t any sense of duty or responsibility to keep those cultural patterns going.”

Socially liberal, economically neoliberal and well educated (by previous standards), they now find themselves with more established careers than their younger brothers and sisters but with huge mortgages and dwindling benefits and job security.

Music of choiceHeaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, by The Smiths.


In other countries they call this crowd the baby boomers, who dominate the culture with a mix of sold-out 1960s counterculture and all-American opportunism. In Ireland the baby boom didn’t happen until the 1970s, the 1960s didn’t happen until last Tuesday and instead of counterculture we had Dickie Rock. Tom Inglis, the UCD sociologist and writer, says this generation emerged into a world “with an orthodoxy. You went to school. You got married. You had kids, lived in suburbs and died . . . everyone followed the same path.”

But they were also injected with free education, television and feminism and featured some true liberalisers. And some of them, according to Inglis, emerged in the 1990s as a “new Catholic bourgeoisie. They tossed off all the shackles of shame and guilt about being ambitious, about being successful and about indulging themselves.” And though much maligned as beneficiaries of postwar socialism (good pensions) and boom-time capitalism (property wealth), many did not party. “There are big rifts within generations,” says Catherine Conlon. “Some are better protected [financially] than others . . . And lots of them give a lot of money and time to their children and grandchildren. There is a lot of empathy.”

Music of choiceThe Hucklebuck (they heard it in their heads as property prices escalated) and The Wiggles (they hear them as they look after their grandchildren).

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