The Trouble with Generations

We should possibly start with a basic definition of what might normally be inferred by a ‘generation’, i.e. a group of people born and living within a certain period of time. While fair enough, it leads to an obvious follow-on question:

What period of time are we talking about?

This question is also integral to the idea of a generation, because it defines the time separation between two generations, i.e. parents and children. This period of time is often estimated to be about 20 years on the basis of the biological time taken to reach adulthood and the physical ability to procreate another generation. However, over successive generations, the world has placed different pressures on potential parents, which has delayed some from having children. The following chart simply attempts to characterise some general trends separating different generations.

While this discussion will not consider all the inferences in the chart above, we might initially highlight the issue of family finances becoming a barrier to having children, which may also be correlated to educational attainment – see Personal Finances and The IQ Controversy for more background on these issues. Today, the average age of women having a baby, in the US, statistically depends on her education status; for women with a college degree it is 30.3 years, but falls to 23.8 years for women without a degree. However, in contradiction to this trend, the following table suggests the period between the generations, at least as defined, is shorter not longer, although we might realise this chart makes no direct reference to having babies.

Generations Start End Period Youngest Oldest
Baby Boomer 1946 1964 18 55 73
Gen-X 1965 1979 14 40 54
Gen-Y 1980 1994 14 25 39
Gen-Z 1995 2012 17 7 24

Note: An anomaly might be highlighted in the table above based on age overlap between the youngest and oldest in each generation. For example, the youngest baby-boomers, born in 1964, would not be having children until 1980+, such that their children would be born into a world defined by Gen-Y, not Gen-X.

So, what can really be inferred from these definitions?

As the links in the table provide the details assumed to describe these various generations, this discussion will only be briefly outlining a few characteristics for general reference. However, it might be readily accepted that each generation is born into a world defined by both time and place, where ‘time’ quantifies the progressive development of society and ‘place’ the cultural variance that may differ by geography. If so, we might table another question. 

Does a society shape successive generations or do generations shape society?

Before we attempt to answer this question, it needs to be highlighted that any discussion of an entire group within a population has to be subject to statistical variance, such that any summary cannot apply to all individuals in that group. Even so, let us quickly review some of the key assumptions used to describe each of the generations above. The ‘baby boomer’ generation were the children and grandchildren of earlier generations, born before the second world war. As such, they were born into a post-war world, where the memory of earlier hardships had started to fade and optimism in the future was increasing. As such, this generation is often characterised as the primary beneficiary of a post-war world growing in prosperity, which was given access to better education and health services plus the hope of long-term job security, often with a pension with ‘defined benefits’. Therefore, as a very broad generalisation, many baby-boomers were able to secure an income that allowed them to buy their own homes and, in so doing, accumulate personal wealth in the form of increasing house equity. However, the next generation, often labelled Gen-X, were subject to changing circumstances, especially in terms of increasing financial demands that required both parents to work, which may partially explain the increasing divorce rates. So, along with a multitude of other social changes, children born into this world started to have a different and possibly less optimistic outlook on life than their parents. However, there is somewhat of a contradiction in the previous description of Gen-X, which also applies to Gen-Y, because when first born into the world, these generations were also the beneficiaries of the prosperity being accumulated by their parents, i.e. the baby-boomer generation. The definition of Gen-Y is also characterised in terms of a variety of social and economic changes, although the more significant change might be linked to the developments of the Information Age, i.e. the internet, the Web and social media. However, the full impact of the technology developments being suggested would really only come to affect the world defined by Gen-Z, i.e. after 1995. Of course, this is a grossly simplified summary of the names and characteristics that might be used to described these generations, but may be sufficient to support the general assumption that each generation is a product of ‘time and place’, which comes to define them more than they necessarily come to define their own future. If so, it leads to another question.

Is humanity now a product of its own technological invention?  

