Talking about Generations

By: Dr Jennie Bristow and Dr Helen Kingstone

Generations discourse is everywhere right now, but it’s often frustratingly fuzzy. What is a generation anyway? And how we can use the term in ways that are more precise, nuanced and useful?

Over the past year, a group of researchers and third sector organisations, including ILC, have come together to answer those questions by establishing the Generations Network. This is funded by the Wellcome Trust, and convened by Dr Jennie Bristow (Canterbury Christ Church University) and Dr Helen Kingstone (University of Surrey).

The generations concept is complex – and fascinating – because it has two dimensions. It is used to refer to family generations (grandparents, parents, children) but also to social generations (Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials etc.). While the family meaning implies continuity being passed down through time, the social meaning implies rupture and conflict between successive groups.

Just to confuse things further, the term also gets borrowed for other meanings including age group, cohort, and life stage – ever heard complaints about ‘the younger generation’? This multitude of uses can hamper understanding and put people at cross-purposes even while they’re using exact the same terminology.

The pandemic has made us appreciate other generations in our families, but socially it has forced generations further apart. Too many discussions about ‘health vs. the economy’ have fuelled belief in a polarised opposition between ‘older’ and ‘younger’ people, or the idea that one particular social generation, ‘Generation Covid’, has borne the brunt of the pandemic’s effects – a generalisation that avoids looking at the specific effects on each age group, and evades arguably more significant differences of class, ethnicity, and geographical location.

The network’s new guide to ‘Talking about Generations’ shows how misuse of the term can fuel division, and instead offers a guide to avoid these pitfalls. It calls for policy-makers, journalists – and you – to ask yourself 5 key questions when working with the concept of generations:

  1. What are you talking about?
  2. Who are you talking about?
  3. Where are you talking about?
  4. Why are you talking about them?
  5. Who are you talking to?

Take a look at the guide to understand why each question is vital, and how ignoring it can lead to damaging assumptions about the way that generations relate to one another.

And what next? The final section of the guide shows three ways to avoid the pitfalls of generations talk.

  • Think twice before using the term! Would another be better?
  • Design policy consultations to engage with all generations, and to do so in mixed-age formats that bring members of different generations into dialogue.
  • Recognise that the pandemic has affected every generation, in varying but significant ways.

Follow the Generations Network on Twitter @GenerationsNet

Dr Helen Kingstone and Dr Jennie Bristow

Research Fellow at the University of Surrey and Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University


Dr Helen Kingstone is a research fellow at the University of Surrey. Her work examines how we write the history of our lifetimes, in the nineteenth century and the present, through literary and archival research, oral history interviewing, and digital humanities methods. Her first book, Victorian Narratives of the Recent Past: memory, history, fiction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), examined the challenges involved in writing the period within living memory.

Dr Jennie Bristow is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University, and convenor (with Helen Kingstone) of the recently-formed Generations Network. Her research and writing focuses on intergenerational relations and narratives of generational conflict.