28 January 2014

Big Ideas on Generationalism

I have been really missing the Big Ideas debates while working away from London so I went to the one on the Battle of the Generations, despite having so previous interest in the subject.

Our guide for the evening was Jonathan White, Associate Professor of European Politics at the London School of Economics. He is pictured here on the left sitting on the dais with Nathan Charlton who chaired the event and who is one of the masterminds behind Big Ideas.

Jonathan spoke for about half an hour framing and posing some questions then we had a lively debate for an hour around those. It was a very broad subject and we Bigideasians are seasoned veterans at wandering off topic so it was hard to reach any significant conclusions, not that we expected to as we were interested in the journey more than the destination.

I took a reasonable amount of notes, and managed to tweet some during the debate too, but rather than present these with my subsequent analysis, which is what I usually do, this time I'll just post my main learnings.



The use of "generations" to describe a group of people who shared experiences just because they happened to be there at the same time is useful. For example, the generation that lived through World War II share things with each other that are not shared with subsequent generations.

Generations can be thought of as the equivalent of geological eons, eras and periods. When we talk about the Jurassic Period we know that we are talking about a period of time with some characteristics that apply just to this period.

Generations are also a useful way to personalise time. We may not care too much about the future world that we are creating but we do care about what happens to our own future generations, at least the next three or four who may know something about us.

Future generations will always have reasons to complain about previous generations as we always make mistakes, and there are also unintended consequences, that do not become apparent until much later.

It has always been assumed that the next generation would be better off than the previous but this is seen as natural progression rather than any inequality against the previous generation that has lost out in this comparison.

There are active and passive generations. Active generations make the change that defines them (e.g. the increased personal debt in the 80's and 90's) while that passive generations just live through them (e.g. those who lived through the post-war austerity).

Those comments go some way to show why I enjoy going to Big Ideas. Topics like this can be covered in, say, Thinking Allowed, but it needs the intellectual rigour of debate to tease the details out and to make the learning personal.

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