The illusion of generational politics

Meredith Lilly
March 16, 2014
There is something seductive about the neat organization of history and social trends into homogenous generational groups. Meredith Lilly disagrees. She argues that generations become less and less homogenous as they leave education, and that all cohorts have followed roughly the same pattern.

The illusion of generational politics

Meredith Lilly
March 16, 2014
There is something seductive about the neat organization of history and social trends into homogenous generational groups. Meredith Lilly disagrees. She argues that generations become less and less homogenous as they leave education, and that all cohorts have followed roughly the same pattern.
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Generational thinking has all the useful simplicity of an elastic tape measure. What was once a straightforward term indicating the interval of time needed for daughters to become mothers has come to explain every change in behaviour over any length of time. A generation can mean the gap between parents and children, a cohort of people born in the same year that complete school and other social milestones together or simply a stage of life. It is, wrote Sigrid Weigel, the “master trope of the twentieth century.”

Maintaining this trope takes effort. Distinct parcels of time do not form on their own; rather events unfold in an overlapping muddle of tastes, identities and experience, which we then sort in whichever way seems most sensible. Sometimes the results are illuminating. It would be difficult to draw lessons from history without some form of organization, but more often, the product of generational theory obscures the reality we endeavour to understand. The Millennial generation, my generation, is a testament to our increasingly desperate attempts to ascribe meaning to every cohort that ambles by.

How did we get here? Sociologist Karl Mannheim’s 1923 essay “The Problem of Generations” is partially responsible. Mannheim expanded and popularized a definition of generation that distilled ideas from philosophy and history to create a tool for the analysis of social movements. He postulated that we are most sensitive to change when we are young, so historical events that occur during the generational coming of age fundamentally shape our worldview. Further, he suspected that the fresh perspective brought into the world by new generations would drive social change.

He stopped short, however, of suggesting we could predict the arrival of each significant generation or that every generation would have a distinct sense of unity and identity. As historian Annie Kriegel wrote, some cohorts are not generations at all but merely waves: distinct when they first appear but quickly engulfed with the rest.

Youth is often confused with generational distinctiveness. Describing the habits of teenagers as worrying trends suits a certain type of columnist who enjoys sounding the death knell for order and authority. The asocial drifter, the fiercely independent individual who has little regard for traditional institutions is a stereotype that has been applied in turn to baby boomers, Generation X and Millennials. If baby boomers and their new-found conservatism are any indication, we can rest assured that Millennials, too, will go on to mature and start families and adopt the traditions that so often accompany this process. The restless character of Millennials is likely not related to any historical phenomenon but rather is a stage of development common to humanity.

To be fair, youth are particularly easy to pigeonhole. Public schooling standardizes our early life experience. Even those who attend non-traditional schools or are educated at home are required to demonstrate that they have fulfilled the same requirements as everyone else, while public daycares and universities have lengthened the time we spend in this standardized environment. We have far more liberty to choose our life plans than past generations did, but to begin, the majority of us complete a predictable course of milestones based on our age. In the absence of stable social identities, studenthood is one of society’s most homogenous cliques.

However, once school is completed, our long and relatively uniform life expectancies allow for unprecedented intergenerational socialization. For example, Millennials are sometimes called echo boomers, that is, the baby boom of the baby boomers. Demographical heft can make any group of people, no matter how dull, influential, but Millennials gain little strength from their numbers. Baby boomers, because of declining birth rates and increased life spans, continue to outnumber the echo generation in Canadian society. This may be distressing for those who believe with Max Planck that progress happens one funeral at a time, but for those who value the transfer of information between generations or who seek to preserve order, it is happy news. No matter how radical the latest editions, they are tempered, now more than ever, by the generations who came before.

There are no rules to dictate what makes a generation noteworthy. Historian Wulf Kansteiner notes that a wide variety of criteria has been used to add an air of significance to any chosen cohort. War lends itself to this purpose (the Lost Generation, the Greatest Generation), as does demographic data (the baby boomers). Lately, we have made do with technology. Both Millennials and Generation X gleaned much of their meaning from digitalization. Generation X came of age as computers and technology became centrally important. Their youth culture centred on television, and their economic outlook involved learning to work in an emerging service economy.

