21 Nov 2021

Why we need to can the phoney generation wars

From Sunday Morning, 10:06 am on 21 November 2021

We've heard it all before. 'Boomers' - arguably the most disliked generation - only think about themselves, while millennials (aka 'snowflakes') wouldn't know a hard day's work if it slapped them across the face. 

But where does all of this generational angst - which is by no means new - get us?

Bobby Duffy is a Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Policy Institute, King's College London.

Are we too soft on millennial kids?

Photo: Pixabay

In his new book, Generations, he argues that it's a shame people see fit to sum entire generations up in just a few characteristics, because acknowledging the differences between the different generations is essential for the progress of society. 

Duffy joined Sunday Morning to discuss the generational wars and how throughout history it's always been the latest generation of young people who are viewed as uniquely wrong or weird.  

He says the focus on labelling generations is a relatively recent phenomenon and really took off after the term millennial was coined.

Part of the reason for the recent focus on generations and their labels and traits comes from Douglas Coupland’s book Generation X. First published 30 years ago, Coupland wrote the book because he was sick of being labelled a baby boomer.

Duffy says we shouldn’t be afraid or offended when younger generations come through with new ideas and belief systems.

“There is this constant grind of culture change that pushes generations apart and makes them different from each other. One of the key points of the book is that we shouldn’t be frightened by that… if we didn’t have that, we’d go stagnant as societies because we tend to get stuck in our ways as we get older.

“While it may feel uncomfortable, these differences between generations, it’s essential for the progress of society. We shouldn’t be too focussed on conflict or a sense of tension being bad.”

Complaining about the young or old has been around for a very long time. In around 400 BC, Socrates complained that the young generations coming through were the worst generation ever, for instance.

“He really didn’t like young people in his day and that’s repeated throughout history. It’s always the latest generation of young people that are uniquely wrong or weird.”

Duffy believes the reason behind our dislike of younger generations is because of our biases and our tendency to look to our past with rose tinted glasses.

“It’s a well known social psychological bias where you sort of forget the bad bits from your life and the past. We’ve got this too rosy view of how we were and it makes us think that things that are happening today are uniquely different or bad.

“It would be more worrying, in some ways, if we thought young people today were great or the same as us because that would really signify that we’ve stopped that sense of progress or change.”

However, generational warfare is often greatly exaggerated. Duffy points to Greta Thunberg’s Time Person of the Year blurb as an example where it’s stated that she’s an avatar in a generational battle. In fact, almost all people are united in wanting to so something about climate change.

“It’s the wrong framing I would argue. When you look at the evidence of the actual gaps between young and old on concern about the climate and wanting to do something about the climate, they’re not nearly as large as you think and as is made out in lots of the discussions.

“There’s a really strong sense that older people have of looking after the next generation, whether it’s their own family or just a sense of legacy and what you leave behind. I think that’s really important to bear in mind, the difference is exaggerated and, really, we’re much more interconnected than the impression you get from that simplistic coverage.”

One topic that can be quite divisive for younger and older generations is the affordability of housing for young people. Older people tend to say it was hard in their day too, but stagnating wages, increased student loans, and higher prices making buying a home much harder for the current young generation than it was for the older one.

“The really important big economic shift has altered the life course for younger generations… these are big economic trends, these are the things we should be looking at.”

Duffy says the concentration of wealth for certain cohorts will be entrenched further as boomers who brought property die off leaving their amassed wealth to their millennial and gen x children. Those whose parents didn’t own property or have private wealth will be left high and dry.

“[Wealth] is going to come down very unevenly across different groups and it’s going to increase that sense of inequality within the next generations, not just in wealth but all sorts of life chances. We are kind of sorting into different social castes depending on our wealth, social connections and the kind of work we do.

“We are getting this almost incipient caste society where your life chances are set a lot by your family resources and the story of the next decade or two could well be that solidifying as this huge bulge in wealth starts to trickle down.”