As a fully-paid up member of the loony left I was recently horrified to find out that in generational terms I am one of ‘Thatcher’s Children.’ Born in 1980, the ideology that she helped to establish and then spread is all I know. A drive to be a winner, a greater sense of personal responsibility, not expecting anything from others and an enterprising spirit are said to be the hallmarks of my generation. I’m not entirely sure this is the case but….. Of course, like much else, there is an element of truth in this and much that is incorrect too. But it sets up nicely an argument taking place in youth sociology just now – that the notion of ‘Youth Transitions’ has had its day and has outlived its usefulness. Instead, we should begin our thinking and conceptualising about the changing world young people inhabit with the idea of ‘Generations.’ We all know the popular tags that are often given to different generations – Generation X, Generation Y, the Baby Boomers and the Millennials and what have you. In these terms we all have a rough idea that the cohorts that make up these generations share much in common with one another, due to the time period that they grew up in and the political, structural and cultural conditions that they shared. The idea of ‘Generations’ in youth sociology is similar in this but goes further and, perhaps more so, has spawned as a direct challenge to the ‘transitions’ model which advocates of the generation model argue is past its sell-by-date. This is a crucial argument in our field as ‘youth transitions’ is one of the two ‘traditions’ of youth studies (youth culture is the other). As such, this is a significant development.
Advocates of generational thinking suggest that due to the significant changes in our social structures, transitional thinking is now irrelevant. Whereas in the past young people were making pretty standardised transitions (from school to work, from parents home to own home and from family of origin to family of one’s own) these are now much messier. Now young people spend longer in education, take much longer to establish jobs and careers, don’t get married until much later and don’t establish their own homes until the 20s, 30s or beyond. As such, the idea of transitions is defunct. In essence we’re comparing this generation to the baby boomer generation – and what’s the point of that? Today’s young people can never live up the standards of the previous generation – the world has changed irrevocably. As such, young people are being set up to fail – whereas the older generation views their transition to adulthood as ‘normal’, today’s young people can never be ‘normal’, their transition patterns are utterly different. Society has changed beyond recognition.
Generational thinking doesn’t do this. Instead, it asks us to delve deeper into thinking about what is it that defines this generation? What are the key changes from previous generations which define the structural and cultural features which are shaping the world for youth growing up now? And, can we identify them? Dan Woodman and Johanna Wyn, two of the leading writers on this think they can. They posit that we can identify a clear(ish) break of generation from around 1970 onwards. From 1970, they argue, there has been a significant enough structural shift in key areas which mean we can identify a generation (albeit a relatively long one). So what are these key developments? Extended periods in education, the increasing flexibilisation of employment, precarious connection to the labour market, insecure contract conditions, a rise in inequality, changes in patterns of home ownership, changing family formations and the digital revolution all mean that the world young people grow up in now is significantly different to the world the previous generation grew up in. And as such, the transitions that young people make now are qualitatively different to the ones made by the previous generation. Importantly, the post-1970 generation have had to deal with the collapse of the youth labour market which, although it has had its ups and downs, has never recovered to its pre-1970 level.
The writers make the point that we could also be dealing with a post-1989 generation marked primarily by the digital revolution – the growth of the internet, mobile phones, IPads, ‘connectivity’, social media, and also increased amounts of education and spiralling housing costs. The authors argue that this generation still, however, shares much in common with the post-1970 generation so it is perhaps too soon to talk about a significant shift. Indeed, there are arguments and research which suggest that the 1970 generation is still more adept at using the digital technologies than younger users, albeit with less confidence.
So why is all this important? It’s because age and the proper life-course is institutionalised: education, work and retirement – childhood, adulthood and old age. These are the proper stages of life and should be followed correctly. In short, it is important because transitional thinking is used to shape government policy – how young people move from education to employment, the age that they ‘should’ be doing this and what support they should (or should not) be given. We only have to look at the budget to see that – young people are being forced to ‘earn or learn’, and young people not making the transitions expected of them are being punished. But in this they are being expected to make the linear transitions of the previous generation, which is an impossibility given the structural conditions facing young people today. The withdrawal of housing benefit to young people, likewise – not making the nice transition to a secure tenancy? Then goodbye. But it doesn’t take someone with a deep understanding of the state of the UKs housing market to know that this transition is becoming rockier. Added to this, the boundaries between childhood, adolescence and adulthood are becoming much fuzzier – when does youth end and adulthood begin, for example? Why should a 24-year-old be entitled to less social security or less of a wage than a 25-year-old? Worse still, however, transitional thinking means young people who don’t make the nice linear transitions of old can then be identified by the government as ‘at-risk’ – allowing the government to locate any transitional roadblock in individual young people rather than having to tackle the deep-seated structural issues which are contributing to the exclusion of so many of our young people from the working world today. A generational perspective would ask to consider the changing environment today’s young people face in comparison to their forebears.
Of course, such changes fall hardest on the young people most marginalised in the employment and housing markets – those young people with the least credentials and the least resources to draw upon. And generational advocates ask us to consider these ‘units’ within generations. Whereas terms such as Generation Y homogenises the entire cohort, generational thinking asks us to probe beneath the surface of the cohort and ask how these processes affect different groups – how the generational conditions affect people depending on their class, gender, (dis)ability, ethnicity and so on (not to mention their locality). These variables will mean that these units will experience the same issues and generational events in very different ways.
To take as an example, it is said that this generation (our and my generation – Maggie’s children) are more individualistic, aware that we have to be self-reliant. As social structures have fragmented and class ceases to have salience in the lives of young people, they are asked to be good ‘self-managers’ and captains of their own ship, navigating the choppy waters of contemporary society. And there is considerable research to suggest that young people are happy to shoulder this responsibility and will blame themselves for any failure. But of course, our ability to captain our ship depends on the resources available to us and class still plays a huge role in our life chances. Links between social class origins and destinations remain as close as they ever have, but young people today are much less aware of this. Advocates of the generational perspective argue that looking at units such as class within generations with this way of thinking is far better at unpicking the nuances of contemporary life than the transitional model. As such, the argument is these new times call for new thinking. Out with the old and in with the new. Of course, advocates of the transition model are not taking this lying down and in my next blog I’ll argue that the transitional model is still relevant. Personally I think the two concepts complement each other well and I’ll explain why.
I’ll finish this blog with a challenge to you. What do you think are the defining features of the current generation growing up now? Undoubtedly the growing importance of information technology and social media are shaping the life-world of young people today. As has the September 11th attacks, indeed some scholars are calling the post 1990 generation the ‘September generation’, growing up in the aftermath of the attacks on the twin towers and the associated ‘war on terror’, airport security, a heightened security level rarely below severe and the McWorld Vs Jihad binary. Anything else?