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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.



Autonomy, homeownership and intergenerational relationships

My own research to date takes both generations and cohorts seriously. In Coming of Age in Times of Uncertainty I argue that the social conditions under which the baby boomers came of age facilitated the crystallization of a particular model of adulthood because there was a close match between the adult ideal and the conditions for its realization. For example, a policy orientation to fulltime (male) employment enabled ‘settling down’ in a range of ways. While the social conditions for the post-1970 generation have changed quite radically in many respects, expectations about what it means to be an ‘adult’ are slow in changing at best. And because the adult benchmark hasn’t changed, it goes almost without saying that people born after 1970 are all too easily judged as delaying their adulthood, or prolonging their adolescence – a judgement made by social commentators, journalists and social scientists alike. I then go on to suggest that adulthood has to do with the social recognition of full personhood, a two-way process between individuals and their social environments, institutions, etc. and that the hallmark of contemporary modalities of adulthood is a recognition deficit. For the post-1970 generation, whose members came of age at a time when the turn to neoclassical economics and neoliberal politics was in full swing, that recognition deficit is constituted by systemic recognition (e.g. recognition by the labour market of their flexibility and mobility) and discursive misrecognition (by commentators and social scientists). I argue that this deficit in recognition is at the core of the uncertainties concerning the meaning of adulthood today, both on the subjective and societal level.

Written by Harry Blatterer,

Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University.