Generational difference is one of the major issues of our time. Game shows like Talkin’‘bout Your Generation assume that Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y contestants have very different attitudes and knowledge.
Social and market researchers constantly map generational conflict at work or at home and the diverse behaviour of different age cohorts.
But “generation” is a slippery, misused concept, with pop sociologists and media making all sorts of assumptions about different generations without properly exploring the social and historical factors that might make for distinctive generational experience – or not.
Within an extended family it is relatively easy to talk about succeeding generations – children, parents and grandparents – in which age of parenting determines the gap between each generation, albeit a gap that varies within families and across time and place.
Social “generations” are more complicated. Media and market researchers tend to accept a set of Australian generational ascriptions that comprise “Builders” (born 1925-46), “Baby Boomers” (1947-64), “Generation X” (1965-79) and “Generation Y” (1980-94).
The arguments for those groupings are flimsy.
The Baby Boomers are usually taken as a definitional starting point, which makes demographic sense of the post-war baby boom.
But other so-called “generations” are often determined by working backwards and forwards in time in 15 to 20 year blocks.
Do those generational cohorts make historical sense? What about people born on the cusp? And how might generational experience vary according to class, gender, ethnicity, race and region?
Some researchers argue that an age cohort only becomes a self-conscious “generation” if it shaped at a formative age by profound social or political events.
Thus the Baby Boomers may well have become a generation in their teens and early 20s as they lived through and were shaped by the social transformations of the late 60s and early 70s.
Young men and women born between about 1910 and 1925 who came of age during World War II perhaps also forged a common “generational” bond through their extraordinary shared experience and their creation of a powerful collective memory and identity.
Talkin' ‘bout your generation
The Australian Generations Oral History Project aims to explore the historical experience of Australians born since 1930, and the nature and meaning of Australian “generations”.
We will conduct life history interviews with 50 Australians born in each decade from the 1930s to the 1980s.
These interviews will explore “ordinary” Australians’ everyday lives over time, and how the dramatic changes of the past century have impacted upon life experiences and expectations.
People who are already comfortable in telling their life story and can see the personal and political significance of putting that story on the record are keen to contribute.
But our challenge will be to record the more silent Australians who do not think that their “ordinary” lives are historically significant.
Our project will gather some of these less vocal stories and challenge generational conventions. But the long-term success of the project will be tested by historians a hundred years hence, who may make better sense than we can of the Australian generations of our time.