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Generation Next: Restoring faith in generational progress

Generation Next: Restoring faith in generational progress

An event known as Generation Next: Restoring Faith in Generational Progress was recently hosted by the Policy Institute at King’s College London. Chaired by Mark Easton, Home Editor for BBC News, the panel consisted of four members – Bobby Duffy, Julia Gillard, Robert Putnam and Marie Broussaeu-Navarro. Each of these individuals are well versed in the subject and have contributed to this ever-important dialogue. It is worth noting that the title of the webinar itself was actually designed with the intention of challenging the concept of generational wars and tensions.

Professor Bobby Duffy, Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, was the first member of the panel to speak. His recently released book has two separate titles depending on where it’s published. The UK edition poses the question, Generations: Does When You’re Born Shape Who You are?, whereas the US edition instead issues a statement, going by the name of The Generation Myth: Why When You’re Born Matters Less Than You Think. These respective changes are a result of different perspectives on generational clashes in each nation. In the UK, this is a topic we’re still in the midst of discussing whilst in the US, the conversation is at a more developed stage. The objective of the book, which formed the backbone of the event, is not to prove or disprove certain generations are important but rather to separate period, lifestyle and cohort effects which are responsible for changes within society. At the beginning of his piece, Duffy remarked that, “We can only really understand the future if we understand generations and what’s different between them”. He then went on to share that the notion of generational differences is not a new phenomenon, that history’s most significant sociologists and philosophers coined the idea including Karl Mannheim, and Auguste Commte. Throughout the segment, Duffy raised four key points about generational differences whilst sharing sets of data to underpin them:

  • Generational stereotypes fuel fake generational battles that distract us from vitally important trends. Duffy shared a graph which presented the proportion of American adults thinking that the rise in world temperature caused by the greenhouse effect is “extremely/very dangerous”. The gap between older and younger generations isn’t as wide as one might expect given generalised views that the former tends to not see climate change as much of a threat compared to the latter.
  • Inequality is increasingly generational – and intergenerational. According to statistics published by the Federal Reserve Distributional Accounts, there seems to have been a dramatic shift in wealth between generations within the US. ‘Baby Boomers’ (1945-1965) possessed 40% of the nation’s wealth at the age of 45%, whereas ‘Gen X’ (1966-1979) held only 15%. ‘Millennial’s’ (1980-1995) are currently projected to reach less than this by the time they’re at a similar age. It should be noted however that Duffy stressed the importance of acknowledging that these statistics were based on the median cohort age, and that not everyone within these age brackets achieved such levels of wealth.
  • We’re losing faith that things will be better for our kids than us. This was supported by the fact that 45% of people in the UK believe that today’s youth will fare worse than their parents; a figure which has risen by 33% since 2003.
  • Our real problem isn’t conflict – it’s generational separation and chronic short-termism. A relatively new pattern which emerged during the 1990’s reveals that greater numbers of young people are moving to cities and large towns whilst older individuals can be found more in villages and small towns, resulting in age segregation.

To conclude, Duffy presented three interlinked actions that need to be taken going forward, with the first expressing the importance of focusing on intergenerational inequality. The necessity to rebuild and protect generational connection was the second point, whilst the third and final imperative was to embed longer-term thinking, taking future generations into account.

The second guest speaker was Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia. Working alongside Duffy at the Policy Institute, Gillard expressed that this book has arrived at a critical stage as society begins to gravitate towards a ‘post-covid’ era. She also made the observation that the pandemic has itself widened the chasm between young and old, specifically making references to the ‘Covid generation’. Young children missing out on socialisation which is pivotal to their development as well as differences in employment practicalities regarding virtual working are two notable examples she gave. Additionally, Gillard is familiar with intergenerational reports which cast predictions for generations over a long period of time. However, she believed they weren’t being integrated enough into policies and decision making; something which could better accommodate people of various generations.

Robert Putnam, Malkin Research Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University was the third panel member to address the audience. He has collaborated with Duffy for at least 25 years, making various long term comparisons between generational trends on a global scale. Both Duffy’s publication and Putnam’s (written alongside Shaylyn Romney Garrett), The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again laid the foundations of his analysis. Putnam cast an international light on the topic, and spoke about the crucial role young people have played in the past in terms of improving the state of affairs within the US. He believed that the current generation possesses the agency to take action once again as they have the advantage of being able to consider new ways of approaching issues facing the country at present. He suggested that by including young people and acknowledging the differences between generations, we can grasp an understanding of the key elements required to cultivate a society (both in the US and the UK) which is inclusive of everyone.

In 2015, the Welsh Parliament passed the Well-being of Future Generations Act, a piece of legislation which obliges public bodies to consider the long-term effects their decisions might have and how they could potentially impact future generations. Deputy Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, Marie Brousseau-Navarro is heavily involved in curating the Act, and was the fourth and final speaker of the event. Brousseau-Navarro agreed with Duffy about the importance of utilising the past to benefit people in the future. She put forward the fact that, “In the next 50,000 years, we expect around 7 trillion people to be born. It is the actions of our ancestors and the actions of our current population which will shape the lives of these future generations.” She also spoke at length about the Well-being of Future Generations Act and provided an insight into the impact it’s having across Wales. Not only has it been well received by those living in the country, the Welsh Parliament has also noticed the improvement of future thinking by public bodies with the emergence of 20/30 year plans at both local and national levels. Not all of the targets for such plans are being met however, and it is believed this could be due to a lack of investment and available resources.

There was time dedicated to a formal Q&A session towards the end of the event. Unfortunately only one question could be put forward due to time constraints but despite this, the answer provided was substantial and not overly rushed. The question asked was, ‘how do we convince our children that they aren’t doomed?’. In response, Gillard encouraged parents to be honest about the challenges young people are already facing, but to also advise their children about what they can do to combat these issues. Putnam reinforced the idea that young people are capable of creating much needed positive change. Duffy then brought the answer to a close by reiterating the importance of connecting all generations and including everyone in the discussion. Viewers did have the opportunity to put questions forward to the panel via the chat during the show, and all queries were given thorough answers.

The event opened up a crucial discussion about generational differences and certainly proved to be a thought provoking session. Conflict between different age groups, whilst a timeless aspect of wider society, often only serves to create unnecessary tension. However, as Duffy claimed, this tension is made more severe in the digital age due to factors such as the current political climate and social media becoming the arena for such conflicts to occur.

Both editions of Bobby Duffy’s book are available to purchase here (the US edition will be on sale from the 7th November).