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Does It Make Sense to Categorize People by Generation?

Why When You’re Born Matters Less Than You Think
By Bobby Duffy

Why is it that making sweeping generalizations about people on the basis of gender, race, sexuality or nationality is unacceptable, but stereotyping them based on arbitrarily defined “generations” is totally fine? Millennials (roughly, those born between 1980 and 1995) have been demonized as narcissistic snowflakes who spend so much on avocado toast that they cannot afford to buy property. Baby boomers, meanwhile, are selfish, technophobic sociopaths who have stolen younger generations’ future. And so on. What is the reality behind such stereotypes, and is there any merit at all in seeing the world through a lens that is generational?

These are the questions addressed by Bobby Duffy, a British social researcher, in “The Generation Myth.” The title gives the impression that he wants to dynamite the whole idea of dividing people into generations. In fact, he offers a careful dissection of such “generational thinking” that rejects lazy myths and superficial punditry in favor of a more nuanced analysis of the factors that shape long-term changes in attitudes and behavior. “A lot of what you’ve been told is generational,” he writes, “in fact isn’t.”

Three separate mechanisms cause such long-term changes, Duffy argues. “Period effects” are experiences that affect everyone, regardless of age, such as the 2008 financial crisis or the coronavirus pandemic. “Life-cycle effects” are changes that occur as people age, or as a result of major events such as leaving home, getting married or having children. People tend to get heavier as they age, for example, regardless of which generation they belong to. Finally, “cohort effects” are the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors common to people of a particular generation.

The problem with purely generational framing, in short, is that it focuses entirely on cohort effects, and misses out on the other two-thirds of the picture. Duffy takes this framework and applies it to a range of topics, from economics, housing and employment to sex, health and politics, merrily myth-busting as he goes.

For example, it is often claimed that people in their 20s are fickle job-hoppers who do not stay loyal to employers. It is true that the young tend to change jobs voluntarily more often than their parents, but that has been true since the 1980s. Millennials actually turn out to be 20 percent to 25 percent less likely to switch jobs voluntarily than members of Generation X were at the same age, because secure, permanent jobs are scarcer than they used to be. So what we’re looking at here is a period, not a cohort, effect.

Similarly, young people are said to be more purpose-driven and to care more about ethical sourcing of products. But international surveys show that millennials and members of Generation Z boycott products less frequently than baby boomers or members of Generation X do to protest corporate behavior.

Some things really are generational, though. Successive generations are less religious, while religiosity within generations is roughly flat over time — a pretty clear-cut cohort effect. But many supposedly generational changes are in fact driven by growing financial inequality between the young and the old. Young people are leaving home later because they earn less than their parents did at the same age, and because housing has become far more expensive — not because they are snowflakes or narcissists. Accusing them of laziness mixes up period and cohort effects.

Before reading this book, I assumed that generational analysis had no value whatsoever. Duffy shows that it actually does, provided it is done carefully. Alas, despite his valiant efforts, overgeneralizations are unlikely to go away. But whether you are a skeptic or a believer in the idea that a generational label has meaning, you will learn something from this amusing and informative book.

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