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The myths and meanings of a generation

KCL Policy Institute

Lazy, entitled, out of touch — whenever you were born, you’ve probably heard one of these terms, if not all, ascribed to your generation.

A lot of us think that generational identity says something about us, and we may generalize a lot of our own beliefs and experiences, thinking that they also apply to other members of our generation. We also tend to make assumptions about other generations based on unique impressions. This isn't a new phenomenon — even Socrates thoughtthe generation following his was the worst. These generalizations have led to some very funny memes — but the data doesn’t support them.

It turns out a lot of what we believe about generational identity and differences is more myth than fact.

Bobby Duffy is a professor of public policy and the director of the Policy Institute at King's College London. His new book, "Generation Myth: Why When You’re Born Matters Less Than You Think," is the culmination of years of research and study into generational differences.

“Generation difference and thinking is a big idea, but it has been horribly corrupted by stereotypes and myths that mislead us,” Duffy said on Talk of Iowa. “It makes us miss the difference that we actually see between generations.”

To understand generational differences and these stereotypes, its useful to examine how generations are formed. The study of generations and their distinctions grew quickly after the first World War. "That was seen as such a traumatic event and experienced so differently by young and old that it was seen to form a completely different world view and mindset," Duffy said.

In working on generational research and graphing data about different generations, Duffy noticed patterns emerging. He said that such generation-influencing factors can be divided into three "period effects." The first are changes that correlate to events that affect entire societies.

"So where something happens, and we are all affected to some degree, so classically that would be a big event like a financial crash or a pandemic that affects us differently, but it affects society as a whole. It can also be like slow cultural changes that we're all affected by, say our attitudes to homosexuality or to women's role in society, those types of things."

These large events shape individuals, especially younger people. "We are more malleable in our late teens and early 20s, when we're forming our adult identities that stick with those longer," said Duffy. "So what's happening around the time you're going through those years of your life is the bigger shaping factor for you than what happens later." The Great Depression, world wars — and the coronavirus pandemic — are such events.

The second period effect, said Duffy, are cycle effects — life stages like leaving home, getting married and having kids. Such changes evolve based on changing societal norms and attitudes.

"Then the third effect is these cohort effects, where a generation is different from other generations, and it stays different. And that's because it was brought up in a different sort of period and that shaped its attitudes or behaviors. And really, it's the interaction between those three things. They explain all types of change in society. The job of the book is not to prove or disprove that something is a cohort or generation effect. It's just to look at how those three effects interact and explain how change happens overall."

These period effects interact with one another and contribute to the discrepancies we see when comparing generations. "There are big generational stories about how we've changed, and our experience has been different depending on when we were born. That’s mixed up with utter nonsense about generations being materialistic or lazy, and then all sorts of great clichés around millennials killing the napkin industry ... it's very distracting from really important realities."

Aside from older individuals blaming younger generations for killing industries or other such clichés, people also stereotype older generations.

"One of the most destructive generational stereotypes is that older people don't care about climate change," said Duffy. "But the trouble is when you look at the actual evidence of this, there is hardly any gap between young and old now, on concern about the climate ... it's not just a false representation, it's also quite a destructive stereotype because it sends the message to older people that the rest of their cohort don't really care about climate. And we know that that affects people's behaviors and views of themselves, that if they keep getting the message — and we've shown this in some of the polling — if people keep getting the message that you don't care, you're not doing anything, then that tends to inform your own behavior and you actually start to live up to that."

This type of thinking also puts the onus entirely onto young people. "It's easy to swing between either the worst generation ever or these are our coming saviors, and they're just so much better than we ever were, and they will sort everything out," said Duffy. "I mean, Barack Obama does this quite a lot in his autobiography and in his other speeches, he talks about his enormous faith in the coming generations who believe in equality in a deeper way than their parents did, or on climate or on other types of things. And I think that is a risk, to be honest, because there's nothing in the data that shows that there is a steep change and there is a break between generations on these types of things. It is much more gradual than that."

Change is gradual, and neither problems nor solutions can be attributed to one generation. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"I took a lot of confidence and optimism, really, from looking at these long term trends to show how much we can change things if we put an effort into it. And it kind of gives you the same sort of sense of a post-COVID recovery, and whether we really can build back better. We can build back better because we've seen that in the past. It just needs that focus and commitment to action.”

Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa