Is It Useful to Analyze Politics in Terms of Generations?

Is It Useful to Analyze Politics in Terms of Generations?

Is It Useful to Analyze Politics in Terms of Generations?

Keir Milburn argues that generational analysis can provide clues to the operation of class while Adolph Reed Jr. writes that it can obscure historically specific social relations.



Most contemporary arguments on the left about the usefulness of generational analysis are really disagreements about the functioning of class politics. Generational analysis can’t be reduced to class, but in conjunctures such as ours, it can add a useful temporal dimension to our understanding of class divisions. The point of identifying divisions within the working class is, of course, not to exacerbate them but to understand their causes, so that we can better strategize how to overcome them.

Generational analysis provides clues to the operation of class today, because generational political divisions have arisen out of the key structural crises and trends of our times: climate change, secular stagnation, the drawn-out collapse of the neoliberal consensus, and an aging population in the wealthy nations. Although these crises operate along different timelines, it is our misfortune that they’ve all come to a head at this moment. The 2020s will be among the most pivotal decades in the history of humanity. Inaction on the climate has brought us to a point of absolute crisis. Unfortunately, the long-term trend of falling birth rates—which means that there are proportionately more older people now than ever before—has coincided with a dramatic move to the political right among that demographic. Great inertia has been added to our political systems just when fundamental transformation is most required.

Not all conceptions of generations are compatible with a class analysis. Indeed, our current generational categories—boomers followed by Gen Xers followed by millennials followed by zoomers, with each group culturally unique—are arbitrary and incoherent. Typically, when people talk about generations in reference to societies rather than families, they’re referring to all those born within a roughly 20-year period. If we assume that a person’s child-rearing years encompass a similar span (let’s say from 18 to 38) and note that the time from one’s birth to one’s child-rearing years is roughly similar in length, then the logic is easy to see. But there’s a problem: Births take place each and every day, so how do you determine when one generation ends and another begins?

We’d do better to recognize that discrete generations don’t come along cyclically in tidy bundles every 20 years. Instead, they form when conditions are right: Generational distinctions become important when they coalesce around events and periods of sudden, accelerated change that alter what seems politically possible. It is at these times that the ways a society makes sense of itself—the stories it tells itself—get disrupted in an uneven manner.

The structuring event of our time is the 2008 Great Recession; ever since then, we have been in a protracted political and economic crisis. For many, the pre-2008 world proceeded based on a particular view of the future—a future that would offer steady, uneventful improvements in living standards. Such a prospect was never believable for all, and the looming climate crisis meant that it was always an illusion, but the last 15 years have made a mockery of that faith. We’ve lurched from one unpredicted event to another: Brexit, Trump, Covid-19, etc. But that pre-2008 vision of the future didn’t just exist in our heads; it also formed the basis for the debts and financial instruments with which our lives are entwined. Those instruments, and the institutional logics that go with them, have not gone away. If anything, our lives are now even more tied up with them.

For older generations, who are more likely to own property, these financial instruments might still seem to accord with a viable future, but for most young people, they don’t. The intrusive monitoring and rent extraction that go along with their debts, from student loans to credit cards, are impositions that constrain the lives they hope to lead. This, along with young people’s reliance on ever-diminishing incomes from work, encourages them to see the structural forces conditioning their lives. Conversely, the material circumstances of most older and retired people can result in their viewing themselves primarily as asset holders rather than retired workers. In this way, their interests align with the performance of the financial sector. To paraphrase Stuart Hall, age is a modality through which class is lived.

This kind of generational analysis is compatible with a class analysis, but it might not fit neatly into a strategy based on abstract conceptions of class unity drawn from an abstract conception of interests. Material interests are not given; they are formed. Any assessment of what’s in your interest necessarily includes a conception of the probable future—the future in which those interests will be enacted. The last 15 years have seen generational divides emerge not just in terms of wages, working conditions, access to welfare, and asset ownership, but also in ideas of what the future might look like. But as we exit the low-inflation, low-interest era that kept asset prices high, opportunities to ameliorate those divisions may open up to us.

Keir Milburn


I’ve never liked analyzing politics in generational terms, and I can produce witnesses who would affirm that I didn’t like it even when my own age cohort was supposedly inventing a 1960s “youth movement.” Generational categories are simplistic and ideological. The idea that swaths of people across class, race, and geography will have the same characteristics should elicit a big “Says who?” That is, who decides what the definitive attributes of a generation are and what the formative events that made it were? For instance, my father, who was a veteran of the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge, detested the “Greatest Generation” label and the orgy of “Can you top this?” spectator patriotism that surrounded the 50th anniversary of D-Day. He insisted that if his generation were to be associated with anything, it should be Social Security, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and the New Deal.

Generational understandings of politics can seem to resonate with experience because they’re bromides, and that’s the nature of bromides: They placate with trite comforts. The notion that there are characteristics that separate age-graded populations derives most immediately from offshoots of opinion polling and the advertising industry and its relentless project of creating taste communities—markets—for discrete products by concocting and appealing to a self-image or sensibility. (It’s worth noting that opinion polling, advertising, and the discipline of psychology evolved in relation to one another in the 1920s and ’30s.)

Generational categories are fictions that reflect shared human experience in the banal way that daily horoscopes do. For example, one description of Generation X’s defining features has it that they are independent, flexible, and self-reliant as well as critical thinkers. Apparently, generations also have different approaches to dental hygiene (millennials are supposedly more afraid to go to the dentist). This is shallow bullshit, of course. Generational thinking of this sort rests on a taxonomic fallacy: It treats abstract categories as if they were coherent groups and imputes just-so stories and stereotypes to them as supposedly common sensibilities. In that way, generational thinking is like race thinking or gender stereotyping.

Of course, there are experiences that are broadly shared by age cohorts. Those of us who lived through the Vietnam War may be more responsive to specific images and tropes than others are. That particular sensibility, however, doesn’t seem to have diminished support for the United States’ proxy war in Ukraine or its military adventurism in the Middle East, the Balkans, or elsewhere.

Most important, generational understandings of politics obscure the significance of historically specific social relations, especially regarding political economy. For example, during a multi-campus tour for Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign, I was among a half-dozen surrogates who participated in a meeting with a handful of national and local reporters. The first question concerned how we would explain young people’s enthusiasm for the septuagenarian Sanders. Each of my colleagues took the bait and responded, seriatim, with the predictable, called-for bromides, suggesting that the not-yet-jaded young could detect his sincerity and so forth. I said that at the campus rallies, the students’ most enthusiastic responses were to his calls for Medicare for All, free public college, student debt relief, a living wage, and full employment.

So college students in 2019 liked Sanders not because they were “Generation Z” or even generic “youth,” but because they were concerned about finding jobs that paid decently; having access to good-quality, affordable health care; and getting out from under the burdens of student debt and escalating tuition costs—in other words, concerns involving their material circumstances. Similarly, “baby boomers” are disproportionately concerned about Medicare and Social Security not because of some shared generational essence, but because they are, at this point, disproportionately likely to depend on those programs.

Like so much else in our contemporary political discourse, the generational frame of reference is a product of pollsters and consultants who have a political service to sell that is an alternative to organizing durable constituencies around issues, programs, and political vision—the approach through which political movements actually take shape. The generational approach, by contrast, depends on advertising gimmicks that carve up the population into arbitrary age sets; imputes values, attitudes, and dispositions to them; and then tries to appeal to those characteristics to put together an electoral majority. This strategy will never help us advance a broadly egalitarian agenda.

Adolph Reed Jr.

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