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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 224

Bobby Duffy on The Generation Myth: Why When You’re Born Matters Less Than You Think

The Generation Myth (book cover)

Boomers are narcissists. Millennials are spoiled. Gen Zers are lazy. We assume people born around the same time have basically the same values. It makes for good headlines, but is it true? Bobby Duffy has spent years studying generational distinctions. In The Generation Myth, he argues that our generational identities are not fixed but fluid, reforming throughout our lives. Based on an analysis of what over three million people really think about homeownership, sex, well-being, and more, Duffy offers a new model for understanding how generations form, how they shape societies, and why generational differences aren’t as sharp as we think. The Generation Myth is a vital rejoinder to alarmist worries about generational warfare and social decline. The kids are all right, it turns out. Their parents are too.

Bobby Duffy, one of the UK’s most respected social researchers, is professor of public policy and director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London. Duffy previously directed public affairs and global research at Ipsos MORI and the Ipsos Social Research Institute, which, among other initiatives, ran the world’s largest study of public perception. He is the author of Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything. His research has been covered by the Washington Post, Economist, Financial Times, Quartz, NBC, BBC, and elsewhere. He lives in London.

Shermer and Duffy discuss:

  • how companies waste millions of dollars hiring “experts” on generations, e.g., a “millennial expert” or “millennial consultant”, but they don’t know what they’re talking about,
  • how earlier scholars of generations were like astrologers writing horoscopes; e.g., William Strauss and Neil Howe: every generation falls into one of 4 types: idealist, reactive, civic, and adaptive, same order in an 80-year cycle of crisis and renewal,
  • generations: Pre-war/Silent, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z,
  • categories and concepts of generations: (Ludwig Wittgenstein’s search for necessary and sufficient conditions for any of our everyday concepts),
  • The 3 effects that explain generational change in societies:

    1. Life-Cycle Effects (people change as they age),
    2. Period Effects (everyone is effected by war, economic recessions, pandemics),
    3. Cohort Effects that leave particular generations imprinted by specific experiences that happen at a crucial point when their attitudes are forming — early adulthood.
  • environment: Greta Thurnberg vs. Al Gore — there is less intergenerational conflict than some media headlines might suggest and that some of the stereotypes about certain generations are just plain wrong, for example, that millennials and Generation Z are more concerned about the environment than baby boomers,
  • social justice warriors: our current generation of young are not a particularly unusual group of “culture warriors”. Young people are always at the leading edge of change in cultural norms, around race, immigration, sexuality and gender equality. The issues have changed, but the gap between young and old is not greater now than in the past.
  • Coddled Gen-Z?
  • smoking: younger generations start smoking later but do not give up the habit as quickly,
  • dating, sex, and marriage,
  • wealth and income shifts: asset values over the decades favors baby boomers over millennials; younger generations depend on the bank of mom and dad,
  • politics: attitude shift in a more liberal direction; attitude gap between boomers and their parents is greater than that between subsequent generations,
  • economics: big cultural attitudes toward economics between boomers and their children,
  • income and wealth: home values have gone up more for boomers than subsequent generations; “Millennials are around half as likely to be a homeowner than generations born only a couple of decades earlier.”
  • religion and belief in God and the rise of the “nones,”
  • social media: generational differences in social media use; young people cooped up at their parents’ house can access others online. Duffy argues using social media is not as damaging as we fear.
  • happiness/life satisfaction across the generations.

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