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.




Problematising Generation Rent By Kim McKee (University of St Andrews) and Tom Moore (University of Sheffield)

‘Generation rent’ is a term that has been popularised by the media, social commentators and housing campaigners, referring to the phenomena whereby young people are excluded from homeownership and spend longer periods of their lives in the private rented sector. Headlines consistently lament the way in which young people are increasingly ‘stuck in a rent trap’ due to difficulties in saving for deposits and in navigating precarious youth labour markets. Faced with soaring private rents in more prosperous locations, and with welfare conditionality disproportionately affecting young people at the other end of the spectrum, it is clear that today’s generation of young people experience very different housing opportunities as compared to their parents. Housing continues to be a key mediator of inter and intra-generational inequalities. This is an issue that we are exploring as part of the Leverhulme Trust-funded research project ‘Mind the Housing Wealth Gap’.

This generational shift irent house on white backgroundn housing opportunities reflects broader international trends around the neo-liberalisation of welfare, with a movement towards individualised asset-based welfare regimes, in which housing features prominently. Individuals and families are expected to accumulate and draw upon housing wealth to meet their own current and future needs, including its use as a resource to top-up pensions, to fund social care in older age, to meet the rising cost of higher education, or crucially to help their children access homeownership. However, we know that while previous generations were supported into owner occupation by policies such as Right to Buy and Mortgage Interest Tax Relief, housing has become significantly more expensive relative to incomes, paralleling a decline in the number of 16-34-year-olds who own their own home. Those who do are increasingly reliant on the ‘bank of Mum and Dad’. Analysis published in 2013 showed the 64% of first-time buyers were reliant on financial assistance from their parents due to high deposit and stringent mortgage requirements.

The implication of this is that access to owner occupation is strongly tilted in favour of those fortunate enough to access financial support from their family. What we are witnessing, is therefore a widening social cleavage between young people who can draw upon family resources and support to help them with buying a home, and those who cannot. Young people’s access to homeownership – an asset they are encouraged to access for future welfare needs – is shaped by the levels of familial wealth they are able to draw upon, but it is obvious to anyone that these resources will be unevenly distributed across regions, age cohorts and income spectrum. These inequalities have a significant impact on young peoples’ life chances, for those who cannot access owner occupation repeatedly find themselves resident in the family home or in the private rented sector. Debates around the often insecure and unregulated nature of the PRS are well rehearsed and demand policy intervention, but critically the English Housing Survey tells us that the average household in the PRS spends 40% of their income on rent, compared to 20% of income paid by the average mortgaged owner occupier. This helps to perpetuate the reliance on family support, as young people struggle to save for a deposit – especially in ‘hot’ property markets – and contributes to the ways in which our housing system is strengthening and extending existing socio-economic inequalities.

Public policy has tried to tackle these issues to some degree, but has by and large tinkered at the edges. Most prominently, the Help to Buy scheme tried to support first-time buyers but has been critiqued for potentially contributing to affordability problems (as demand continues to exceed housing supply) and has been shown to favour more affluent households compared to traditional shared ownership models that have similar objectives. There has also been important discussion around making the private rented sector a more secure and sustainable option, but this alone will not solve the difficulties younger generations face, particularly in the context of international shifts towards asset-based welfare regimes (see Ronald and Elsinga’s 2012 book for an excellent overview).

Far from creating a property-owning democracy, in which people can make money from houses as commodities to draw upon in later life, the focus of current housing and welfare policy continues to be highly exclusionary. Homeownership may be the preferred tenure of choice for a majority of households, but this is driven by a lack of secure, affordable and attractive alternatives which encourage this, as well as a welfare system that supports the pursuit of equity gain and housing wealth. Instead, we need to rethink what we perceive housing to be for, and how it should be used. Above all else, policy needs to valorise ‘home’ above ‘homeownership’. For example, limited equity models of homeownership, as used by community land trusts and advocated by housing campaigners, can offer secure and affordable access to forms of property ownership that balance individual property rights with collective concerns over long-term affordability for future generations, challenging the perception that homes are an investment through which wealth can be derived. The recent Lyons Review also recommended a return to local authority involvement in the commissioning and building of social housing, which can help to create secure rental options that support those in need. And, perhaps most critically, public policy could do more to recognise the specificities of place in creating housing solutions. Different communities, regions and nations within the UK require locally nuanced and unique solutions, with a support from and steer from national policy frameworks. For instance, our emerging study highlights the ways in which young people on the very lowest incomes are finding it increasingly difficult to reside in the South East. For these people, the problem is not exclusively of ‘rogue landlordism’ and regulation in the PRS, but the fact that social housing is in short supply and other housing options are far too expensive for those on modest incomes.

The challenges faced by young people have far-reaching implications, for their limited housing opportunities impact not only on financial welfare but also their personal sense of well-being, independence, future family formation and labour market opportunities. The Lyons Review commented that “The impacts of the shortage of housing … hit the youngest and poorest hardest.” It is time that public policy had a constructive debate and identified suitable solutions to the way in which housing, as part of wider social and economic change, is mediating and limiting the current and future welfare of young people, and thus perpetuating intra and inter generational inequalities.

Kim McKee (@kim_mckee) and Tom Moore (Tom_Moore85)