Power  /  Book Review

End the Generation Wars

Lazy assumptions about young and old cloud our politics.

A politics that relies on young people to revitalize democracy and address inequality is likely to prove a disappointment. Even if younger people began to turn out to the polls at higher rates than they do now, the demographic tides are against them: In the next 10 years, census projections indicate, the number of Americans between 18 and 44 will stay roughly the same, while the 65-plus cohort will swell by about 17 million. This demographic fact, however, does not foretell the shape of our politics. As social researcher Bobby Duffy sets out to show in his new book, The Generation Myth, generations are not as real, or as important, as we think they are. The most pressing issues simply do not map neatly onto generational cleavages. Older people are subject, if in different ways, to the same inequalities as the young—a worsening climate crisis, a lack of affordable care, racial inequity—and have just as great a stake in building a better world. A generational war does not serve the interests of the young, and only an intergenerational alliance can create a world worth getting old in.

How different, really, are the generations? Does it make sense to understand our political future through the lens of generational war? Bobby Duffy asks these questions, and his answers are worth listening to. Duffy is a social scientist who worked as an executive for the market research group Ipsos before assuming his current post at King’s College London. The title of his book is something of a misnomer. Surveying the state of social-scientific research about the differences between the generations, The Generation Myth holds that, though there are real differences, many widely held notions of generational difference don’t match the reality.

There are two major, unmissable differences between Boomers and their successors. The first is economic. Boomers took advantage of a unique confluence of economic factors. Their jobs were more likely to be unionized, and to provide pensions. And yet the more important advantage had nothing to do with wages, which are not after all the source of real wealth. Boomers were able to buy homes and build fortunes through the simple logic of asset appreciation. Younger people have by and large been frozen out of this arrangement, just as wage stagnation has closed other avenues to wealth. The second major difference is educational. My sense coming into the book was that college attendance exploded for Boomers and has since risen slowly. The truth is quite different. There was indeed a jump between Boomers and their parents, but that progress did not plateau. Millennials are much more likely than Boomers, and even than Generation X, to hold bachelor’s degrees.