Dr Jennie Bristow discusses generational consciousness and the effect of the global Covid-19 pandemic on our young people.

In recent years, we have become obsessed with generational labels as a way to make sense of tensions within society. Conflicts over economic, social, political and cultural resources are routinely expressed as conflicts between generations – in particular, the Baby Boomers, born in the two decades after the Second World War, and the Millennials, born in the two decades before – you’ve guessed it.

In challenging this dominant narrative of generational conflict, my research has investigated the emergence of generational labels (Baby Boomers, Millennials, Generation X, and so on). On one hand, they are trite and overused – by attempting to explain present-day problems via cultural stereotypes, the labels present ‘generation’ as a determining identity, which flattens out the differences between people of the same age and incites conflict between old and young.

On the other hand, generational labels express something real: the distinctive experience shared by a group of young people as they come of age, during a period of accelerated social change when time suddenly appears out of joint.

The next label we can expect to emerge is the ‘Corona generation’, or some variant of this. Until now, those young people born after 2000 have been subjected to a barrage of labelling, by media, marketers and others who all want to be the first to come up with ‘the name’. To date, none have stuck apart from the unimaginative ‘Generation Z’; a label that has been constructed by commentators and imposed upon young people, in a bid to understand them.

In reality, any generation’s sense of itself comes through its own attempt to make sense of its times – to comprehend its own role in historical events. And this crisis is likely to prove decisive in bringing about a such a shift in generational consciousness.

Commentators should be cautious about second-guessing what form this will take: generational consciousness is developed by young people themselves, over time, in relation to significant and often traumatic social events. But it also develops in relation to other generations – and that is where we need to be considering our responsibility, as adults and as educators, to the younger generation.

One unfortunate consequence of the measures taken to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic is that they both reinforce age segregation, through correctly identifying ‘the elderly’ as being at higher risk of becoming seriously ill, and universalise the measures taken to contain transmission of the disease, through locking everyone down. This latter move has meant that young people, who until last week were in school and University, are now isolated from both their peers and adults other than their parents. The brave, selfless instincts to get out there and help, which we saw early on in community responses, have become neutered by the message that the best thing young people can do is to stay home alone.

Whatever the merits of this approach as a public health strategy, it raises some important questions about how we engage with young people at a time of national, indeed global, emergency. Although teachers are valiantly pursuing ways to ‘keep school going’ online, there is a risk that we cut young people out of the wider discussion about the dimensions of this crisis – which will clearly extend far beyond strategies for infection control.

Insights from every academic discipline, from the Sciences and Social Sciences to the Arts and Humanities, will be vital in giving perspective to the turmoil that we are experiencing. In engaging school and University students in these discussions, we will affirm that we do not regard them primarily as problematic, infectious bodies, but as constructive, curious minds.

Dr Jennie Bristow is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology, Politics and Sociology.