My Generation? The Use and Abuse of Generational Labelling By Adriana Soaita (University of St Andrews) & Beverley Searle (University of Dundee)

The ‘Lost Generation’, ‘Baby-Boomers’ and now ‘Generation Rent’ are popular labels attached to groups of people who are deemed to share particular social experiences. Such labels not only confuse distinct demographic, sociological and genealogical concepts but uncritically cast generational winners or losers. Drawing on 112 interviews from the Mind the (Housing) Wealth Gap study, we aim to clarify the concept of ‘generation’ using four key understandings. We tease out ideas of generational belonging among people aged 35-65 and reflect on generational identities and inequalities.

Demographers conceptualise ‘generations’ as birth cohorts – a population born in any one year often aggregated by decades. The examination of social change in relation to different cohorts at similar life stages through longitudinal analysis requires long term data series in order to differentiate between period, cohort and lifecycle effects. Although demographers clearly separate the concepts of cohort and age, our study indicates that peoples’ generational identities are generally not constructed within these categories:

I look around and there are older people similar to me and younger people similar to me! I don’t really see generations (male, 45).

I associate on a daily level with people of all ages, so I don’t really feel myself as part… There aren’t generations of people in society, there’s just a constant grey area, a constant flux of people (female, 40).

While rigorous longitudinal birth cohort analyses are welcome for the understanding of the enduring effects of socioeconomic events (such as economic growth or decline), cohorts need to be theoretically specified in relation to the subject of enquiry (Arber & Attias-Donfut 2007).

Mannheim’s (1927) concept of sociological generation tries to move away from simple chronological contemporaneity – ‘potential generation’/cohorts – to a more meaningful co-presence in a shared geographical location ‘where a concrete bond is created between members of a generation by their being exposed to the social and intellectual symptoms of a process of dynamic destabilization’ (182-183). As the social context is differently interpreted by different individuals, these bonds emerge from, and coalesce in, ideologically and culturally different ‘generation units’ whose members share indirect ties of exposure to similar events. Mannheim’s theoretical contribution helps to question generational labelling while raising awareness of substantial socioeconomic inequality and socio-cultural difference within cohorts. Yet the concept of sociological generation was considered to be too static given that formative learning was exclusively located in early youth. We exemplify the idea of generational units and intra-generational inequality by two contrasting views from early Baby Boomers, the cohorts most likely to accept generational labelling:

I’m a baby boomer born 1949, so we’re the ones who’d never had it so good. We had everything (male, 63).

What generation I belong to? The poor one! (female, 61).

In the context of austerity, aging societies and low economic growth, the concept of ‘welfare generation’ has permeated public discourses. By differentiating between welfare contributors and receivers, several studies documented the changing balance of public spending between the young and the old and differentiated between winner and loser generations (Thomson 1996, Kotlikoff 1992). These studies were criticised on methodological and philosophical grounds (Buchanan 2009, Piachaud, Macnicol and Lewis 2009) as well as for their disengagement with the horizontal macro-distribution of resources across socioeconomic classes (Hills 2014) and the vertical micro-distribution within families (Kohli 1996, Arber and Attias-Donfut 2007, Hills et al. 2013). Generational changes in the balance of welfare were fully recognised by our participants – as captured in the quotation below – but so were the important differences in generational opportunities arising from technical advances and broader socioeconomic changes:

I am a late baby boomer born in 1964… early baby boomers have had the best time, they’ve done exceptionally well… Late baby boom, myself, are going to have a difficult end of life… Generation X, they had a good start but struggled in the middle… Then generation Y, or Z, or where are we now? They are going to have good schooling, health service but have to pay for education, are going to start paying for pensions for previous generations and their own… And they have to try getting on the housing ladder, which is going to be difficult if not impossible (male, 50).

Finally, the concept of genealogical generation was particularly employed in sociology. Linked genealogical generations [1] are often the most appropriate unit for the study of intra- and intergenerational inequalities since family is the recognised social institution that transmits privilege/disadvantage along individual life-course (Hills et al. 2013). Sound theoretical sampling allows linking family generations to Mannheim’s (1927) generational units. Our study suggests that while individual belonging to a genealogical generation is least problematic, its role in the transmission of social inequalities is generally overlooked on the assumption that gifts/inheritances are relatively equal and universal within particular cohorts (which of course runs against the evidence):

We are the generation that will reap the rewards of inheritance that grandparents and parents are able to pass on (male, 36).

The Mind the (Housing) Wealth Gap team continue to explore the multiple ways in which housing wealth reinforces inequalities within and between families, cohorts and generational units.

Adriana Soaita (University of St Andrews) and Beverley Searle (University of Dundee)


[1] Dyads or triads of children-parents-grandparents.


Arber, S. & C. Attias-Donfut. 2007. The Myth of Generational Conflict London: Routledge.

Buchanan, NH. (2009) What Do We Owe Future Generations? The George Washington Law Review, 77, 1237-1297.

Hills, J. 2014. Good Times, Bad Times: The Welfare Myth of Them and Us. London: Policy Press.

Hills, J., et al. 2013. Wealth in the UK: Distribution, Accumulation, and Policy Oxford: OUP .

Kohli, M. 1996. The Problem of Generations: Family, Economy, Politics. Budapest: IAS.

Kotlikoff, LJ. 1992. Generational Accounting: Knowing Who Pays, and When, for What we Spend. New York: Free Press.

Mannheim, K. 1927. The Sociological Problem of Generations. In Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Routledge.

Piachaud, D., J. Macnicol & J. Lewis. 2009. A Think Piece on Intergenerational Equity. London: Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Thomson, D. 1996. Selfish Generations: How Welfare States Grow Old. Cambridge: White Horse Press.




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