The generational shadow makes its presence felt

Forty years since the transition to democracy, the generational makeup of our society is changing. The children of that era already comprise half of the population and take centre stage in the changes we are experiencing today. They are a generation defined by individualism and impatience, but they are by no means an anti-political group. They simply have a way of living politics that is quite different from that of their predecessors.

In recent months we have witnessed uprisings around the world. One of the revolts that has drawn more attention has been in Chile, with mass youth-led demonstrations on the streets of Santiago. It’s no coincidence. Young Chileans are precisely the representatives of the generation of democracy, those born and raised in the aftermath of the 1988 referendum, which removed dictator Augusto Pinochet from power (political, not military). Some thirty years have passed since that pivotal event in the country’s history. This means that all Chileans, male and female, who are thirty years of age or younger, have neither known the dictatorship nor lived through the transition period that facilitated the establishment of a democratic system.

It is actually this group that is leading a movement that calls for an end to the murmurs of the dictatorship that linger in present-day Chile, embodied in Pinochet’s 1980 constitution, which is still in force. They protest not so much as young people, but as members of a generation; that is, as citizens who were born and have been educated in a given historical context, different to that of their parents. Herein lies the key that explains generational replacement, a continuous movement of society, a chain of births and deaths whose makeup changes depending on the time in history when it occurs.

Time makes its mark on people. We individuals are time; we are the expression of the time we live in. And as such, we act according to this time, which makes us different from those who have come before us and from those who will come after us. These differences define generational groups and somehow make societies as a whole evolve. If generational replacement did not exist, there would be no change. It is the differences in the context in which we are born and in which we are educated that lend generations their distinctive nature.

Generational succession

The slow pace of generational replacement often makes it go unnoticed in analyses. Generational replacement works through accumulation, since births and deaths are constant phenomena that naturally occur day after day. It is time that gives this natural movement the specific nature of generations, so that generational succession occurs in long intervals of time. Generations are the expression in individuals of far-reaching changes, of historic shifts triggered by critical junctures, such as wars, crises or social changes.

The interest in the effects of generational replacement corresponds to something more mundane: the need to respond to the sweeping changes besetting Spanish and Catalan society in the last decade. These are transformations of a magnitude not experienced in the last three decades, reminiscent of the idea of a change of system, comparable in intensity to that experienced by the country between the late 1960s and mid-1970s.

With regard to this idea of dramatic change, or historic change we could say, generational replacement naturally emerges as one of the elements to be taken into account. It makes sense when we consider Spanish and Catalan society back then and today from a strictly generational point of view. Forty years ago, four out of every ten Catalans were born before 1940, while in 2017 almost five out of ten Catalans have been born since 1976.

This change, which gradually came to pass, day by day, almost unnoticeably, takes on enormous proportions when considered over the course of four decades: it affects more than five million people, between births and deaths in Catalonia, almost a complete transformation of the human contingent of Catalan society. These four decades have seen the death of almost two million people and the birth of another three and a half million.

What is meaningful, from the generational point of view, is not so much the already alarming numbers, but the nature of this change, as far as deaths and births are concerned. The vast majority of those who have passed away were born before 1940, and those who have joined us have been born since 1976. There is a clear difference in the contexts in which both groups have been raised. The former grew up in the early years of the 20th or late 19th century, the latter at the turn of the 20th and early 21st century. Differences between the two eras in the economic, social and political spheres can be noted, differences that have made a special and distinctive mark on people born in each era, a generational mark.

The weight of each of these groups in society as a whole makes this mark show itself and act in a certain way. The values and ideas that prevail in a society whose majority were born in the early years of the 20th century are not the same as those of a society where most of them were born and grew up in the early 21st century. The dominant generational mark must necessarily define the whole of society.

We can therefore understand our time as a time of generational change, or better still as a time of replacement of the dominant generation in our society. Forty years since the transition to democracy, the generational makeup of our society is obviously shifting, and it is this shift that will partly explain the transformations we have been witnessing in the last ten years.

Il·lustració © Joan Alturo

Cultural change

The Catalonia and Spain we know are the outcome of a generation, born after the Spanish Civil War, who reached adulthood in the 1960s, who took centre stage in the fight against the dictatorship and the building of a democratic system. The oldest members of this generation were 35 years old at the time of Franco’s death and the youngest were about 15. This is the generation that played a part in effecting cultural change as opposed to their parents, a more obvious change occurring among women, with their massive entry into the labour market and the attainment of citizenship rights that they had been denied.

