Further thoughts on generation

This blog post is a response to ‘Generation: the politics of patriarchy and social change, by Ben Little and Alison Winch, published in Soundings 66.

This stimulating article suggested to me some further thoughts on generation.

A relevant contribution to this debate which is not discussed by the two authors was by Sigmund Freud. He saw inter-generational relationships as unavoidably and ‘naturally’ conflictual. The oedipal situation (the Oedipus Complex) is for Freud the central root of this conflict. This refers to the infant’s desire for the opposite sex parent, which normally becomes transmuted through the process of repression into identification with him or her. Another version of Freud’s theory (1921) took the form of his myth (he called it a Just So story) of the slaying of the primal father, and then the adoption by the victorious band of brothers of the moral code which demands that paternal authority be accepted thereafter. This was in Freud’s view the unconscious basis of group cohesion, from which the individual could escape only with difficulty (for example as heroes of fiction). The point of this is that paternal and political power are always the object of ambivalent and conflicted feelings.

Shakespeare knew all about Oedipal and negative Oedipal states of mind. Hamlet embodies the first, projecting his antagonism to the father into Claudius, his usurping uncle. (But who is Claudius usurping in the play, the older or the younger Hamlet?) The Tempest represents a second ‘negative Oedipal’ configuration, with Prospero worried about losing his daughter Miranda, first to Caliban, and then, when that worst case is brutally prevented by him, to Ferdinand. Once Ferdinand and Miranda get together, Prospero breaks and buries his potent creative staff, and withdraws from life.

The French sociologist Daniel Bertaux (noted for his work in socio-biographical methods) once pointed out the uncontestable obvious but still surprising fact that every bit of property in the world has at some point or another to pass from the ownership and control of members of one generation to those of another. Conflict is made inevitable by these transitions. The tense scenes in many works of fiction, when inheritances are awaited or the reading of a will takes place, dramatise this situation.

One version of generational conflict, politically and ideologically, takes the side of the young, and may seek to mobilise its energies. The left sometimes adopts this perspective. The very idea of the ‘new’ in the New Left, and the ‘new’ in ‘New Labour’ (in this respect its usurping successor), made implicit appeal to the young and their struggle to take over from the previous generation (‘the old left’, ‘old labour’). It is somewhat shaming to realise that the new left played this generational game without realising that it was doing so.

Sometimes an older generation of leaders arouses the discontent of the younger in order to take control of it. Mao mobilised the young (the Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution) against the old elite of his party, and prolonged his own rule by doing so. Stalin was probably doing this too, in a more secretive and less flamboyant way, in his brutal destruction of the old Bolshevik elite and his recruitment of new socially mobile strata of followers. There was even an element of this transgenerational leadership in the western new left of the 1960s, with some older figures (like Herbert Marcuse) becoming intellectually indispensable to the young revolutionaries. Some of those who became most upset by the 1960s had been intellectual leaders of the just-previous generation, who found the insurgency and disrespect of post-1968 students to be insufferable.

It is indeed the case, as Ben and Alison point out, that different generational entitlements become rationalised within political philosophies and ideologies. Burke, for instance, as a fierce conservative opponent of the French Revolution, gave legitimacy to the claims to authority of older generations, although he had by no means previously been a complete reactionary. His conception of intergenerational obligations and continuities is more than an ideological defence of the rule of the older generation, but stresses generational interdependence. His idea of organic and mutual obligation even had an appeal to Raymond Williams in Culture and Society (1958). Environmental and climate change issues have given great present importance to the issue of responsibility of the present generation for the future.

Karl Mannheim (2017) was more an objective sociological analyst of generational difference and succession. He observed that generation has a substantial role in the organisation of society, and intersects with other axes of difference in complicated ways. His essay on conservative thought and its relation to generational perspectives was especially perceptive.

The idea of responsibility between generations has been important to the left in Britain. One can see the politics of the 1940s in these terms. An older generation (regarded as a corrupt, complacent establishment) was seen to have destroyed a large part of the generation of its children, in the Great War, in the Depression, and through appeasement of the Nazis. The post-war settlement of social democracy was not imagined as a ‘home fit for heroes’ (the illusion of 1918), but rather as building a home that would be good for the children of the war, and those of the next generation. This vision had a distinctly maternal aspect to it, with the value it assigned to education and the NHS, and with the emphasis on motherhood in the psychoanalytic and attachment theories of the time, those of Klein, Winnicott and Bowlby among them. This war generation did not expect too much for itself, rather seeing the survival of its people and values as its main achievement. The climate of vindictiveness with which the First World War had ended was not repeated.

A more extreme version of a generational response to past failures was the emergence of terrorism in Germany and Italy in the 1970s – the Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof) in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy. Here were members of a younger generation determined to expose and punish that of the parents, held responsible for Nazism and Fascism, and driven rather crazy by their need to do so.

