We observe and think about generations at two different but interconnected levels; at the family level and at the societal level. We all have a family generational position in relation to the ascending generations, meaning that we all have parents and grandparents and so on, whether they’re still alive or not. Most older adults also have a family generational position in relation to descending generations, meaning that we have children, possibly also grandchildren and even great grandchildren. As longevity increases, more people are members of three, four, or even five family generations for longer periods of time. At the societal level, the notion of generation is less straightforward because it assumes a more culturally defined meaning.
By virtue of having been born at a particular time, we are all members of a particular cohort. For instance, the 1972 birth cohort. In addition to sharing a cohort defined by their time of birth, members of a generation are also supposed to have similar attitudes, world view, and beliefs grounded in their shared context and experiences accumulated over time. In the Western world, the most commonly used generation labels are Generation X, Generation Y, and in some countries that experienced a surge in births post-Second World War, this Baby Boomer Generation is often seen to have distinct shared characteristics.
It is sometimes argued that societal generation has been hollowed out as a sociological concept, because cohort members are differentiated by a range of other characteristics, such as their gender, social class, religion, and so on, meaning they have much less in common than the notion of societal generations suggests. For instance, while consumer culture became widespread in many countries during the youth of the so-called Baby Boomers, they still continue to be differentiated by their ability to spend in old age due to differences in earnings power and consumption habits over their life course. Despite these caveats, the idea of generations as cohorts with shared experiences and attitudes continues to feature prominently in policy debates, media, academic literature, and everyday talk.
Generational observing refers to the process of witnessing the practices of younger and older generations around us at family or societal level or both. Generational observing is something we all engage in. It is a form of every day theorising, thinking about and trying to explain the behaviours of others around us. Based on these observations, we formulate ideas about what different generations are like and how they differ from the generation that we associate ourselves with. For instance, I might notice that people who are younger than I am are more avid users of social media. I might come to see them as digital natives who are more comfortable with communicating in the online environment.
This perception might encourage me to catch up with them by trying to learn about social media, or I might decide that this is something that a person of my generation does not really have to bother with. So, generational observing is more than just assigning labels to different societal generations around us. This practice becomes dynamic when we start to calibrate our own behaviour and expectations in accordance with how we understand different generations. Let’s listen to some of the people we interviewed in a recent study called ‘Changing Generations’. This is Alice– not her real name– who was 68 at the time of her interview.
She told the research team that she avoids asking her daughter for help because she’s witnessing her extremely busy life. My daughter is very outgoing. She’s in to different things. She has four kids, and she’s always running and racing. She brings them to sports, and she doesn’t have a minute. So I wouldn’t call on her. In another example of generational observing, Barry, in his early 40’s, describes a moment when it dawned on him that a recently retired neighbour had also lived through challenging economic times at an earlier stage in his life.
I met a next door neighbour the other day, and I was thinking to myself, well, he’s only after just retiring and he’s really in a comfortable place at the moment. And then the thought struck me, well, he had to have lived through some difficult times, as well. These are just a few examples of how we observe societal and family generations around us, and how these observations affect our attitudes, thinking, and behaviour. We have a tendency to attribute positive traits to our own generation. For instance, the idea that we have superior work ethic or better manners. But we’re also capable of appreciating the positive differences between our own characteristics and those of younger or older generations.
Generation is a conceptual device used to perform several tasks, to apportion blame, to express pity, concern, and solidarity, but also to highlight unfairness and inequity. By looking around us more closely, we can develop a more nuanced understanding of how the changing social and structural circumstances shape the lives of different generations.
List one positive trait that you believe people in your generation have, and one negative one. Think of a different generation and do the same. What might make you change your mind about these?