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Review of Professor Bobby Duffy’s new book: Generations, does when you’re born shape who you are?

  • 8 September 2021
  • By Lucy Haire

This blog was written by Lucy Haire, HEPI’s Partnerships and Fundraising Manager who has previously worked in an impressive list of education-focussed roles. Lucy is on Twitter @thelucyhaire.

The small organisation for which I work and which is publishing this blog, the Higher Education Policy Institute, comprises five people, one very early twenty-something Intern, one a touch older, one thirty-something, one forty-something and one fifty-year-old. I’m that last person who, inspired by Seneca’s urging for us to think positively about older age, thinks how lucky I am to be working closely with colleagues from other generations. As we work in education policy, a lot of our work, as well as casual conversations typical of many groups of colleagues, can focus on things like what exams we did (GCSEs or O levels, only A levels or AS levels as well), if we went to university and whether we had to pay fees, even at what age our grandparents or great grandparents had to leave school as that has changed quite a lot over the last few generations. 

So Bobby Duffy’s latest book, Generations, does when you’re born shape who you are? went to the top of my reading list as one that might help contextualise our work and office banter. I’d really enjoyed Duffy’s first book, The perils of perception, which is a balm for anyone who is rattled by the human propensity (including my own) to stereotype owing to ignorance, intellectual laziness or worse.

Early in the book, Duffy introduces us to two academics’ ideas which strike me as common sense but are given shape and depth by the academics themselves and Duffy’s elaboration. The first is Manneheim’s theory about each generation sharing a social identity, especially if it has had some kind of collective experience of a traumatic event at the point of that group coming of age – so late childhood or early adulthood. The second idea Duffy introduces is Rosa’s theory of the ‘circle of acceleration’ whereby we perceive that our own times are changing more quickly than previous eras. While this is often a misconception, Duffy argues that the rapid and widespread adoption of the smartphone in particular has led to more separate and atomised living where misconceptions and gulfs between people, especially between the old and young, can grow. 

Then comes the analytical anchor of the book – a crystal-clear framework for classifying the three main forces of time that shape people’s experiences: the period in which they live, the cohort into which they are born and the lifecycle stages through which we progress. This framework is applied to several themes making up the main chapters of the book on economic stagnation, housing, education, voting patterns, health, sex and marriage, politics and cultural attitudes. The attitudes and habits of five named generations (Pre-war, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z) are then tracked against the themes.

The book is full of pertinent data as well as synopses of academic concepts to support the main thesis that in general, there is less intergenerational conflict than some media headlines might suggest – and that some of the stereotypes about certain generations are just plain wrong, for example, that millennials and Generation Z are more concerned about the environment than baby boomers. Duffy implores the media, politicians and marketeers to avoid over-exaggerating generational differences and divides lest they actually develop. He also thinks that sensationalist commentary, especially on cultural matters, for example, ‘Millenials are killing the napkin industry’ or, ‘How baby boomers ruined parenting forever’, could deflect attention from some more serious generational issues, such as the fact that younger people in the west are generally poorer than their forebears were at the same age. Far fewer, for example, can now buy a house in early adulthood, if at all. 

Given the breadth and depth of the data provided for almost every point in the book, it was a little disappointing that there was nothing presented to back up the line ‘wealth [is] increasingly concentrated among the few’, a line in the style of Piketty, but without his comparable evidence, rounding up the chapter on younger generations’ economic stagnation. 

Duffy offers a rounded chapter on how different generations experience and perceive education. He notes the huge increase in participation, especially in higher education, and also makes room for commentators who have criticised that, such as David Goodhart and Bryan Caplan. Caplan likens higher education to a concert – if you keep letting people in, a few people might have to stand up to see, and eventually everyone might stand and no one is especially comfortable. My response to Caplan would be: change the design of the concert hall. 

Duffy concludes his section on education by recommending that we need to invest more in education and training for those that do not go to university. While few might object to that, almost all the data shows that there is a rising demand and insatiable appetite for higher education and that the variety of courses it now offers means it can act as a very broad church.  

Duffy does highlight the use of technology as being a point of difference between generations, with older people using technology – and especially the smartphone – less than younger people. That the generations do not mix digitally can exacerbate a palpable decrease in physical mixing with things like senior-living communities on the increase. Even when young people visit their grandparents, they might typically say hello, then connect with their peers via their phones for the rest of the visit. The COVID pandemic is also highlighted as something we have all experienced during this period, but which has affected age-groups very differently in terms of health outcomes and economic impact.   

Generations adopts a warm and readable tone with personal interjections from Duffy about his children which avoid the trap that Common Vision’s founding director, Caroline Macfarland, mentioned at the book’s launch webinar whereby pundits claim to know everything about the next generation because they have kids. Another panellist at the book launch, Duffy’s former colleague at Ipsos Mori, Ben Page, railed against the media and marketing machine for exaggerating generational stereotypes and conflict; I couldn’t help but think that as fabulously rich and well-written as Generations is, it is also feeding that same machine. 

I am pleased to be working in an organization that, even though so small, has enabled a real mix of generations to form a team. HEPI’s partners and collaborators in higher education also work in institutions which have, in the time since I left university in 1993, catered for a much wider range of age-groups embarking on a journey to improve their prospects and find fulfilment. Of course, the generation into which you are born is not the only, or even the most important factor in determining your life-chances and experiences. Where you find yourself, with whom, and with what resources are critical, along with a whole host of other variables. Nevertheless, the march of time is something that we all have in common.

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