Generational conflict has become a significant issue in Britain in recent years. In 2010, a number of high-profile books were published attacking the Baby Boomer generation for monopolising society’s resources and leaving younger generations bereft. The wealth of discussion that they provoked in policy and media circles indicates that this claim has a widespread purchase, both across the political spectrum and across generations.

However, there are a number of questions about how and why this particular generation has come to be framed as a social problem.

These pertain to:

  • policy debates about the allocation of social resources, such as pensions and healthcare
  • concerns about the role of the family, and the relationship between adults and children in wider society
  • the relationship between demographic trends and social events
  • ageing and the role of the elderly
  • and broader existential questions to do with knowledge and time.

The problem of generations is an interdisciplinary field, engaging contributions from sociology, anthropology, gerontology, history, psychology, economics, social policy and politics, among others. Our aim over the forthcoming period is to engage with the wider issues surrounding generational contact and conflict, in relation to education, families, and communities.

In her most recent book The Sociology of Generations: New directions and challenges (Palgrave Macmillan 2016), CPCS associate Jennie Bristow suggests that the enduring problem of generations remains that of knowledge: how society conceptualises the relationship between past, present and future, and the ways in which this is transmitted by adults to the young. Reflecting on Mannheim’s seminal essay ‘The Problem of Generations’, Bristow explores why generations have become a focus for academic interest and policy developments today. She argues that developments in education, teaching and parenting culture seek to resolve tensions of our present-day risk society through imposing an artificial distance between the generations.

“An engagingly written and impressively resourced book which brings together historical, literary and ethnographic material on formal education and policies on gender, parenting and the ‘safeguarding’ of children – topics rarely considered together. The author holds her novel and ambitious thesis together by locating it within Karl Mannheim’s renowned but neglected theory of generations. She brings out clearly how it was, for him, an example of the potential of the sociology of knowledge.” Michael Young, UCL Institute of Education, UK

“Popular usage of the term “generation” tends to be characterised by opacity and imprecision, and the sociology of generations is hardly less murky and contested. The same can be said of public discussion and academic consideration of problems and issues around education, teaching, child protection and safeguarding, parenting and the family, living with uncertainty and risk, gender relationships and reproduction, and bureaucratic and governmental incursions into the personal and private sphere. This short book bravely takes on these issues and more, through a discussion of the idea and reality of generations situated firmly in the sociology of knowledge … Building on refreshingly eclectic sources and ideas, Jennie Bristow offers an engaging discussion of some fundamental issues.” Heather Piper, Honorary Fellow, University of Edinburgh, UK

In  Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict (Palgrave Macmillan 2015), Jennie Bristow presents her doctoral research on the construction of the Baby Boomers as a social problem, in the context of the history and sociology of generations. The dominant cultural script for Baby Boomers is that they have ‘had it all’ – the benefits of a booming economy, the welfare state, and personal freedoms – thereby depriving younger generations of the opportunity to create a life for themselves. Bristow provides a critical account of this discourse by locating the problematisation of the Baby Boomers within a wider ambivalence about the legacy of the Sixties.

“Like the fabled blind men trying to grasp the nature of an elephant, commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have struggled to understand the significance of the baby boomers, at different times offering very different, sometimes contradictory interpretations. By telling this fascinating story, Jennie Bristow offers a model for a symbolic demography that critically explores how and why we assign meanings to generations.” Joel Best, University of Delaware, USA

“Scan the cultural and political landscape today and it’s hard not to conclude that Western society is experiencing a pronounced blurring of generational standards. The current furore over the ‘Baby Boomer generation’ only adds to this perception. Jennie Bristow’s new book brings much needed clarity to all this generational confusion, and does so with no small amount of insight and flair. Required reading for social scientists looking for a considered introduction to ‘generationalism’, or anyone heading for retirement who wants to avoid a future of nonsensical stigmatisation.” Professor Keith Hayward, University of Kent, UK.

In the Generations research theme:

The Sociology of Generations: New directions and challenges, by Jennie Bristow. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Essay: The generation wars, by Jennie Bristow. spiked, 10 July 2016

Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict, by Jennie Bristow. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Review of Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict in Times Higher Education and on spiked, and Times Higher Education podcast debate between Jennie and former universities minister David Willetts on the problem of generations today.

‘Who cares for children? The problem of intergenerational contact.’ In Ellie Lee, Jennie Bristow, Charlotte Faircloth and Jane Macvarish, Parenting Culture Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Licensed to Hug, by Frank Furedi and Jennie Bristow. Second edition, Civitas 2010.

Researching Sex and Lies in the Classroom: Allegations of Sexual Misconduct in Schools, by Pat Sikes and Heather Piper. Routledge, 2009.

Don’t Touch! The Educational Story of a Panic, by Heather Piper and Ian Stronach. Routledge, 2008.

Reporting the Riots: Parenting Culture and the Problem of Authority in Media Analysis of August 2011, by Jennie Bristow. Sociological Research Online 2013, 18 (4) 11

What is a citizen? spiked, 28 July 2016

Theresa May, forget social justice – give us politics. spiked, 25 July 2016

Remain voters, quit the granny-bashing. spiked, 27 June 2016

Don’t tell young people how to Talk to Gran. spiked, 1 June 2016

What we lose when Baby Boomers die. spiked, 25 April 2016

Millennial terrorism comes of age. spiked, 18 November 2015

Helicopter or hands-off: today’s parents can’t seem to win. The Conversation, 9 June 2015

After the election: beware the politics of generationalism. spiked, 27 May 2015

‘Adults, not the state, are the best form of child protection’. spiked, 25 February 2014 [podcast].

‘Putting the past on trial’. Battle of Ideas 2013 [film].