This is also the generation that starred in the exodus from the countryside to the cities and factories. It is also the generation of university, union and neighbourhood protests. That of the Fiat 600 and development, the generation that legalised divorce and that would comprise the political, cultural, social and economic elite of the new democracy.

The members of this group are now between the ages of sixty and eighty, while the children of democracy, born since 1976, are now over forty. This is the group that has been leading change in recent years. Not only because they are old enough to start occupying positions of power in political, economic and social domains, but also because, on the whole, they represent the majority generational group. Specifically, they already account for half of Catalan society.

Beyond the number of people who are part of this group and the fact that most of them have reached the age of social maturity, what is interesting from the point of view of generational analysis are the differences between this generation and the previous ones, the generational mark of these children of democracy who are taking over from the children of the post-war period and who are called to lead our society in the coming decades.

The picture of this group is complex, the result of two critical components that set them apart from the previous generations. On the one hand, this is a generation born in democracy; on the other, it is a group that has grown up against a backdrop of an almost infinite availability of material goods.

Freer individuals

How does this context influence the behaviour of children of democracy? They are a generation that views itself as more empowered than before, largely because of their higher level of education. They are children of a world in which hierarchies are more fluid and in which authority has lost much of its former coercive power. This is partly because individuals no longer accept, as their parents and grandparents did, the “natural” logic of vertical power.

In this sense we are talking about freer individuals, more capable of acting according to their independent judgement, less inclined to accept “duties” and more aware of their “rights”. However, this makes them more susceptible to the persuasion of advertising, with which they were born and raised (they are children of television and new technologies).

Politically, this means that they act more on the basis of immediate impulses than on long-term elements, hence we can talk about a policy governed by the volatility of behaviour. More and more voters cast their vote based on elements in the climate and shorter time spans, which causes predictability issues. In the 2017 parliamentary election, almost one third of the children of democracy cast their votes on the day before or on the day of election.

This volatility in election decisions also makes them less predictable when it comes to turnout. It is not that they are more abstentionist or more participative than their parents. They are depending on the context. They will vote only if they feel called to do so, that is, only if they are convinced that voting is important and that their specific and individual vote is essential to decide the outcome. If they do not have this conviction, they may not go to the polling station. And if they do, they are likely to decide their vote right there, at the booth where the lists of the various candidates are displayed. They decide on the instant, like most of their choices: I want it, I buy it. Their world is a world of acceleration, as the German philosopher Hartmut Rosa points out.

An opinion vote

They do not vote based on a belonging that has been imposed on them. In that sense, they do not feel part of a group because of birth. Their belonging is desired. They are only part of the groups they have decided to join. They are the generation subsequent to the crisis of the social classes. They can be considered members of a social class and act accordingly, but because they have chosen, not because they have been defined. So they do not exercise a “class” vote, but an opinion vote; they do not have a party of their own, but a position of their own that they may consider embodies (or serves) a particular political power in each election. They understand parties as tools at the service of their (changing) political positions and not as embodiments of their ideas. For them, parties serve them, and in the same way as they choose them, they can reject them if they feel that they have not met their expectations.

In general, the relationship with politics is utilitarian, as is usually the case with products and consumer goods. If they are of no use to them, they are discarded. Hence the volatility. It does not mean, at any rate, that they do not have a political stance. They do, and often it is more hard-line than that of their parents, but that does not imply that they exercise their right to vote (a right, not a duty) or that they vote for the same party. It depends on the capacity of the political powers to convince them that it is important to make the effort to vote. Hence we can see major fluctuations in voter turnout over very short periods of time.

The radical individualism in which this new generation has been brought up does not imply the evaporation of social mobilisation. On the contrary. It is precisely their individualism that makes them feel a strong need to belong and to be part of something. However, with two premises. First, they belong to them always on the basis of their individual will. And second: as long as they understand that their participation serves a cause and that the objective sought is achieved in the shortest possible time.

This is a generation defined by individualism and impatience. This does not mean, as it might seem, that it is an anti-political group. Not at all. They simply have a way of living politics that is significantly different from that of their parents. A fast, volatile, ephemeral politics. The kind of politics suited to their life. The kind of politics that will dominate our society for decades to come.

Recommended publications

  • El terratrèmol silenciós. Relleu generacional i transformació del comportament electoral a Catalunya.Oriol Bartomeus. Eumo editorial, 2018

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