Comparing Generations

Generational studies have several methodological issues to them that need to be addressed, but to which it is not always possible to find good solutions. The notion of ‘historical generation’ is not the same as the concept of ‘cohort’, as a generation will most often include several cohorts and not necessarily with any clear border: generations tend to be ‘clearest at their centers, but blurred and fuzzy at the edges’ (Rosow, cited in Alwin and McCammon 2004: 41). The concept of generations becomes even more fuzzy when they are used in generational studies, partly because the design itself separates what is a gradual historical development into more or less incidental ‘generations’ and partly because these generations will be broader the longer the distance to the anchor-generation. In our study, the youngest generation that is our anchor-generation represents a birth cohort (1971/1972), whereas the two older generations cover approximately 30 cohorts each. Most of the informants in the oldest generation are born between 1910 and 1925, most of the middle generation in the 1940s, but there is also an overlap among the men in the two eldest generations as two men from the middle generation in terms of age could have belonged to the oldest generation. Furthermore, as women tend to be younger than men when they have their first child, the mothers and grandmothers in our study belong on average to younger birth cohorts than the fathers and grandfathers. Yet, the middle generation may also be seen as a parental cohort since they all had a child within the same year, something that may have given them some similar experiences from the period in which their child grew up, despite their different ages. But this cohort effect is, of course, not relevant prior to their parenthood.

It has been argued that the imprecise concept of historical generations makes it difficult to connect it to social change and that the operative concept of cohort seems to be more straightforward. However, Alwin and McCammon (2004: 25, 27) also make the opposite argument: the concept of generation has more potential for understanding the origins and nature of social change as generations are more a matter of quality than degree. Even though cohort and generation are not the same, it may still be the case that cohort effects are ‘given life’ though interpretative and behavioural aspects of the generation. In this way the combination of cohort and generation may also contribute to a better understanding of the agency of a given cohort. This inclusive approach to cohort and generation makes sense in relation to our study. Some patterns emerge from informants in a generation clustering around certain birth cohorts, while others may emerge from informants sharing similar conditions or formative experiences as children and youth. Informants who are on the margins of these main clusters may show something important about the gradual character of the process of generational change: the oldest informants in the middle generations often combine patterns from the oldest and the middle generations, for instance, when it comes to obligations to their parents or the work ethic. This again leads to a perception in their children of having ‘old parents’ with different ideas and values than other parents, and by this the child may also have a modernising effect on the parents and contribute to further modifying them as border figures between historical generations. In this way one can argue that a generational data set with ‘fuzzy edges’ may actually be an advantage to understand the gradual emergence of generational patterns. Used with methodological precautions, the value of the study of intergenerational transmission in a historical context is that it may grasp some of the more elusive aspects of social reproduction and change. As Alwin and McCammon (2004: 42) conclude: ‘Generations lack specific boundaries and are meaningful in their distinctiveness largely as subpopulations, but offer the potential of being used as powerful explanations in and of themselves for distinctive patterns of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors’—and, once again, I would add feelings.

Another consequence of not being able to control the characteristics of the generational samples derived from the anchor generation is that the class composition of each generation becomes unequal. In our case the social composition of the different generational groups reflects the process of social mobility of these three generations: a majority in the oldest generation grew up in rural areas, the majority in the middle generation grew up urban working class, and the majority in the youngest generation grew up urban middle class. The slightly higher social profile among the women compared to the men in the youngest generation may illustrate that upward social mobility through the school system was a track generally used more by working-class girls than by working-class boys in the middle generation (see Chap. 4). Even though the imbalance in social profile between genders and generations reflects general aspects of the process of social transformation, it also indicates that comparisons between groups must be made with caution, in particular when it comes to distinguishing class differences from generational differences There is no doubt that the differences we found between the generations are accentuated by the imbalance of the geographical and social composition of the different generational groups. However, since the demographic movements in society during these three generations did increase the urban population and the number of people belonging to the middle classes, the class differences in fact reflect a generational change.

A third issue that complicates generational studies is determining what items it makes sense to compare. Because of structural and demo- graphical changes, such as those related to increased standards of living, the increased level of general education and the increased prevalence of divorces, the same experiences in different generations of not getting an education, being poor or having divorced parents attain very different cultural and emotional meanings. It may make more sense to compare different items that address the same dimension of experienced meaning to achieve more relevant comparisons. Instead of comparing single items like the level of wealth or the number of divorces in the childhoods of the different generations, working on the level of context and meaning of the experience of poverty in the oldest generation and the experience of divorces in the youngest generation may be a more relevant comparison: as the oldest generation knew that poverty and the deaths of parents were calculated risks in life, so did their grandchildren know that parental divorces were, and that there were no relational safety nets against it. They learnt how to handle divorces in much the same way as their grandparents learned to handle the hardships of their childhood. The increased consciousness of the fragility of human relationships became the backdrop of life in the youngest generation. Whereas the conditions of life taught the oldest generation skills of frugality and modesty, the youngest generation learnt, for good or ill, to take different perspectives, to differentiate between different social relationships and norms, and to handle ambivalent feelings. As 18-year-olds, most of them had come to the conclusion that their parents were just not the right match.

 
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