What supposedly sets Millennials apart is the acceleration of these innovations, an event that makes us, depending on who you ask, uniquely adaptive or uniquely distracted. Yet, this “new” phenomenon verges on cliché. Mannheim’s aforementioned essay, written nearly 100 years ago, expounded the “practical importance” of generational theory based on the “accelerated pace of social change characteristic of our time.” It will be interesting to see how many generations we can create on this premise before we are forced to admit that change in itself is not as momentous as it first appears. While technological innovation has undoubtedly reshaped the way we work and socialize, it is a much larger trend than can be contained, or properly explained, within a generational framework.

The recession is perhaps the second most commonly cited Millennial influence, earning us the title “generation jobless” or, less elegantly, “generation screwed.” Millennials came of age during a recession that led to some hardship, chiefly a 15 per cent unemployment rate in 2008-2009, compared with 8.3 per cent for the general population, along with anecdotal underemployment for the over-educated.

Youth unemployment numbers are usually much higher than general population numbers, reflecting in part the inclusion of 15 year olds in the youth cohort used by Statistics Canada, and a 15 per cent unemployment rate is not unheard of, but when coupled with boomer-generation comparisons, the situation appeared dire. What emerged from all of this was a grippingly dramatic story that combined the conflict between parent and child with class struggle and economic hardship: Baby boomers are aging and will need to be supported. Student debt is crippling. Globalization and technology are stealing our jobs.

This story is remarkably similar to the plight of Generation X, who had things much worse. Youth unemployment was significantly higher in both 1990 (17 per cent) and 1980-1981 (19 per cent). Millennials are not remarkably disadvantaged so much as baby boomers were uniquely advantaged. In fact, economist Stephen Gordon noted that the youth unemployment rate in 2012 was the same as the median youth unemployment rate since 1976 – 14.1 per cent. While none is so blessed as the baby boomers, Millennials have had an ordinary welcome into the workforce. The popularity of the “generation screwed” label reflects the strength of a compelling story, not the strength of the supporting data.

Popular analysis of the Millennial generation is rife with examples of how generational thinking fails to explain social trends. By ignoring Generation X, Millennials cannot begin to grasp how the economy has changed and therefore risk adopting a rather toxic identity. Andries van den Broek notes that even black Thursday, the day that marked the beginning of the Great Depression, did not result in “massive unemployment overnight” but was instead indicative of a wide variety of economic forces at work for some time. This may not be the most cheering example, but it illustrates the simple fact that historical events tend to happen gradually, not suddenly. While generational categories can be too broad when attempting to answer questions regarding the evolution of technology, presenting data from one cohort to compare with another can yield a misleadingly narrow view. In its weaker moments, generational thinking can miss both the forest and the trees.

All of this considered, what draws us to generational theory? Perhaps it comes down to the sense of certainty that the theory promises. People attempting to ground themselves in a historic way want very much for generational categories to be meaningful. Generations give individuals a collective identity without bestowing any particular expectation or responsibility on its bearers. As a public identity, it is free of the divisions that the more traditional categories of identity politics, such as ethnicity, gender and class, entail. To be a Millennial first is to belong to an entirely new group, flexible and unencumbered by organization but real enough to frame individual struggles as collective endeavours.

This is not to say that the questions of generational theory should be ignored or that social life should go unexamined. Rather, tracing trends in taste, technology and economics is a worthwhile pursuit that generational thinking is ill-equipped to facilitate. A poor theory is not benign, rather it confuses what it is meant to clarify and hides what it ought to reveal. When factual information is secondary to our commitment to find the next generation and endue it with meaning, the cost of maintaining the trope is nothing less than our grasp on reality.


Meredith Lilly is a writer in Toronto, Ontario. She holds a Master of Arts degree in political science from the University of Calgary as well as a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from the University of Toronto. She has worked for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, the Fraser Institute and the Prairie Policy Centre. Her political commentary has been published in various newspapers across the country.


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