Does It Make Sense to Categorize People According to Generations?

Why Your Birth Is Less Important Than You Think
by Bobby Duffy

Why is it unacceptable to make sweeping generalizations about people on the basis of gender, race, sexuality, or nationality, but it’s perfectly fine to stereotype them based on arbitrarily defined “generations”? Millennials (roughly, those born between 1980 and 1995) have been demonized as narcissistic snowflakes who spend so much money on avocado toast that they can’t afford to buy property. Meanwhile, baby boomers are selfish, technophobic sociopaths who steal the future of the younger generation. And such that. What is the truth behind such stereotypes, and is there any value in seeing the world through a lens through generations?

These are the questions that British social researcher Bobby Duffy addresses in his book “The Generation Myth.” The title gives the impression that it wants to dynamite the whole idea of ​​dividing people into generations. In fact, it offers a careful examination of this kind of “generational thinking” that rejects lazy myths and superficial experts for a more nuanced analysis of the factors that shape long-term changes in attitudes and behaviors. “Most of what you’ve been told is generational,” he writes, “actually not.”

Duffy argues that three separate mechanisms cause such long-term changes. “Period effects” are experiences that affect everyone, regardless of age, such as the financial crisis of 2008 or the coronavirus pandemic. “Life cycle effects” are changes that occur as people age or as a result of major events such as leaving home, getting married, or having children. People tend to gain weight as they get older, regardless of which generation they belong to, for example. Finally, “cohort effects” are attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors common to people of a given generation.

In short, the problem with purely generational framing is that it focuses entirely on cohort effects and misses the other two-thirds of the picture. Duffy takes this framework and applies it to a range of topics, from the economy, housing and employment to sex, health and politics, and gleefully debunks myths as he progresses.

For example, it is often claimed that people in their 20s are indecisive job seekers who are not loyal to their employers. It is true that young people tend to change jobs voluntarily more often than their families, but this has been true since the 1980s. Millennials turned out to be 20 percent to 25 percent less likely to voluntarily switch jobs than Gen X members of the same age because there are fewer secure, permanent jobs than they used to be. So what we’re looking at here is a period, not a group, but an effect.

Similarly, young people are said to be more purposeful and place more emphasis on the ethical sourcing of products. But international studies show that millennials and millennials are less likely to boycott products to protest corporate behavior than baby boomers or Gen X members.

Yet some things are truly generational. While successive generations are less religious, religiosity within generations flattens roughly over time—a fairly clear cohort effect. But many so-called generational shifts are actually due to growing financial inequality between young and old. Teens are leaving home later than their same-age parents because they earn less and housing becomes much more expensive, not because they’re snowflakes or narcissists. Accusing them of laziness confuses period and cohort effects.

Before reading this book, I assumed that generational analysis was of no value. Duffy shows that it really is, provided it’s done with care. Unfortunately, despite their valiant efforts, overgeneralizations are unlikely to go away. But whether you’re a skeptic or someone who believes in the idea that the generation label means something, you’ll learn something from this fun and informative book.

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