While this question is orientated towards recent developments some wider aspects have been previously discussed under the heading of Human Evolution and Brave New Worlds. So, as outlined, each generation is initially defined by its starting point in time, i.e. when they are born, but then are subsequently ‘indoctrinated’ into a culture defined by social, economic and political developments now being primarily driven by technology. Of course, we still need to recognise that people born in different places, within the same time period, do not necessarily share the same worldview. when subject to a myriad of different religious, social, economic and political institutions often rooted in a long history. While these cultural differences still exist in the world, the global impact of the Second World War had a profound effect on almost all societies, which in the post-war years have also been affected by the near ubiquitous spread of technology developments. However, we might now turn our attention to another key issue that affects all generations, i.e. aging. While the following table obviously provides a very crude definition of the different roles associated with just 4 age groups, it may still provide a starting point for general discussion, where these age groups are also equated to 20-year periods for simplicity.

Age Group Role Description
0-20 Education This group do not necessarily have an active role in society
20-40 Innovation This group often want to push their new ideas into society
40-60 Influence This group has reached positions of power and influence
60-80 Reflection This group loses power on retirement, but can reflect on change

While this table might be questioned on many levels, statistically it may still generally reflect a changing role in society as we age, although some clarifications are possibly in order. First, the 0-20 age group is only intended to be indicative of a period of formative learning, when we are required to accept, but not necessarily to question everything we are told. This said, some distinction needs to be made that separates the earliest formative years from the later adolescent years, as the earliest years of a child's life are focused on more basic learning and development, i.e. both physical and mental. However, from the perspective of the nature versus nurture debate, the impact of these earliest years can continue into adolescence and adult life. In contrast, while education is still a key factor of the adolescent years, it is invariably dominated by puberty, which then leads to adulthood and an increasingly active role in society. At the other end of the table, many may rightly challenge the idea that everybody in the 60-80 age group will be retired and therefore refute the implication that the role of this age group in society is in any way diminished, especially in economic terms. We might also recognise that many continue in political life into their 70’s and 80’s and therefore may continue to have both power and influence. This said, statistically we might question whether the 60-80 age group has the same power and influence when compared to those populating the 40-60 age group. Therefore, the two remaining age groups, i.e. 20-40 and 40-60, have been shown to be associated with two key roles in society, described in terms of innovation and influence. Within this very generalised summary, it is suggested that the younger age group 20-40 are responsible for the majority of new ideas encompassing all aspects of development, especially in terms of championing the adoption of new technology. In contrast, it is assumed that the 40-60 age group have had the time to gain experience and to elevate themselves into positions of authority across the social spectrum.

Note: As described, we might recognise that the role of each generation has to change with time as each generation transitions through these age groups. As such, we might recognise that those who now occupy the 60-80 age group, i.e. the baby boomers, are now retiring and having to leave the role of innovation and influence to younger generations. It might also be pointed out that while parents of any generation may be involved in the education from the moment they are born, they do not ‘talk’ as adults until the child is 20 and the parent is 40, where both now play potentially different roles in society.

In order to consider the implications of the previous note, we might replicate aspects of the first and second table, but now focused on baby-boomers as they transition through each age group. As such, the baby-boomers will have played all the roles in society outlined along with another statistical assumption about their relative wealth as a function of age.

Start End Period Youngest Oldest Role Wealth Debt
1945 1965 20 0 20 Education None None
1965 1985 20 20 40 Innovation Low Rising
1985 2005 20 40 60 Influence Rising Falling
2005 2025 20 60 80 Reflection Highest Lowest

As we have made some justification of the age roles in the table, let us turn the attention to the implied level of wealth and debt, specifically in the case of the baby-boomers as they transition through the various age groups. The first assumption is that when in the age group 0-20, most will not have accumulated any wealth or debt. However, as they transition into the 20-40 age group, their wealth starts off being low and their debts, primarily in the form of a mortgage, start to increase.

