It is now widely understood that generations exist. Their patterns of change are regularly reported by the Pew Research Center, and their consumer preferences are sought by marketers. People recognize that generations have contrasting styles of life and ways of doing things.
But the existence of generations poses multiple problems for social science, most basically why generations even exist at all. Let’s look at the theoretical problem here. People’s lives are separated into successive phases during which they do different activities; modern people don’t just grow up and repeat the same thing all their lives. In different generations these phases remain pretty similar. Young people, for example, pursue the same general activities that they have done in every generation.
But generations become really important because at specific moments they alter these patterns in significant ways. For example, Pew Research found that young people have increasingly delayed their marriages or don’t marry at all. The chart below shows that each generation is clearly identifiable by name, as is the year when most of its generation is aged 18 to 32 years old – the peak point of its activities.
The problem here is how all generations go through the same phases of life but handle them in contrasting styles. There are two puzzles then. First, why do generations accept the same sequence of life phases in the first place? Why are activities segregated and why should they be pursued in a strict order? And second, what makes generations different from each other? Why is each one distinct from the previous? Is it possible that generations construct their own lives, and if so, by what means do they become the authors of their own collective style?
Social science should be able to answer big questions like these. Can it simply be an accident that modern society gives birth to these different generations? Unfortunately for us, social science is completely stumped; generations remain a huge unsolved mystery. It’s not politics or institutions that create them; no formal organizations or policies can be found that design contrasting generations. And it’s not the economy that appears to be creating them either. Economic inequalities exist within every generation, but these don’t stop people from sharing much of the same outlook, priorities, aesthetics and preferences as their peers.
The discipline that is best positioned to answer these questions is sociology. Generations are voluntary, based on attraction not coercion, and become effective by using temporary informal associations. These are all sociological qualities. But past sociology suffers from obstacles to recognizing generations; specifically, it holds onto concepts which actively deny that generations exist.
For example, ‘socialization’ theory states that parents create children who are photocopies of themselves. But to be part of their own distinct generation, children cannot be reproductions just like their parents. The existence of generations tells us, logically, that parents regularly fail to socialize their children. Different generations keep on appearing. Have parents failed?
An alternative sociology suggests itself. Perhaps social science could see generations, not as a problem, but as something that carries out a purpose or function for society. Maybe our society loves its generations and supports those parents who peddle back on the “socialization” and let generations come into being.
This possibility has fascinating implications. Perhaps generations can reshape society. This suggests that we live in a world full of exciting creative possibilities. A new and improved sociology that understands generations may be the first social science to shed light on this remarkable feature of modern society.