Who are the generations?

David Kingman takes a step back from talking about intergenerational justice to ask where the dividing lines between the different generations should be drawn.Happy family

Which generation do you belong to? This is something which many people never really stop to consider, even though it has a huge impact on their life.

Even though we rarely acknowledge it, everyone is shaped to some degree by the age in which they are born. As Napoleon was once alleged to have said, “If you want to understand a man, look at the world as it was when he was 20.”

Yet at the same time, we need to be careful about making too many generalisations. As IF co-founders Shiv Malik and Ed Howker say in their book Jilted Generation, “All these generational divides are far from exact, and we’re not going to pretend that there are too many similarities between members of each cohort.”

People who research intergenerational justice are very concerned with conflict between the generations, but this makes it doubly important to know who we talking about when we refer to them. With this in mind, here is a brief guide to understanding the three most important generations in current British society:

Baby Boomers

This is the generation born during the so-called “baby boom” following World War Two, when Britain’s birth rate remained unusually high for a sustained period between 1945 and 1964.

The Baby Boomers are often acknowledged for their huge impact on British society, as their sheer weight of numbers has made them the dominant age group economically, culturally and politically at each stage of the life cycle. When they were youngsters, the unprecedented number of youthful people who were alive at the same time led to the birth of teenager culture, and a complete shift in youth culture which is still being felt today. In middle age, they acted as the major driving force behind the economy, while their power as consumers played a key role in the 1980s and 90s boom in mass consumption and technology.

Now that they are ageing – the first female Boomers reached the State Pension Age in 2005 and the first male ones joined them in 2010, while another 3.5 million of them will retire during the next five years – the Baby Boomers look set to change our thinking towards old age as well, while it will take a huge amount of resources to look after them.

Generation X

The origins of this term are disputed, although some people have argued that Generation X was first coined by a journalist called Jane Deverson in 1964, while she was working on a study into British youth habits, although it didn’t achieve mainstream popularity until the publication of the novel Generation X: Tales from Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland in 1991.

The definition it invokes is based less on measurable trends, such as a decline in the birth rate, and more on perceived cultural changes which are supposed to have begun with the end of the Baby Boomer era in the mid-1960s, and ended with political changes which marked the beginning of the Thatcher and Reagan era in 1979–80.

A straightforward way of thinking about Generation X is that many of its members would have been the children of the Baby Boomers who came earlier. With this in mind, the term is often used in a negative sense to refer to a generation who are thought to have been broadly less successful than members of their parents’ generation.

As the author Patrick Neate argued in an article for The Independent:

“Symptoms that have long been commonly attributed to Generation X include the following: cynicism, alienation, amorality, solipsism, childlessness, pessimism, distrust of institutions, atheism and infantilism – for the most part, none too flattering. Factors commonly considered to be behind these symptoms include broken homes, the Cold War threat (and fear of nuclear holocaust), Aids and career insecurity. Cheery, eh?”

Whether this is true or not is open to significant debate, although the same criticisms are often made of the generation which came after them, Generation Y.

Generation Y

Generation Y – essentially, those born into the post-1979 world characterised by neoliberalism, mass consumer culture, rapid technological change and anxiety over Global Warming – is just one label which has been used to describe this most pressured of cohorts.

“Generation Rent,” the “Boomer-angst generation” and, in the words of Shiv Malik and Ed Howker, the “Jilted Generation” all refer to different aspects of the multi-faceted dilemmas facing the members of this age group. As the two IF co-founders argue:

“Theirs would be the first generation to receive student loans and be compelled to pay tuition fees while their contemporaries, born just weeks earlier, and who therefore entered school a full year beforehand, would pay nothing. That they would start their university careers in the very year when property prices began their skyrocketing trajectory far beyond the future incomes of Britain’s young workers seems unlucky. And that they will spend the next 30 years of their working lives paying off the implicit government debt, and the very explicitly deficit, seems somehow ill-fated too. And this, of course, assumes that they get a job, since many of them are joining the employment market following the worst recession in decades.”  

Posted on: 2 January, 2013

3 thoughts on “Who are the generations?

  1. Barry Pearson

    It is fact, clearly seen in the statistics and graphics from the Office of Nation Statistics, that 1964-5 was the PEAK of a baby boom, and certainly not the end of one! (It was the peak of the baby boom of about 1955 to about 1974. There was also a mini baby boom from about 1978 to about 1992).

    Google for “United Kingdom, 1971-2085” to see an Office of National Statistics “Animated Population Pyramid”. Set it to (say) 2012 for confirmation. (Needless to say, there isn’t a better source of such data than the Office of National Statistics).

    Getting such facts right is important, for example to understand the electorate of various Prime Ministers. For example, Margaret Thatcher’s electorate in 1979 only included people born in 1961 and earlier, so her post-war electorate (1946-1961) was just 33% of the total electorate. Similarly, for David Cameron’s 2010 election the 1946-1965 cohort was also only 33% of the electorate.

    In both the 2005 and the 2010 elections, the post-1965 electorate was larger than the 1945-1965 electorate. There never was a true “sheer weight of numbers” of the 1945-65 electorate! All generations have been minorities of the electorate.

  2. Barry Pearson

    I’ve just published an article seeking to understand why people believe there was a baby boom from about 1945 to about 1965: “Why are people born 1945-1965 called baby boomers?”. I think the main influence was the USA, where there was exactly such a baby boom. (In the article I graphically compare the birth rates in the USA and UK for the relevant period).

    For interest, in the 2005 election, for the first time the post-1965 electorate was larger than the 1945-1965 electorate. Obviously this difference increases year by year:

    2005: post-1965 electorate 6% larger than the 1945-1965 electorate.
    2010: post-1965 electorate 36% larger than the 1945-1965 electorate.
    2015: post-1965 electorate 73% larger than the 1945-1965 electorate (estimated).
    2020: post-1965 electorate 110% larger than the 1945-1965 electorate (estimated).

    This is from my article “Baby booms in the electorates of the last 6 Prime Ministers”.

  3. Barry Pearson

    Another generation name in widespread use is “Millennial Generation”. It appears to be roughly the same as “Generation Y”, but I would like to see comments on this.

    A good reason to understand what the Millennial Generation is comes from Viacom’s global research study, “The Next Normal: An Unprecedented Look At Millennials Worldwide”, a PDF summary of which was published a couple of months ago. (A search for the-next-normal-an-unprecedented-look-at-millennials-worldwide.pdf should find it).

    It surveyed 3400 of the generation and 665 parents of the generation. There are various other summaries online. I think it is worth reading, (and perhaps blogging about here?), because it directly addresses how people of that generation feel about their lives, and also talks about some intergenerational matters such as comparisons with earlier generations.

    Just a couple of points: Over three-quarters describe themselves as “very happy”, and Millennials’ levels of happiness outweigh stress levels by a factor of over 2 to 1. Obviously they also tend to be very worried about economic concerns and job insecurity.

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