A Game of Generations
Have you noticed that ‘generational conflict’ is something we talk about now? When I say we, I mean the media more than ordinary families. Newspapers and online media outlets are full of stories about clashes between generations, apparent conflicts and increasing use of labels to define particular generations. We’re supposedly at each other’s throats, diametrically opposed on everything from housing to Brexit. Ok, some of this is human nature: from time out of mind the old have disparaged the habits, morals and dress-sense of the young; the youth responding in kind with dis-respect and a pushing of boundaries, but how much of what we’re seeing now is new, somehow beyond that basic stuff. Is generational conflict a thing?
Maybe it was when we began to precisely identify different generations that this all started. ‘Baby boomers’ were the first to be so-labelled, a very distinctive group born during and immediately after the Second World War, partly a natural side-effect of rushed wartime romances. But that wasn’t enough. We didn’t stop with this distinct and hopefully never-to-be-repeated set of circumstances. No, we came up with ‘Generation X’, those born in the 60s and 70s. My parents’ generation, those who are just becoming grand-parents now. Following on swiftly from that was ‘Generation Y’, my generation – children of the 80s and 90s. Otherwise known as ‘Millennials’ (and perhaps that name itself has contributed to the problem). Finally we’ve got ‘Generation Z’ – children born in the 21st-century, like my son and nephews. Goodness knows what comes after Z – do we cycle back round to A or get more inventive? Do we even need more labels?
You see, the problem with labels is that it separates people into ‘us’ and ‘them’. They are, by their very nature, divisive. They help forge group identities, and the more you’re aware of your own group identity the more you tend to view other groups negatively. This kind of thing on a national scale has led to countless wars, imperialism and genocide. On a smaller scale you see it manifesting itself in play-ground factions and teenagers who belong in one camp or another depending on what they like to wear or listen to. Ok, labels might help frame the dialogue, they’re certainly useful for getting to grips with history, but let’s be aware of the inherent dangers that come with them. We shouldn’t let them drive conflict that isn’t really there.
It’s in the realm of politics that these generational divides get thrown up most sharply. In simplistic terms it was the younger voters who tended to favour Clinton over Trump and the older voters who leaned much more heavily towards Leave. Yes I know I have to caveat that straightaway by saying that of course it was more complicated than that, it’s not a hard and fast truth, and only one of several demographic factors, but still, the general trends are undeniable. More than that, it’s been statistically proven that as you get older you’re more likely to vote for a conservative (little ‘c’) party. So voting sets different generations at odds. Stands to reason – we have different ambitions, different priorities.
That needn’t be a cause of conflict until you remember how far-reaching some of these decisions are. If the younger voters, who are in smaller numbers and have lower turn-out rates, get drowned out at general elections it doesn’t matter – you’re only locked in for another five years. Brexit however is an apparently irreversible decision that will impact the UK for the rest of the century, long beyond the life expectancy of a huge proportion of leave voters. The consequences, negative or otherwise, will be felt most keenly and borne disproportionately by the young, who by and large didn’t vote for it. That’s why it rankles, why it’s such a bone of contention. This divide seems to be causing family arguments like no other issue since the Civil War. Yes, the 20-somethings can help by actually voting more often and getting involved, but they’re always likely to be a minority in voting terms.
More than voting, political power and representation generally is skewed in favour of older generations. They have more wealth, more experience and they’ve had time to climb the ladder of power. Look at the average age of Cabinet ministers (52). Not much younger is the average age of MPs (50). The likes of Cameron, Trudeau and Macron are exceptions for their youth when you look at heads of government. That’s no bad thing – age brings experience, perspective and (hopefully) wisdom – so it’s not a problem fundamentally. Young people wouldn’t necessarily make better leaders, they should just be better represented. Only the young can change perceptions and end the apathy in their own generation that leads to political impotence. But we should recognise, at a basic level, that power generally resides with your elders. Always has done. And that naturally produces resentment. When we criticise our leaders, we’re usually criticising those older than us, and so this is a valid component of generational conflict.
But let’s step away from politics. There are other factors I can think of. Take where we live, for instance. How age-varied is your community? A hundred years ago every street would have contained all generations, babies and pensioners nestled cheek by jowl. Now things have changed. The old tend to live in sleepy rural villages or retirement complexes. Whole seaside towns have gone grey. The young have flocked to the cities, drawn by urban re-generation that follows where the jobs are. The families in the middle dominate the suburbs. My own town is very young, full of families having their first babies.
I think patterns of employment, commuting and wealth have made us more generationally isolated than ever before. Some young people can go weeks at a time and hardly come into contact with an older person. We see our grandparents less, and if you discount your grandparents/grandchildren, how often do you see someone two generations removed from you? I believe all generations have something to offer the others, so it’s a problem if they don’t come into regular, social contact. We are far more likely to misunderstand and vilify each other if we don’t spend time together. A lack of contact breeds mistrust. Ergo, generational conflict.
Again, not as simple as that, I’m sure, but it gets you thinking. One of the things I love about the church is how it brings different generations together. Or should do. Mine does. We have a wonderful thriving kids ministry as well as a brilliant cadre of wise old heads. Look at Methodist churches with an average age over 70, or at young trendy mega-churches, and I see something equally unhealthy and out of balance in both. When they’re together the old teach the young and pass on their wisdom and the young inspire the old and bring about necessary change. When they’re apart, how can they do that?
But church aside, where else do you see generations mixing like this? Most of our hobbies and leisure activities are inadvertently age-segregated, whether it’s sport, music or holidays. Most of the people I work with are my age, most of my neighbours too, and certainly all of my close friends. But for church, I’d barely see an older person. But for church, I wouldn’t know what I’m missing out on.
Every generation can criticise another. Every generation is shaped and constrained by the previous one, and offended by the next. We can all find fault with those who went before. If I look back and say, what a mess my parents’ generation made of the 70s and 80s, they could say something similar about the appeasers of Hitler, or the fools who allowed WWI to happen, or the many abuses of earlier centuries stretching back to the dawn of time.
We have a right to criticise only when we’re prepared to accept criticism. When I criticise what went before, I should be conscious that my son will grow up to judge what I did with my time; his grand-children will look back and say, what a mess they made of the 2030s and 2040s. We, each generation, should accept the responsibility for the decisions we take – getting credit for the things we did right, like ending slavery or setting up the NHS, and castigation for the horrible mistakes we made, whether it’s the Berlin Wall or the My Lai massacre.
We can criticise each other, but we can also bless. We can share ideas and pool wisdom. Important values need to be passed on and fresh creativity welcomed in equal measure. Traditions should be challenged or cherished depending on their worth. Every generation should be represented, consulted and borne in mind when making huge, far-reaching decisions.
So yes, I think there is such a thing as generational conflict. I think it’s always been there, we’re just more aware of it and more ready to analyse it. But conflict is not necessarily an evil. If it drives dialogue not disparagement. If the labels promote understanding, not insults. If they don’t, let’s lose them. If the conflict becomes unhealthy, let’s reform it. Whoever we are though, however old we are, we can all contribute towards decisions and actions that make a better society. We can all be part of solutions where good things come out of bad situations.