Talkin’ ‘bout a generation: understanding youth and change

Can the concept of a generation cover all the diverse people of a certain age cohort in an intellectually useful way? Artens/Shutterstock

Making sense of what is happening in our own time requires sharp thinking. Today, however, catch-phrases and clichés abound. More specifically we rely on cliches about generations. Journalists, bestselling authors, academics, entertainers, songwriters and “ordinary” people all talk about generations: “Gen X”, “Gen Y” or the “Millennials”, “DotNets”, “Gen Next”, the “Lost Generation”, “Me Generation”, “Narcissistic Generation”, “Digital Natives” and so on and on.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt warned of the damage to our thinking posed by a reliance on stock-phrases and adherence to conventional standardised codes of expression – words like “globalisation”, “technological change”, “crisis” and so on. She spoke of how such language confuses, obfuscates, shields us from reality and makes the task of figuring out what is going on difficult.

While observing Eichmann’s 1961 trial for his crimes against humanity, Arendt observed his reliance on cliché-ridden language in the witness box – as he had done in his official life – which produced a kind of chilling comedy. She connected that language use to Eichmann’s incapacity for independent and critical thought, to his “authentic inability to think” beyond or manage situations in which routine procedures did not exist.

George Orwell similarly warned against “doublespeak”. He identified how words with official definitions are used “badly”; words that are vague and slide in their meaning can cloud our thinking and encourage us to see in particular ways.

“Generation” usually refers to those born into a common timeframe, like “Baby Boomers” (1945-65) or “Millennials” (born after 1980). The idea is that members of a generation share common psychological dispositions, attitudes and beliefs, or exhibit the same behaviours and ways of living.

Going beyond generalisations

Can we say something meaningful about a group just because its members were born into a particular time? Given what Arendt and Orwell said, we may want to avoid talking about generations on the grounds this corrupts language and degrades our thinking. Yet further thought suggests that talking about generations may have some value.

German sociologist Karl Mannheim provided a clue to how to do this in his essay The Problem of Generations. Mannheim was one of the first modern theorists to develop a sociological account of generation. He did so as part of his endeavour to develop a hermeneutic alternative to Marxist and traditional ideas on social change.

He saw time as an internal and subjective experience. This enabled him to recognise and value the diversity of our outlooks, which are fashioned in response to different social, cultural and geographic events. Mannheim used the idea of “generation” to refer to a social location and dynamic interplay between being born at a particular time and events like wars, revolutions or economic processes that occur in the lives of that age cohort.

Karl Mannheim provided an insight into how differences and agreements over formative events shape a generation. Wikimedia Commons

In this way, “generation” refers to people of a similar age whose characteristic aspirations, ideas and experience are shaped in response to major events. “Generation” thus refers to a consciousness that guides our approach to the world, which is shaped by certain historic events or trends. That helps explain why one generation differs from others and how change takes place.

Mannheim also argued that within any generation are a number of differentiated, antagonistic “generation units”. These generation units imply an orientation toward each other, a binding connection between members.

The idea of generational units helps provide some understanding of what is now going on. It encourages a recognition that those who spend their formative years in the same context, experiencing historic events, need not interpret and experience those events the same ways. Germans who grew up during the Napoleonic wars of the 1800s responded differently: some became liberals and others romantic conservatives.

Mannheim understood that any generation includes groups shaped as much by their differences, even disagreements, as by the things they agree on. Taking a leaf from Mannheim’s book provides a useful starting point for thinking about young people and change.

Historic events shape times and lives

Certain disruptive, large-scale historic events of late have touched the lives of those who spent their formative years in that milieu, but not with the same effect.

We can appreciate what is now taking place by acknowledging the impact of patterned large-scale arrangements, how they constrain and open choices, how they enable and disable our capacities. We can also acknowledge what phenomenological intellectual traditions offer for understanding meanings and perceptions.

With this in mind, it is possible to argue that our location in a socio-historic time establishes the parameters of our formative experiences. This informs our development in ways that affect who we are, who we become and how we act.

Thus each generation has a distinctive historical consciousness, or spirit of the time. It is shaped by specific historical events that guide our approach to the world. Provided we are mindful of certain qualifications and the inherently fuzzy quality of social classifications, it is possible to talk meaningfully about generation.

Three recent historic events – the rise of neoliberalism, the digital revolution and globalisation – characterised a global milieu from the late 1970s that created conditions significantly different to earlier decades. They touched and shaped the lives of those born since then.

Yet there are limits to how far we can generalise about generational effects. Being able to understand what is going on, to appreciate the complexity and diversity at play, depends on our capacity to understand particular situations and on our willingness not to sacrifice tighter, focused and detailed analysis for generalities.


See the rest of the Another Country: Youth in Australia series here.

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