Why the young and old are not so different

Are younger and older generations so different? A discussion this week looked at the differences that exist and those that are manufactured.

Grandparent and grandson watch tv with popcorn


We live in a world of manufactured division, none more so than among the generations. An event yesterday hosted by the Resolution Foundation think tank sought to separate the myths about different generations from the reality.

Professor Bobby Duffy, Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said this is important for our understanding of any differences between the generations and what the reasons for these might be. His research, for instance, distinguishes period or life cycle differences which affect us all from cohort effects where one generation is different from another and stays different.

The myths come from mixing these two different types of effect up, he said, with gender stereotypes fulleing fake generational battles that distract from looking at vitally important trends. He cited, for instance, a Time magazine cover of Greta Thunberg which depicted her as a standard bearer for a generational battle against climate change. This gave the impression that older people don’t care about climate change when research shows there is no real generational difference in attitudes to climate change. This can stop people from coming together to address the problem, said Professor Duffy.

There is also a danger, he stated, that we end up looking in the wrong place for underlying trends and ignore the bigger picture. For instance, he cited a report which exaggerated a small increase in teen suicides when the big picture shows there has been a larger increase in suicides among middle aged men.

Culture wars

Professor Duffy added that all the recent culture wars are not unusual. The issues might change, but the ratios between the generations don’t, for instance, he referred to research on attitudes to women staying at home in the 1980s vs current attitudes on the British empire. In fact, he said such differences in generational attitudes are often beneficial and represent a type of ‘demographic metabolism’ that is essential to moving societies forward.

However, Professor Duffy said he did believe that we are currently going through a time of more fractious politics, social media and media which is adding to the culture wars, a concept which has been imported from the US where some are beginning to tire of it. And he said fake generational differences are distracting from generational and intergenerational inequality, for instance, around housing.

Another issue is growing geographical segregation with younger people in towns and cities and older people in smaller villages as well as the digital divide between older and younger people. “Separation fuels stereotyping,” he stated, adding that it also risks losing the benefits of intergenerational connection. Growing individualism and the emphasis on the nuclear family also means that different generations have less support to fall back on, he added.

Professor Duffy said he is not in favour of losing labels such as millennials, Gen X, Gen Z and Boomers as these are very prevalent in advertising and consultancy. Abandoning them will not stop them being used. What is needed, he said, is better analysis of the terms and the differences between generations.

Professor Jane Falkingham, Director of the ESRC Connecting Generations Centre, agreed. She fears the UK is sliding towards the kind of age-based politics we have seen in the US and said that Covid may have exacerbated this. However, she added that we need to remember that, while we may all be members of different age cohorts, we are also members of multigenerational families which can build intergenerational solidarity.

She is interested in doing more research on the issue of spatial segregation and on the inequalities that might exist within different cohorts as well as between them so that discussions on generational issues can be more evidence-based.

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