Note: In the time period 1965-1985, credit cards are not yet ubiquitous and student loans are uncommon for the reason that much of higher education is either free or simply not an option. Likewise, in this period, the average age of a person applying for and getting a mortgage was about 30. As such, the option to accumulate excessive debt in this time period was limited by today’s standard.

On the assumptions outlined in the note above, the baby-boomers transition into the 40-60 age group with wealth in the form of increasing house equity and mortgage debt falling as a percentage of their increasing income. Therefore, as the baby-boomers transition into the 60-80 age groups, we might make the very general assumption that most have paid off their mortgage debt and secured a reasonable pension income on which they might retire. It might also be highlighted that many baby-boomers were the beneficiary of inheritance from their parents, who were also beneficiaries of a post-war prosperity.

Note: We might realise that subsequent generations will not yet have transitioned through all the different age groups to allow direct comparison with the baby-boomers. However, we might attempt to summarise some of the changes in modern society, which may have affected the wealth-debt profile of successive generations.

As another broad generalisation, it appears that subsequent generations have accumulated debt at ever earlier stages in life and in greater amounts – see Credit, Debt and Interest and Debt Dynamics for wider details. Today, you still need to be, at least, 18 years old to get a credit card or to apply for a loan and most reputable lenders still require the borrower to have a reasonable source of income to pay back the loan-debts. However, this caveat does not directly apply to student loans, where the average debt accumulated is in the order of $30,000 providing the student has the right qualifications for an accredited course. While many take out such loans on the assumption that it will lead to a better job and higher income, this is an assumption, not a guarantee, which turns out not to be true in many cases. This said, we might attempt to better characterise the scope and level of different types of debt in the modern world against different age groups, as shown in the chart below.

However, this chart does not really quantify the risk associated with the level of debt, which has to be equated against job security that provides the long-term income to pay off these debts along with some consideration of any other additional outgoings. Clearly, job security has become more of a problem as the economic cycles between boom and bust appear to get ever shorter – see Cyclic Dynamics for more details. These economic cycles have also change the nature of pensions on offer, which initially in the post-war era, were often described in terms of a defined benefit pension plan, which in some cases initially guaranteed an indexed linked income of 2/3 of an employee’s final salary on retirement. Today, such schemes have all but disappeared and replaced by defined contribution schemes.

Note: See Pension Models for a comparison of these types of pension schemes suggesting that future generations may  not have an adequate pension on which to retire at any age. Whether future retirees will even have a job due to developments in AI Automation is yet another issue.

Therefore, we might perceive how some of the changes being outlined may affect the aspirations and attitudes of the different generations being discussed, which might be summarised in just two rows taken from the first chart presented.

Again, the previous chart suggests that the characteristics of any ‘generation’ will change over time. However, the real issue currently being considered is not just whether each generation comes to influence events in the world in a different way, but rather whether each generation is simply having to adapt to the changes that society is imposed on them.

So, what changes in society are we talking about?

Again, without attempting to address all the diverse details of social, economic and political change that have taken place in the post-war years, we might use other sections of the first chart to suggest how the different generations now perceive technology developments and the impact it has had on their lives.

Of course, this chart is only representative of just a fraction of the technology developments that have come to dominate life in the modern world. However, at this point, we might highlight that the discussion, so far, has only considered the potential causes of change in the different generations born in the 20th century, i.e. the last 100 years or so. Therefore, we possibly need  to consider human evolution in a wider context, such that we might realise that the scope of any 20th century generational change has to have taken placed outside of any substantial genetic evolution.

Note: By way of general reference, human genetic evolution is usually considered in terms of heritable characteristics of a population over many successive generations. As such, genetic changes are passed from parent to offspring and then subject to further changes and adaptations to the environment. While there is much complexity in trying to determine the rate of genetic change in humans, it might be generally assumed that no significant genetic change will have occurred over the 20th century – see recent and current human evolution for more general details.

On the basis of the references given above, it would appear that the generational differences outlined in this discussion, i.e. limited to the 20th century, cannot be explained by genetics , or epigenetics, although the latter might be more of a factor, such that we might return to the arguments of the nature versus nurture debate, as summarised below.

