In defence of generations (just not millennials, Gen Y or Gen Z)
Critics of the generational model often say that while it made sense in the 20th century, it doesn’t mean much in the 21st. These days, we’re better connected to people outside our birth cohorts because of the Internet, cheap air travel, more open borders and all kinds of departures from the conventional nuclear family. We’re also more separated from those born at the same time as us because of rising wealth and income inequality, political schisms, and the fragmentation of media.
Thus, the argument goes, there are alternative ways of segmenting populations that are more illuminating: class, life stage, behavioural traits, niche identities and interests, and so on. Tailoring a given mix of these factors to particular ends could be still more interesting.
And yet, in some parts of the world, people persist in talking about their generations in ways that not only feel real and urgent, but also reinforce behaviours (including consumer behaviours) that differentiate them from those outside their cohort. In China, we’ve grown used to discussing the post-80s and post-90s, generations that are half the size of the roughly two-decade deep Boomers (’45-’65) and Generation X (’65-’85). Now, young Chinese insist that there are significant differences between even the post-90s and post-95s, generational cohorts that would seem meaningless to those in fully developed, digitally connected liberal democracies.
To understand why generations might yet have something to offer, consider the conditions that gave rise to perhaps the most historically significant generation ever, the first one that became self-aware. The Baby Boomers were born soon after World War II in countries in Europe, North America and Australasia (Asia, South America and Africa did not undergo the post-war Baby Boom).
Boomers were first and foremost a demographic anomaly, a sudden swelling of the population chart. They formed a significant voting block capable of having outsized influence over older generations, and felt a corresponding swell in confidence to remake the world as they saw fit. Following the advent of the contraceptive pill, approved by the FDA for popular use in 1960, women were able to postpone childbearing, reduce family sizes and pursue new roles and goals, a truly radical break with all the generations that came before. Favourable economic conditions and the civil rights movement helped create a larger, more inclusive middle class, more affordable education and housing, and higher social mobility, allowing more members of the boomer cohort to feel like a part of a single entity. They were unified by mass broadcast media such as limited television channels (creating shared experiences of the moon landing, the Vietnam War, etc), major daily newspapers and vinyl records.
The boomers were the result of major changes in demography, technology, the economy and media, a cluster of factors that has since resurfaced elsewhere. Take, for instance, China’s post-80s, the generation born from 1980 to 1989.
Determined to slow rampant population growth, China rolled out the one child policy from 1978-1980, a sudden, radical change to family formation analogous to the advent of the contraceptive pill. Children no longer grew up with siblings, instead absorbing the full attentions of their parents and grandparents. Unlike their parents, who endured the worst depravations under Mao, they had opportunities to attend university and pursue careers during the most phenomenal economic transformation to take place anywhere in the past 30 years. They were also exposed to wholly new ideas through travel, comprehensive English language training, and a boom in new magazines, newspapers and websites that their parents — still reading Party papers and watching CCTV — largely missed.
The post-80s form a real break with the previous generation of Chinese. The sheer rate of change brought by 14 years of GDP growth over seven per cent, and the arrival of myriad brands brandishing new identities in hopes of cashing in, lead many to see major differences between the post-80s and post-90s. It’s the difference between those who grew up poor, showering at their parents’ factories, wearing the only brand of sneakers that was available and those who did not.
As the country’s economy matures and economic growth tapers off, however, we should expect generational differences to lessen. That young Chinese are further segmenting generations into five year cohorts in the absence of major changes in demography, the economy, technology or media is cause for scepticism. Indeed, we find these new five-year generations espoused most ardently in the fashion and beauty industries, categories where youth and novelty are most emphasised. Furthermore, in a sometimes misogynistic culture — where the government has seeded the idea of single women over age 27 being ‘leftover’ — self-identifying as a post-95 woman is less psychologically taxing than being a post-90.
While there are limitations to where and when a generational lens can be applied, there are clearly some situations in which it’s worth considering. Emerging and developing markets undergoing rapid economic change are likely to create vast chasms in education and economic opportunity between one generation and the next. Sudden demographic changes — brought about by sudden culture shifts, a rapid rise in GDP, etc — are also worth considering. Also, while post-Internet media environments may seem to have been blown wide open, many media micro-climates remain. In countries where media are heavily censored, and Internet access is either a minority privilege or strictly controlled, there are still opportunities for significant generational divides to emerge.
Note that while generational analyses are most meaningful during periods of rapid economic, social and cultural change, these don’t need to be periods of economic growth or social liberalisation. Periods of decline and illiberalism could create equally drastic shifts in values and behaviour along generational lines.
Returning to the West, though their lifelong access to the Internet is the implicit reason why millennials (or digital natives) are thought different from previous generations, its differential availability to younger people is only marginal. Grandparents are capable users of Skype and social media (though their tastes are undoubtedly different — hence the much noted Snapchat-Twitter divide.) More meaningful generational divides may well be the kind witnessed in Japan during the economic stagnation and increased unemployment of the ’90s and 2000s, or in the United States now, as student debt rises, home ownership declines, pharmaceutical-induced morbidity spreads, obesity rises and life expectancy drops.
Where more data are available (collected through, for instance, online behaviour) we may have more sophisticated ways of segmenting populations — infinite combinations of variables like your home address, Amazon purchase history and last three Spotify plays. Yet we shouldn’t be surprised if these data align with and elucidate generational divides, though they may be subtler than those that came before. In markets where more sophisticated data are not available, and things are changing fast, generations are likely to remain a useful proxy for values and behaviour, though it would be foolish to think they align with the West’s Boomers, Gen Xs and millennials.
- Article by Sam Gaskin