Ahead of a public discussion next week, Dr Jennie Bristow looks at how the experience of the pandemic can help sociologists gain a valuable insight into generations and what they are or are not.
In the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Spring 2020, I teamed up with my then 15-year-old daughter to write a think-piece, The Corona Generation: Coming of age in a crisis. We were troubled by the way in which the response to this pandemic was, from the outset, framed around the need for enforced distancing between the generations. In initial, practical terms, this imperative reflected the dangers of Covid-19 as a disease, which increased progressively with age: posing minimal risk to children and young adults, but a serious danger to the elderly. But across large parts of the world, and particularly in the Global North, lockdowns and social distancing measures quickly took on a more metaphorical dimension reflective of the cultural ‘generation wars’.
A storm erupted over social media memes that badged this new coronavirus as a ‘Boomer Remover’; nature’s payback for the allegedly selfish, irresponsible, and environmentally careless behaviour of the ‘Baby Boomer generation’. Official campaigns targeted young people with the message that they should not consider themselves ‘invincible’ in the face of the virus, and that failure to heed social distancing regulations could result in their bearing responsibility for ‘killing granny’. As the months went by, concerns about the effect of prolonged school closures and young people’s isolation from the social world ignited some bitter arguments about whether we were sacrificing the needs of the young to the wellbeing of the old, or prioritising the demands of the present emergency over the needs of the future.
The rapid transformation of the pandemic experience into a generational problem raises some big questions for sociologists today. The German scholars Rudolph and Zacher (2020) discuss how ‘generationalized rhetoric’ around the Covid-19 pandemic reproduced ‘the various conceptual, methodological, and practical problems associated with the (mis)application of generations for making sense of uncertain times’. But the problem of generations is not only one of empirical application.
Sociologically, the concept of generations developed from a desire to understand the fraught relationship between the past, present, and future, as this is embodied in different generations of people. Too often, however, generationalist thinking based on crude cultural stereotypes evades this discussion, using a globalising and homogenising logic to reduce complex social and political problems to matters of demography and policy, and emphasising ‘change’ at the expense of acknowledging the importance of continuity. In this vein, political and media attempts to summarise and predict the life chances of the ‘Covid generation’ risk disregarding the nuances of generational analysis to present an overstated polarisation of ‘young vs old’, and to flatten out of diversity of experiences between young people globally.
On the other hand, grappling with the experience of the pandemic has brought to the fore many features of the problem of generations that have exercised the sociological imagination for a century, including the potential for tensions and collaboration between the generations, the difficulties expressed by modern societies in educating and socialising young people, and the potential emergence of a distinct form of generational consciousness. By applying a cautious and contextualised understanding of generations, we can gain some valuable insights into our current predicament: but this requires a clear understanding of what generations are, and what they are not.
Dr Jennie Bristow is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology. She will be discussing these issues in a Thought Leader Talk for the ESRC-funded ‘Connecting Generations’ project. The talk will be on Tuesday 19 July, 12:00-13:00, online. Attendance is free; register here .