Wherever we look, it seems, the story of our society is one of inter-generational warfare. Election and referendum results have revealed a nation divided, not so much by class or party allegiance, but by generation. Brexit, for instance, was driven by pensioners; the rise of Jeremy Corbyn was fuelled by the young.

Increasingly, political, social and cultural debate revolves around the behaviours and views of particular generations: the Baby Boomers, the Millennials, Generation X, and now, Generation Z or the digital natives.

Attacking an entire age cohort is a behaviour that has become commonplace. A whole market seems to have exploded in books that explain each generation to each other, or even to themselves, and ramping up the tension: for instance, former Conservative minister David Willetts’s The Pinch: How The Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future, or Neil Howe and William Strauss’s Millennials: The Next Great Generation, or Chloe Combi’s Generation Z: Their Voices, Their Lives.

Much of what is said or written on this subject is inspired by “generational theory”, a concept created by authors Neil Howe and William Strauss, who, in 1991, published Generations, their explanation of American history as a series of generational cycles.

Recently it has become the in vogue theory, touted even by Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon. Partly its popularity had risen because, as sociologist Dr Graeme Codrington, co-author of 2012 book Mind The Gap points out, politics has changed. “In our book,” he says, “we predicted that politics would begin shifting from being a matter of left and right, to being more young versus old.

“The older generation would be concerned about sovereignty and protecting entitlements, and the younger generation about connection and engagement.”

This is exactly what he considers has happened. “I think it’s what the Brexit referendum was and certainly what the latest General Election showed.”

But what exactly are all these generations about? And how do you fit into them?


Brought up in the aftermath of the Second World War, the “Silents”, according to theorist Neil Howe, “tiptoed cautiously in a post-crisis social order that no-one wanted to disturb”.

Rule abiders, they rarely talked about “changing the system”, but instead about “working within the system”.

Described as traditional, respectful of authority and technically challenged, they have been accused, alongside the Baby Boomers, of robbing the youth of their future. In terms of marriage and employment, they tended to follow the moral norms and economic climate of the time. The Pew Research Centre, studying the generation in the United States, found that “64 per cent of Silents were married when members of their generation were between the ages of 18 and 33”.

Marriage, religion and work were the driving force behind how they lived their lives and defined their demography. Families were stable, divorce was almost non-existent and work frequently meant physical labour.

This is a generation that experienced social mobility and were able to contemplate early retirement despite very little in the way of education. Demographer Richard Easterlin, in his 1980 book Birth And Fortune, called them the “Fortunate” generation – the typical young man of that era could earn more by age 30 than the average wage for all other generations of men who came before him in his profession. They were born into an era when the brickwork was being laid for the social welfare state which changed Britain’s political landscape. They were young when the NHS was formed in 1948 and grew up to see taxation as a force for good. Of all the generations, the Silent Generation, according to surveys, was most optimistic about Brexit.

Formative qualities: The Second World War, Squalor, “traditional” British values.

Legacy: The NHS and Welfare State

THE BABY BOOMERS (born 1946-64)

As generational theorist Neil Howe has put it: “However you date them, we all know the Boomer’s life story. It’s as though no phase of life means anything until Boomers pass through it and can tell us about it … Boomers shook the windows and rattled the walls (to paraphrase Bob Dylan) of everything their parents had built. In so doing, this ‘generation’ became especially well-known for its cultivation of self and its carelessness about material wealth.”

Proud owners of secure jobs, secure “triple-lock” pensions and the greatest wealth of any age group in Britain, they are often accused of voting “selfishly” and even of “betraying” their children and grandchildren. As children, they reaped the benefits of the social infrastructure their parents had put in place: free school meals, free healthcare and free tuition to university. However, the mentality of their predecessors persisted in their pursuit of a good job, house and marriage. This doctrine paired with a housing boom saw them cement the ideal of what it was to be middle class.

The Baby Boomers also broadly followed, politically, the allegiances of their parents. As sociologist Dr Graeme Codrington describes: “They stayed within whatever political tribes they grew up in.

