An insight into a sociology lecture


Generations, adulthood & homeownership

Generations: everyday talk and sociological silence

‘Generation’ is everywhere these days. Whether it is a TV channel promising ‘an hour of inter-generational laughs’ on Talkin’ ‘bout your Generation, or whether it is politicians exhorting Generation Y to lower their labour market expectations, generational labels stick well in the popular imagination. These everyday representations are most often used as sense-making devices; they function to explain behaviours which from the viewpoint of other generations appear alien: a lack of commitment to work and love, a general repudiation of responsibility and independence, a strange predilection for ‘connectedness’ as evidenced in the ubiquitous use of information and communication technologies – all this and more, so it seems, are the defining characteristics of generations born after 1970, or thereabouts. The judgements are many, analysis is scarce. What we get instead in much of the media is thoroughly decontextualised commentary that boils down to the evaluation of a kind of ‘mass mind’, and thus offers the perplexed the option of an easy wave of the hand that says, ‘Oh yes, those young people!’

Where in all this is sociology? The debate on generations is not only driven by marketing firms and business consultants, it is owned by them. This is merely to point out that the scales of public interest are heavily weighted in favour of those who have the means of dissemination of information. Of course, there is more to it than that: as sociologists we are likely to render more complex the taken for granted assumptions of common sense. This is what we ought to do, in fact. And to sell complexity is always bound to be more difficult than to sell as truth the simple one-liner.

When it comes to social research beyond familial generations (children, parents, grandparents) it is cohorts rather than generations that take centre stage. While cohorts lend themselves to statistical comparison due to their neat metrical delimitations, generation is a qualitative concept that for its very imprecision has its own virtues in sociological analysis. For one, if we want concepts to be both adequate to and critical of commonsense understandings, generation is better suited than cohort; few people identify with a particular cohort, whereas most identify with one generation or another. Also, as heuristic device generation does not preclude a focus on constituents of individual identifications and objective opportunities such as class, gender, age and ethnicity. On the contrary, it allows us to project these contingencies against the background of macro-social developments and thus to fathom social change that cuts across several contemporaneous cohorts.