THE GENERATION WARS
BY JENNIE BRISTOW
From the generation of 1914 to the Millennials, what can generational labels really tell us?
‘I can’t wait to read it because it’s going to be sick and I’m in it, and then I can give it to my mum so she can stop fucking asking me what I’m thinking all the time.’ So said Kurt, 16, to the journalist Chloe Combi about her new book, Generation Z: Their Voices, Their Lives. Generation Z, explains Combi, were born between 1995 and 2001. They have ‘never known a world without the internet’ and have ‘grown up with violence and porn at their fingertips via an object unknown just one generation before: a smartphone’; they are, also, ‘growing up in a world shadowed with economic uncertainty, shrinking job prospects, widening social inequality and political apathy’.
They are much discussed, fretted about, and caricatured. But who – or what – is Generation Z, really?
In the course of writing her book, Combi was often asked how she would label this generation – the teens and young adults of today. ‘Are they the Internet Generation, the Sex-Mad Generation, the Social-Media Generation, the Celebrity-Obsessed Generation or the Not-Much-To-See-Here Generation?’, she asks. ‘Technology, the media, sex, celebrity and apathy are certainly features of this generation. But there is so much more to Generation Z.’
Demonstrating this point, Combi interviewed dozens of young people from across the UK, ranging from those whose lives are painfully distressing and chaotic, to others whose lives ‘are so achingly normal that they worry if it rains too much’. ‘There was a temptation to string together all the most shocking and affecting vignettes, but this would have been disingenuous’, she writes. ‘The mundane is as much a feature of being a teenager as the fantastic.’
In consequence, the big strength of Combi’s book is its absence of analysis. Sure, the teenagers’ voices are edited into short snippets, arranged under particular themes – family, relationships, sex, school, technology, class and so on – editorialisation by the back door, if you like. But because we hear from kids with many different outlooks and experiences, Combi’s book spares us the sanctimonious generalisations usually associated with writing about ‘generations’.
Even the final chapter, ominously headed ‘Looking to the Future and Advice for the Next Generation’, is not completely dominated by worthy exhortations to work hard at school, plan for the future, take up sports and learn foreign languages. ‘I have nothing to offer but don’t use fake tan’, says Maggie, 17. ‘It lowers your IQ and makes you look like an Oompa Loompa.’ ‘This probably counts for boys and girls, but especially boys: don’t let anyone with braces give you head’, advises Oshane, 18.
The problem of generationalism
In opting not to play the label game, Combi has provided a badly needed corrective to the overstated claims about generational conflicts and differences that have become a prominent feature of policy and media debates today. In discussions about everything from pensions and housing to education and mental health, we are presented with claims about the ‘Baby Boomer generation’, ‘Generation X’, ‘the Millennials’ and now ‘Generation Z’, which seek to distil the experiences of a wide range of individuals, all of whom happened to be born in a particular historical moment, into a uniform outlook, and which also exaggerate the differences between the generations.
These debates feed into a wider discourse of generationalism, in which social and political trends and tensions are systematically presented and diagnosed with reference to the concept of generation. In recent years, this concept has become increasingly used as a way, not merely of characterising people who grew up in different eras, but of explaining an expanding range of wider social problems. Thus, as I have argued on spiked, politicians, policymakers and commentators have become increasingly comfortable with using the language of generations to explain such diverse problems as spiralling house prices (the Baby Boomers bought all the housing); badly behaved children (parents don’t know how to raise them); and problems with the education system (young people today think and learn in a different way to previous generations of children – with iPads!).
These problems are not, strictly speaking, generational issues at all. They are the product of wider economic, social and cultural shifts, which in more political times would have been thought about in terms of the values our society wants to promote, or the kind of policies that should be developed. Presenting them as ‘generational’ issues implies that there is a clear and significant gap between the experiences and expectations of different generations: that society is fragmented along generational lines. It also implies that this presumed gap between the generations is problematic, and that policymakers can and should intervene to address it.
The narrative of ‘Boomer-blaming’, which has been peddled by politicians and commentators from across the political spectrum, seeks a pat explanation for complex social problems, and personalises them in a way that can only incite resentment between the generations. Thus, former higher education minister David Willetts, author of The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back, argues that, because of the Baby Boomers’ size and the selfishness of their behaviour, ‘young people are stuck outside, their noses are pressed to the window, unable to get on the housing ladder, into a well-paid job or to build up a pension’.
The more left-leaning Francis Beckett, author of What Did The Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?, complains that ‘six decades after its birth, the welfare state is in the worst danger it has known’, because of the selfishness of the Boomers: ‘We created a far harsher world for our children to grow up in. It was as though we decided that the freedom and lack of worry that we had inherited was too good for our children, and we pulled up the ladder we had climbed.’
For the British Millennial writers Ed Howker and Shiv Malik, ‘the children of the Baby Boomers, the so-called “Boomer echo”’ – a demographic ‘lump’ that ‘begins in 1979 and continues until 1994’ – is a generation that has been ‘jilted’ out of its rightful future. The American Millennial writer Anya Kamenetz sums up the plight facing ‘Generation Debt’ in the subtitle: ‘How our future was sold out for student loans, bad jobs, no benefits, and tax cuts for rich geezers – and how to fight back’.
Politicising relations between the generations is a destructive pursuit. It encourages people to conceptualise social problems in personal terms: in the case of Boomer-blaming, placing the problems of the world squarely at their parents’ door, and castigating ‘the old’ for standing in the way of ‘the new’. It presents a rigid view of history, in which a younger generation is simply waiting in the wings for its chance to move up ‘the ladder’ – as though life was ever as straightforward and as neatly organised as that.
Read more: www.spiked-online.com