The increasing rate of human development can possibly be linked to a growing ability to share and distribute information. Ten thousand years ago, information sharing was restricted to the spoken word and confined to very localised regions. The development of the written word was a step change in this ability, although the means of distributing the information to a wider population was still limited. Therefore, we might recognise the invention of the printing press as another step change, which not only allowed the information to be replicated in volume, but also distributed across a much wider geography. Today, information transfer between, and within, generations is supported by computer processing, global communication networks and a multitude of graphic and application interfaces, e.g. social media. It might be recognised that social media may not always be adopted by older generations for a variety of reasons.

If we take the previous limited potted history of human development at face value, we might realise that initially there was little significant development between generations, although these generations may still have had different outlooks on life due to their age groups and role in society. However, the inference of occasional, but significant step-change developments clearly could have created wider generational schisms, which would separate past and future worldviews even within a given society. Today, we might understand how occasional, but accumulating step-changes in development in a very different light when considered in terms of the chart right – see Technology Catalysts and AI-Robotic Developments for more background details. Likewise, in the 21st century, we are also recognising how the scale and scope of human activity is fundamentally and radically changing the environment in which we all live, not always for the better – see Population and Resources for more details. For it is estimated that humanity has now directly affected over 80% of the planet’s viable land surface as well as other components of the ecosystem, i.e. atmosphere and ocean. As a consequence, the current epoch of Earth’s history is now being described in terms of a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene, where ‘anthropo’ means human and the suffix ‘cene’ denotes an epoch in geologic time. Of course, such an introduction might appear to suggest that the Anthropocene epoch has to be on course to end in some form of apocalyptic disaster that will affect all of humanity. Therefore, some counter-balance to this position is possibly required.

Note: Steve Pinker has provided some statistical evidence suggesting that the world has actually become a much better place for many, especially over the last 100 years – see video entitled ‘Is the world getting better or worse’ for an overview. While this discussion accepts the statistical accuracy of the data presented and the need for some optimism, the fragility of human progress still needs further consideration in terms of sustainability. Another alternative to the apocalyptic vision, often forwarded by climate activists, is provided by Alex Epstein, see video ‘The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels’, which outlines the benefits that the development of coal, oil, and natural gas have had on mankind, including improved health, increased lifespan, and expansion of material welfare. Again, the main arguments presented by Epstein are also accepted, although his ideas about ‘human flourishing’ might still have to be questioned in terms of sustainability of a growing global population – see Human Footprint and ‘The Social Endgame’ for more details.

Today, it is not easy to predict how different generations will react to the rate of change being described. In the context of so much rapid change, the ‘trouble with generations’ is that they are, at best, statistical generalisations of certain sections of the population to which too many exceptions apply. In the past, when the rate of technological change was relatively low, the division between the generations may have been better characterised in terms of their age groups and role in society. While these age divisions still exist, it does not mean that there is any obvious consensus on the most important issues facing humanity even within a given generation. While some may assume that older generations do not care about the future that will not affect them, this is clearly not the case, as parents and grandparents also have an important ‘investment’ in this future.

Note: While generations born at different times will initially be educated into different worldviews, which are rooted in the environment of their formative years, older generations have had time to ‘acclimatise’ to the ‘brave new worlds’ of subsequent generations. So, while the baby-boomers may remember the analogue Bakelite telephones of their childhood, this does not mean that they all reject the benefits of today’s smartphones.

So, on reflection, individuals of all generations may come to have very different opinions on all of the different issues discussed in this section, i.e. Scepticism, Nature & Nurture, Morality and Ethics, Climate Change, Freedom, Healthcare, IQ Controversy. However, it is hoped that all of the generations alive today might, at least, consider the wisdom of an earlier generation in the following words of William Clifford before assuming righteous certainty about any of the key problems facing humanity.

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence.