Dear Students: Please stop writing papers on (insert generation here)

Auguste Comte (1798-1857) theorized that a new generation arises every 30 years. Other sociologists would slightly vary the timespan (15-30 years) but maintain the basic theory. The intention behind determining the length of a generation was often to devise a framework for cleanly dividing society into generational categories, in order to better understand cultural, political and ideological shifts. Today’s most-discussed generations have been divided in this tradition: “Baby Boomers” (1946-1964); “Generation X” (1965-1980); “Generation Y”/“Millennials” (1981-1996); and “Generation Z”/“Zoomers” (1997-2012). Although members of a specific age bracket participating in the same society may share some characteristics, problems arise when these categories are taken as absolutes, justifying the projection of a particular set of characteristics onto all individuals born within a specific timeframe. Globalization has perhaps made such generalizations more tempting, as information becomes more accessible, and cultures cross borders more fluidly than they did in Comte’s day. One can now observe the soubriquets “Gen X” and “Gen Y” (with their corresponding nicknames) pervading pop culture (and student papers) as internationally valid categories. However, even in the age of social media, this method of attributing generational characteristics is fundamentally flawed, because it does not account for variations in experience between and within societies.

On the most basic level, one must consider the location of the generation in question. As discussed by Karl Mannheim (1927/1972), the location (Lagerung) should not only refer to the nation in which the individuals reside and the age bracket which they occupy, but also their position within society (p. 288-290). This often determines how social, economic, and political dynamics shape their perceptions and ideologies, which in turn distinguish one generation location from the next. A simple example would be the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of which still cannot be determined. Although there may be talk of this being a “shared experience”, it only can only be truly shared among those who occupy the same location within a particular society. 

High school students still residing under the care of their parents (for better or worse) will likely have a different impression of the pandemic than university students trying out their first “go” at independence. Doctors and nurses on the front lines will observe a different pandemic from teachers who (for the most part) were able to continue working from the security of their homes (again, for better or worse). Moreover, those who lost their jobs due to budget cuts and business losses resulting from Covid restrictions will experience economic difficulties which were not experienced by those who were able to maintain an income. Within “Gen Z” (ages 9-24) alone, there are children who have spent at least one fundamental year of grade school online (if they attended school at all), high school students, workers, college students, medical students recruited to work in hospitals due to staff shortages, and so on. The ways in which the pandemic may have shaped their visions of their future, their overall mentality and behaviors is likely to vary significantly depending on their position, or location, within society. Universalized generational characteristics simply cannot be applied here, and these incongruencies may exist within a single country, district or even city. The variety of experiences thus broadens when we consider how each country handled the pandemic differently.

This issue of locality raises another concern for delineating generations – if we consider generations as markers for understanding ideological shifts, how can we determine when these shifts occurred? Often, it is not one single event which triggers a shift, but a series of events and innovations which lead to change. To simplify things, however, consider how there was no Prague Spring in the US, no 9/11 in the UK, and no Berlin Wall in Czechia. These events (randomly selected here without context) occurred at different times and played a role in stimulating changes to the environment (e.g., enhanced security measures in the US after 911, the reunification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, etc.), which may have influenced the perceptions of citizens, depending on their location within society and how they were affected by the change. Therefore, when we examine the significance of locality on a broader scale, we may see that even the timeframe given for each generation may differ, and the characteristics applied to each certainly cannot apply on an international scale.

Although the division of society into concrete generational chunks may be a useful thought exercise to begin evaluating how and why larger ideological shifts occur, one must consider how individuals may be influenced differently by the same changes in their environment, depending on their location within society at the time. This may lead to certain commonalities among people of the same age, profession, economic status (etc.), as these factors determine their location within society. Nevertheless, this does not mean that these characteristics can be applied to Gen X, Y, or Z universally on an international scale without questioning if and why any discrepancies may exist.

Mannheim, K. (1972). The Problem of Generations. In P. Kecskemeti (Ed.), Karl Mannheim: Essays (2nd ed., pp. 276-322). Routledge. (Original work published 1927).

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