Demographers used to believe that being a big birth cohort was a disadvantage – you would travel through life in a crowded, jostling group, in contrast to the spacious, business-class experience of a smaller one. More recently I have argued that in a modern democratic welfare state the argument could be reversed, because actually big cohorts can do very well for themselves. The British baby boomers, roughly those born between the twin peaks in the mid-1940s and the mid-1960s, have done much better at accumulating two crucial assets – housing and pensions – than the generations before and after them. This argument clearly touches a nerve, as evidenced by a surge not just of expert analysis but new campaign groups and even new plays (such as Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love) calling for fairness between the generations.
But behind the demographic and economic facts, there are a host of deeper issues. What is the balance between the influences of the cohort to which we belong, our stage in the life cycle, and the impact on all of us of changes in the wider culture? Are the relationships between the generations fundamentally competitive or cooperative? I am an optimist, and believe in cooperation between the generations: the baby boomers have done so well for themselves more out of a failure to understand the implications of their actions for future generations than out of fundamental hostility.
It is also right to link these debates to shifting political attitudes as well. The decline of class as a tool for analysing our society leaves a vacuum that generational analysis is filling. Birth cohorts are a natural phenomenon and can provide a shared framework of understanding in a society with a wider range of political and cultural backgrounds.
So I opened Jennie Bristow’s book with real optimism that we would get an overview of these types of issues. And it does offer, for example, a good discussion of Karl Mannheim. His classic 1928 essay, “The problem of generations”, sets out the sociological issues presented by successive generations that are both socialised into a pre-existing culture and have to change it.
There is, however, a fundamental flaw in Bristow’s book. She believes that there is no underlying demographic issue. In a few thin paragraphs, she dismisses any suggestion that there could actually be a coherent group of baby boomers, and indeed she comes close to denying that there was a post-war baby boom at all. This means that her interest is in how narratives of generational conflict are invented. So instead of analysis of deep and thought-provoking sociological issues, we instead get long quotes from articles in the Daily Mail as supposed evidence of popular attitudes.
This peculiar postmodernist doctrine in which there are only invented narratives is ultimately sterile. In fact it is self-refuting. This book deserves a riposte in which this school of postmodern cultural sociology is itself investigated using its own tools of analysis. Treating everything we say as just a cultural phenomenon is itself just a cultural phenomenon – and a rather peculiar one at that.
Of course popular attitudes and cultural shifts are worthy of study, and beliefs about demography provide some fascinating material. There is a long history of demographic panics in which people say some pretty wild things, but usually these are prompted by extrapolating out periods of low or high fertility as long-term trends – they do not just emerge out of thin air.
Attitudes held by successive generations may well be becoming more dissimilar, and this is surely worth sociological investigation. As family size shrinks and life expectancy improves, so families comprise more relations of very different ages and fewer siblings and cousins of similar ages. This change in family structure, meanwhile, happens in a wider society where we are more segregated by age group – we are more likely to be working, for example, with contemporaries. Non-family relations between the generations are increasingly restricted to institutions such as schools or care homes. A society in which tall, thin beanstalk families stand out from a wide, flat society horizontally divided by generations could make the family more significant and make social mobility more of a challenge. This might be one reason why we increasingly focus on the family as the means of intergenerational exchange.
These are important issues to which sociologists have much to contribute. Indeed there are parts of this book that suggest that Bristow herself might well contribute to this debate. But what makes Mannheim’s work in this area so great is precisely the way he links the most natural facts – human mortality and reproduction – with an account of cultural attitudes. That is sociology at its best. The arguments presented in Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict, in contrast, are wrong-headed in their attempt to detach cultural shifts from demographic and social change.
David Willetts is visiting professor in the Policy Institute, King’s College London. He was minister of state for universities and science from 2010 to 2014, and is author of The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Have Taken Their Children’s Future – and Why They Should Give it Back (2010).
Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict
By Jennie Bristow
Palgrave Macmillan, 224pp, £60.00
ISBN 9781137454720 and 4744 (e-book)
Published 28 May 2015