Monday, February 04, 2008

Generational Shifts

The Washington post has a very interesting article on how the changing tempers of different generations have changed America. The authors contend that every 40 years a "civic" generation follows an "idealist" generation in the USA, and that this pattern goes back to 1828.

The 1932 generation that brought in Roosevelt, fought WW2 and voted more enthusiastically than their predecessors or successors was a "civic" generation. The 1968 generation that voted for Nixon and Reagan, and ushered in 40 years of Republicanism (interrupted only by Carter and Clinton) was the "idealist" Boomer generation. The Boomer generation it turns out, are not just self-absorbed and self-indulgent, they tilt rightwards. But now there is a new big civic generation coming of age - the 1981 to 2003 "Millenial" generation, which is twice as large as Generation X, and promises to be like their grandparents in WW2 in attitudes (less self-absorbed, more collegiate, willingness to engage in politics, trust in insititutions etc and more left-wing).

However in between the "talking" generations that appear every 40 years (civic or idealist) are the so-called "silent" generations - Generation X (people born between 1961 and 1980) and the people who came of age in the 1950's, whose children they are. The silent generations are much smaller than the talking generations, and thus have less clout. The author glosses over the silent generations apart from characterising Generation X as cynical, "Life sucks and then you die" is their motto.

There are parallels with the UK. Our "civic" generation of the 1940's fought the war and gave us the revolutionary Atlee government and the Welfare state. As that generation starts to die in the 1980's, Mrs Thatcher's majorities increase, as the right-wing Boomers hold sway.

However I disagree with the authors of the article in that I think that Generation X is a very important generation. They are the internet generation, using it with increasing dexterity from 1995 onwards, and more entrepeneurial than previous generations. And Generation X put New Labour into power, aided by the Lib Dems who, via tactical voting, split the Boomer vote. Gen X weren't as sucessful in the USA - they managed to put Bill Clinton into office when they had Ross Perot to split the Boomer vote, but this decade the mad right-wing Boomer generation have out-voted them.

The pragmatic (and sometimes cynical) Generation X, now aged between 28 to 47, is still New Labour's staunchest supporters. But because they are a small generation, they can only continue to prevail in British politics if the Lib Dems continue to split the Boomer vote, or if the new emerging Millenial generation sides with them.

The Guardian ICM poll of 18th to 20th Jan, showed the Tories overall ahead of Labour by 4%, thanks to the Boomer generation (the 50+ group). The LibDems continued to split some of the Boomer vote (they scored their best % among the over 65's), but the new Millenial generation (under 25s) favoured Labour. That's the good news - it means the Millenial generation will ally with Generation X. The bad news so far is that the UK Millenial generation isn't as keen on voting as the American Millenial generation. Hopefully that will change with time. We just need to hang in there.


Anonymous said...

Hmmm, I'm very sceptical about the claims of this article, seeing as it's based not on concrete social analysis of US populations but rather the broad brush strokes of shoe horning arbitrary categories into arbitrary historical periods. How, for example, would such a framework account for "anomolous" historical processes within the alternating generational cycle? How to explain the progressive social changes the US experienced in the 60s and 70s, especially when it was the young baby boomers in the vanguard and the supposedly left war generation occupying the positions of power? It doesn't add up. Studying social dynamics and particularly the role of capital and labour is the key.

snowflake5 said...

sociologist - the 60's and 70's were a time of overlap between generations. The boomer generation was born in between 1946 and 1960. In 1968, only Boomers born between 1946 and 1950 were over 18 and in play. Enough to have a marginal effect and swing an election to Nixon in 1968, but not yet enough to undo what the civic generation had put in place. That had to wait till Reagan and the 1980's, when you get the civic generation dying, and a good decade's worth of boomers were voting.

There is no doubt that the Boomers were extremely idealist and ideological, on the left as well as the right. In Britain in the 80's, you had Thatcher moving to the ideological right while Labour was moving to the ideological left. But bthat generation tilted roight, so the right always won.

All that stopped when the pragmatic Generation X started to come of age. There weren't sufficient numbers of them to make a difference in 1992, but by 1997, another five years worth had come of age and were voting. Plus they were cunning enough to abandon voting by ideology and instead starting voting tactically, trying to take advantage in splits in the Boomer vote.

We are on the cusp of another change, as the Obama phenomenon in the US shows. Only a few of the Millenial generation in the US are in play - but they are a very big generation (in the US at least), and much keener on voting than Gen X, as turn-outs are showing. And they lean left. We won't really get the full measure of their power till the 2018 election.