“If your Silent Generation parents had voted Labour you probably voted Labour as a Baby Boomer. What they did as Baby Boomers was try to regenerate the parties. Bill Clinton in America and Tony Blair in the UK were literally case studies of what a Baby Boomer would do to an old-school party. They regenerated. They worked with PR and public perception and image.”

Formative qualities: Economic boom, free healthcare and education, job security, pension security Legacy: Unrealistic expectations, rock and roll, the pill, children and grandchildren less well-off than them

GENERATION X (born 1965-84)

Also sometimes called the “lost” generation, the MTV generation and even the latch-key generation. Political analyst David L Rosen described them thus: “If generations could be said to have mottos, Gen X’s would almost certainly be Nike’s omnipresent corporate slogan: Just Do It. Thanks to weak parental supervision, Xers learned at a very young age that they had to assert themselves to get their needs met. If you wanted lunch and mom and dad weren’t around, all the moral values in the world wouldn’t add up to a grilled cheese sandwich. As a result, Gen X has a pragmatic orientation that instinctively favours action over moral posturing.”

Generation X were raised in a tumultuous time. The political landscape of the world was changing and they grew up under threat of nuclear annihilation. Unemployment was rife under the Thatcher/Regan governments and the destruction of manufacturing industry meant that many who thought their career was mapped out for them, down the pits or in the ironworks, had to make new plans.

While inclusivity and tolerance are things Generation X introduced and promoted, their biggest accomplishment is cultural. Britpop. Grunge. Rave. Punk. Indie. Techno. Ecstasy. Cocaine. Hedonism. Generation X played hard but still turned up to work on a Monday morning. Graeme Codrington, himself a Gen-Xer, observes: “Generation X were not ever going to be that politically active. Strauss and Howe predicted that. They are a much more pragmatic generation, one that says, literally, ‘Whatever’. Gen X leaders around the world are Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron, and they’ve got a relaxed attitude. They use social media, they’re a lot more hip.”

Formative factors: Cold War, Fall of the Berlin Wall, The Troubles, Falklands, Destruction of industrial sector, unemployment under Thatcher Legacy: The internet, the mobile phone, tolerance

MILLENNIALS (born 1985 to early 2000s)

In 2013, MTV summed up the millennial mentality with the old war-time adage, “keep calm and carry on”. This generation came of age after the turn of the millennium, and found their early adulthood dominated by two events: 9/11,and the financial crisis of 2008 with the recession that followed.

“Theirs is a story of innocence lost,” wrote Alex Williams in The New York Times. Now, in the UK, they even find their adulthood coloured by a Brexit, which they, for the most part, never voted for.

Millennials are accused of being spoilt, lazy, entitled and fragile, of being “snowflakes”. They are a generation that are good at using their phones, the internet and memes.

Many of the milestones of life experience by which their Gen X parents and Baby Boomer grandparents measured their success are avoided by Millennials, or are being delayed. Fewer are getting married, fewer are buying homes and fewer are able to climb a career ladder. Many work on zero-hours contracts or unpaid placements and live with their mum and dad until the ripe old age of 25.

But they are also a generation that acknowledge the stark inequality that persists in the UK and vote for a better future for themselves and for others. They are, as Codrington points out, “hugely politically engaged”.

It’s not surprising that so many have become staunch Corbynites, or backed Bernie Saunders in America. “I think,” says Codrington, “that the next thing that we’ll see is millennial politicians.

“Young people, who are not in the system yet, but who will come through powerfully in the next five to 10 years.”

Formative factors: Over-praised in the education system, 9/11, economic crash, Brexit Legacy: The selfie, social media

DIGITAL NATIVES (born post- early 2000)

This is a generation with many names – digital natives, Generation Z, the iGeneration – most of which refer to their defining characteristic, that they have grown up with highly accessible and easy-to-use technology, often in the palm of their hands. As Graeme Codrington puts it: “The iPhone turned 10 a couple of weeks ago, and it was not just a new piece of kit. It was a revolution that made really high -level computing easy to access. There’s a young generation coming up who think that’s normal.” Codrington believes, politically, there will be little difference between the Millennials and the digital natives.

Formative factors: the tablet and the iPhone Legacy: A new approach to privacy and sharing