Too often discussion of generations descends into stereotypes and manufactured conflicts – avocado-obsessed, narcissistic millennials against selfish, wasteful baby boomers. Instead of serious analysis, we get apocryphal predictions about millennials “killing” everything from wine corks to the napkin industry.
Such discourse wouldn’t be so worrisome if it didn’t sully genuine research into generational differences, a powerful tool to understand and anticipate societal shifts. They can provide unique and often surprising insights into how societies and individuals develop and change.
That is because generational changes are like tides: powerful, slow-moving and relatively predictable. Once a generation is set on a course, it tends to continue, which helps us see likely futures. That is true even through severe shocks like war or pandemic, which tend to accentuate and accelerate trends. Existing vulnerabilities are ruthlessly exposed, and we are pushed further and faster down paths we were already on.
We tend to settle into our value systems and behaviours during late childhood and early adulthood, so generation-shaping events have a stronger impact on people who experience them while coming of age. This is why it is vitally important to heed the lessons we learn by looking at previous generations so we can understand what the covid-19 pandemic will mean for those growing up through it, and use those insights to help Generation Covid meet the unprecedented challenges ahead.
Some approaches that define swathes of the population purely on when people were born are closer to astrology than serious analysis. The type of generational analysis I use in my new book, Generations: Does when you’re born shape who you are?, however, is built …
A Guest Editorial