Photo: Courtesy of Bobby Duffy
The Generation Myth
U.K. author and public policy professor Bobby Duffy argues that generational stereotypes are all wrong, since values shift as we age / BY Rosemary Counter / January 20th, 2022
Classifying humans by generations isn’t particularly nice or helpful. In The Generation Myth: Why When You’re Born Matters Less Than You Think, U.K. researcher Bobby Duffy argues just that. In a Zoom interview, the professor of public policy at King’s College London discusses the ever-changing baby boomers, Bart Simpson’s real age, fluid demographic divisions and, of course, avocado toast.
Rosemary Counter: Can I ask how old you are? I feel we need to know.
Bobby Duffy: I was born in 1972, so I’m going to be 50 soon. I’m clinging on to 49 for a few more months. That makes me a classic gen X, right solid in the middle.
RC: I did notice your book goes particularly easy on gen Xers. How convenient!
BD: We don’t have a bad reputation because everyone just ignores us. We’re like the middle child of generations. No wonder there are some surly gen-Xers on social media asking why nobody ever talks about us. There’s a great tweet I used in the book: “I am neither a millennial nor a boomer. I come from a generation so irrelevant that people can’t even be bothered to hate us.”
RC: I think that sounds nice, but then again I’m a millennial. Nobody says anything nice about us. I’m thinking about avocado toast again.
BD: And fancy coffees, yes. I have a lot of sympathy for you millennials, because you’re a very unlucky generation. It’s a fundamental attribution problem to assume there’s something wrong with millennials’ character when it’s actually the context that’s changed. All the advice we give them is this double-whammy of actually blaming them for an objectively tough financial situation. There’s a lot of talk about all the stuff millennials “killed.” That language is very interesting.
RC: You begin with the common sensational claim that “we’re teetering on the brink of a generational war” – then you spend the whole book disputing it.
BD: Generational conflict, let alone “war,” is massively overblown – for lots of reasons. Age is a very unusual characteristic; unlike race, gender, even class or income, your age changing – assuming you’re alive – is a guarantee. You will be old one day, and this makes divisions between age groups difficult to maintain. We’re more connected that way than we think, we all love our parents and our kids, and it’s very hard to turn generations against each other. At the same time, it’s human nature to try to categorize and simplify. But does it really make sense? Do these categories do anything useful?
RC: I literally can’t think of a single thing.
BD: The creation of these labels is very much a post-Second World War thing to do, but these labels are really very fluid and their story and meaning changes all the time.
RC: You had a great example in your book about Bart Simpson.
BD: Bart Simpson’s birthday is supposedly 1979. He’s a Gen X, like me.
RC: But he’s also still 10, meaning he was born in 2012 and an alpha.
BD: Bart Simpson’s generation is fluid, too. He doesn’t say, “Don’t have a cow, man!” anymore. So even though he’s the same age, his cultural references have changed. But even within the same generation, the stories constantly change. Take a broad category like boomers.
RC: The first thing that comes to mind for me is Woodstock.
BD: Because brains can only cope with so much information, and the media only reports certain information, so you think of 1969 and that’s the image that comes to mind. Most people were not flower children. This really represents a minority, and the media chose that image for you. Humans are very attuned to pay more attention to negative information, which goes way back to cave-people days when negative information is threat-based information. If you didn’t pay attention to news of a lurking sabre-toothed tiger, then evolution weeded you out. This is why people click on negative headlines every time.
RC: I guess Woodstock would be the 60s version of “Kids these days!” I’ve noticed headlines like “Millennials are killing marriage” could easily be spun the other way: “Millennial divorce rate plummets.”
BD: Yes, and there is a risk in these stereotypes. If you believe older people don’t care about climate change, for example, even though the evidence shows us that’s not true, the risk is you create conditions when you really do start to not care. At the same time, there’s also a risk to lionize generations to come and assume they’ll be the ones to save us. That’s a lot of pressure. No generation is one way, forever, especially younger people. It’s natural to change and healthy for society.
RC: I hope you keep that in mind when you turn 50.
BD: Ha, yes! In the abstract, it’s fine, but at an individual level, it’s easier said than done.