A Clear and Nuanced View on Generational Conflict

At the onset of the pandemic, plenty of the trade-offs that societies were asked to make were of a generational flavor. Young people were asked to give up their immediate dreams, their friendships, their jobs, and many of the freedoms that they until then had taken for granted. This was all in the service of preventing the spread of a disease that largely harmed the elderly. 

You’d think that this would make the social and moral divisions in our generational conflicts worse, but surveys suggest that most young people were happy to give up these freedoms. 

In King’s College London professor Bobby Duffy’s new book Generations, we get a glimpse of what might be going on. Early on he comments on this “incredible compliance with extraordinary measures imposed mainly to protect older generations,” surprised at the “lack of rebellion” from young people. This, we learn across the book’s dense 270-odd pages, isn’t so strange. Generations are not as clearly separated from one another as most people think, both along their fuzzy edges and in the content of their beliefs. Over and over, Duffy questions the cataclysmic rifts between them, and shows two things that undermine most stories of generational conflicts. First, we usually have more in common with friends, neighbors, and family members up or down a few generations than we do strangers across the country. Second, how a society currently treats its elderly is the best indication we have for how that same society will one day treat us. He makes the commonsense objection that “our familial attachments, both up and down the generations, remain stronger than our connections to our peer groups.”

Just like Duffy’s previous book, The Perils of Perception, Generations is an exercise in dispelling myths. There are often vast differences between what is true and what people think is true about all manner of things, generations included. Equipped with graphs and survey results from across the western world, Duffy calmly walks us through many of our current myths: young people are not more materialistic than previous generations at the same ages, or more likely to change jobs, ”in stark contrast to their image as disloyal job-hoppers.” 

The three conceptual tools at Duffy’s disposal are Period effects, Lifecycle effects, and Cohort effects. A period effect is something that happens to everyone at the same time: all generations are affected at once, like the pandemic, 9/11, or Duffy’s striking graphical example: terrorism fears in France around 2015-16. A lifecycle effect is something that a person goes through in life, and in time all generations get there. A cohort effect is a set of people doing things differently, where a specific generation believes different things or does things differently than the ones preceding or following them. The example Duffy uses is attending religious services, where the younger generations do so at a less frequent rate, even compared to older generations when they were at the same age. 

Most talk of generations seems to imply that a person’s behavior or attitudes are entirely explained by cohort effects. That ignores any potential lifecycle or period effects that often contain a richer understanding of what’s going on. The downside is that you have to wait a decade or two before making a more informed judgment (and if you do, the memory of what you once thought about the next generation is likely quite hazy).  

The most important conclusion of Generations is that many objections to millennials’ flaws are the result of a delayed adulthood effect, in everything from car ownership to moving out of their parents’ basement to pairing up and getting married, millennials are late to the party. But once they get started, they end up at about the same place as previous generations. The graphs comparing millennials’ development with baby boomers (born 1945-1965 or so) or Gen Xers (1966-1979) are merely shifted a few years. 

As it turns out, people do not become more conservative as they age. Social media and/or phone use does not seem to explain anxiety and depression among the young, at least not more than other factors like sleep, eating breakfast, or potato consumption. Contrary to their reputation as gym rats with a hyperfocus on healthy eating, more millennials are fat compared to the previous generation at the same age: “millennials are the first cohort in England to reach their mid-twenties with a minority being a healthy weight.” It’s even worse in the U.S., with around 40% of millennials obese in 2018, compared to roughly 30% of Gen Xers at the same age (in 2004). 

Some of the media hype around millennials is true, for instance about alcohol use: “[r]egular drinking is one of the clearest examples of a cohort effect we’ll see in this book” – with every generation consistently reporting less frequent alcohol consumption. The ‘Sex Recession’ also checks out, though the vagaries of the survey method casts some doubts on the results. More importantly, it seems that millennials are slowly catching up to their Gen X predecessors and baby boomer parents; perhaps the Sex Recession among younger people is yet another instance of “delayed adulthood?” 

In the political sphere, millennials and Gen Zers (the very youngest, born after 1996) enter the scene trusting government more than other generations, but then are quickly weaned off such bad habits: “[t]he tendency is for confidence in government to be lost through repeated disappointments.” The imminent death of party politics is another idea that doesn’t seem likely to play out, neither in the U.S. nor the U.K. Among all generations the percentage of adults who consider themselves supporters of one party (Democrats vs Republicans in the U.S., the handful of parliamentary parties in the U.K.) are nothing but flat lines over forty to fifty years. 

One of the bigger problems in Duffy’s approach for societal scrutiny is his the heavy reliance on surveys. We don’t know how often people tell the truth, and, even worse, when they either troll the pollsters or don’t understand the question. As an example, when asked what generation they belonged to, almost one-tenth of millennials (born 1980-1995 or so) identified as members of the greatest generation (born 1900-1920). Duffy seems unconcerned.

Surveys can be noisy, because of the nature of the questions or the way respondents are selected. The errors can be inconsistent over time, and thus not comparable from one generation to another. Multiplying that problem is that sometimes Duffy draws graphs over several decades with just a handful of data points. Noise and composition effects can swamp any perceived difference in the underlying question.

Still, presented just as in Perils of Perception, Duffy’s newest is not moralistic. He is more concerned with correcting myths and falsehoods than advocating reforms. It’s nuanced, balanced, and careful – the troubles with his method aside. 

Duffy is the first to admit that there are differences between the generations, but upon closer scrutiny many of them fall apart. Many stereotypes of our generations require both nuance and honest qualifications.

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