Bobby Duffy on Generation Myths

Social Science Bites

Sep 1 2022 • 20 mins

In the West we routinely witness instances of intergenerational sniping – Boomers taking potshots at over-privileged and under-motivated Millennials, and Millennials responding with a curt, “OK, Boomer.” What do we make of this, and is it anything new?

These are questions Bobby Duffy, professor of public policy and director of the Policy Institute at Kings College London, addresses in his latest book, Generations – Does when you’re born shape who you are? (published as The Generation Myth in the United States). In this Social Science Bites podcast, Duffy offers some key takeaways from the book and his research into the myths and stereotypes that have anchored themselves on generational trends.

“My one-sentence overview of the book,” Duffy tells interviewer David Edmonds, “is that generational thinking is a really big idea throughout the history of sociology and philosophy, but it’s been horribly corrupted by a whole slew of terrible stereotypes, myths and cliches that we get fed from media and social media about these various differences between generations. My task is not to say whether it’s all nonsense or it’s all true; it’s really to separate the myth from reality so we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

One thing he’s learned is that the template for generational conflict is fairly standard over time, even if the specifics of what’s being contested are not.

“The issues change,” he explains, “but the gap between young and old at any one point in time is actually pretty constant. … We’re not living through a time of particularly ‘snowflake,’ ‘social justice warrior’ young people vs. a very reactionary older group – it’s just the issues have changed. The pattern is the same, but the issues have changed.”

Taking a look at climate change, for example, he notes that there’s a narrative that caring young people are fighting a careless cadre of oldsters unwilling to sacrifice for the future good. Not so fast, Duffy says: “The myth that only young people care about climate is a myth. We are unthinkingly encouraging an ageism within climate campaigning that is not only incorrect, but it is self-destructive.” That example, he notes, adds evidence to his contention that “the fake generational battles we have set up between the generations are just that – they are fake.”

In the podcast, Duffy outlines the breakdowns his book (and in general larger society) uses to identify cohorts of living generations:

  • Pre-war generation, those born before the end of World War II in 1945. Duffy says this could be broken down further – the so-called Silent Generation or the Greatest Generation, for example – but for 2022 purposes the larger grouping serves well.
  • Baby Boomers, born from 1945 to 1965
  • Generation X, 1966 to 1979 (This is Duffy’s own generation, and so, with tongue in cheek, he calls it “the best generation”!)
  • Millennials, 1980 to around 1995
  • And Gen Z, ending around 2012

He notes that people are already talking about Generation Alpha, but given that generation’s youth it’s hard to make good generalizations about them.

These generation-based groupings are identity groups that only some people freely adopt. “We’re not as clearly defined by these types of groupings as we are by, say, our age or educational status or our gender or our ethnicity.” His research finds between a third and half of people do identify with their generation, and the only one with “a real demographic reality” (as opposed to a solely cultural one) is the Baby Boomers, who in two blasts really did create a demographic bulge.

Duffy, in addition to his work at King’s College London, is currently the chair of the Campaign for Social Science, the advocacy arm of Britain’s Academy of Social Sciences. Over a 30-year career in policy research and evaluation, he has worked across most public policy areas, including being seconded to the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. Before joining KCL he was global director of the Ipsos Social Research Institute.

His first book, 2018’s The Perils of Perception – Why we’re wrong about nearly everything, draws on Ipsos’s own Perils of Perception studies to examine how people misperceive key social realities.

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