The post-war inter-generational story then becomes a complicated one. The ‘old’ industrial working class was substantially destroyed by Thatcher and neoliberalism, and a certain kind of young middle-class thrustfulness and hedonism came to dominate the scene, transforming the dreams of collective liberation of the 1960s and 1970s into an individualised, consumerist kind of freedom. Then came the financial crisis of 2007-8, and the uneasy inter-generational settlement which had survived until then fell apart. It has become apparent that the social escalator has stopped, or started to go backwards. Those who had already ascended it (acquired houses, jobs and pensions in the boom times – which did not of course include all older people) are still alright, but those who are just getting started have found that they are going nowhere. This is the age of the precariat.

But this is not a situation just of defeat and demoralisation. This younger generation has high aspirations, cultural capital, and communicative capacities which have been nurtured in a period of apparent progress (including electronic progress). But it does not have access to material and organisation resources (the strength of the 1970s trade unions for example) to make full use of these potentials. This is producing – as we know – disaffection, protest and alienation. And now, via the influx of young members to Corbyn’s ‘new’ Labour Party, it is leading to some positive means of action and organisation too.

Many people from an older generation have been thrown off this escalator too, and some of them are caught up in nostalgia for Great Britain, white England, etc. All this means that ‘generations’ have come to have quite an active role in contemporary political conflict, in the United States also. There is a significant generational dimension to the differences over Brexit – which is to have the greatest say in defining Britain’s future? These issues make Ben Little and Alison Winch’s discussions of generation (Ben wrote an instalment of the Kilburn Manifesto about this subject) very timely.

Of course, the old are always liable to be drawn to the political right, since they are ‘in possession’, by definition of their generation; while the young are drawn to the left, since their understandable desire is to remake the world and take possession of it for themselves. But what is sometimes a quite normal and even creative conflict of interests, world-views and feelings is now taking a sharper and more divisive form, as the generations become mobilised in movements of the right and left. I don’t think there is much wrong with these left movements, at the present time, although one can imagine circumstances in which there could be.

One can see generational differentiation within other social formations than those of class. For example, the reaction of younger black radicals to the perceived accommodations of their elders. ‘Modern jazz’ was an embodiment of this generational difference of experience, and also of urban habitation. (New Orleans was one place, New York City another). It seems that differences of generation are liable to be one line of division in every social formation, intersecting in complex ways with those of class, race, gender, nation, and others.

Generational differences are also productive in the formations of identities, both individual and social. Stuart Hall describes the processes of identity through identifications, positive and negative, in his newly published 1994 Du Bois Lectures (The Fatal Triangle: Race, Ethnicity Nation, Harvard University Press 2017). It is through encounters with difference of various kinds that new identities and life-possibilities are enabled to emerge.

If generation is indeed one of the ‘facts of life’, then it is a line of division and difference that always needs to be recognised and negotiated. However, it is not at all good – it misrepresents reality – when it is allowed to become the primary axis of social conflict. When this happens, one should look for the deeper lines of division (for example of class) which are being denied or displaced.

Thus, the primary issue in regard to the ‘precariat’ – those living on the margins of the work-based economy – is not that they are mostly young, but that they are being abused and mistreated as class, and often also ethnic subjects. In that respect their problem is symmetrical to other kinds of economic abandonment, for example those of industrial workers whose livelihoods and dignity were taken away by de-industrialisation.

In one respect at least, differences between generations are like those between genders. Injustices and inequalities between genders need to be challenged and overthrown, but this does not mean that relationships between them ought to be rejected or abandoned. Those of different gender are going to have to go on living with one another, whatever changes in their relative powers have to take place, just as the members of different generations do. One can believe it is natural and proper for families to take special care of their members, including in the next generation, but oppose the reproduction of class or ethnic advantages through their agency.

A certain psychoanalytical naturalism and universalism informs the position taken in this comment. The psychoanalyst Roger Money-Kyrle (1968, 1971), who was fairly progressive about social questions, asserted that generation and gender (and we might add their interdependence) are ‘facts of life’ that have to be encountered and lived with in every individual’s life, and that unconscious difficulties in accepting these primordial realities were at the root of much psychopathology.

Politically, we need to recognise the salience of generational differences and conflicts of interests at the present time. But we should also realise that the primary sources of social division derive not from generation, but from enduring structures of class, gender, and racial inequality.

Michael Rustin is co-editor of After Neoliberalism? The Kilburn ManifestoSelected Political Writings: The Great Moving Right Show and other essays (a collection of Stuart Hall’s political essays), and the Soundings Futures series. 


Freud, S. (1921) Group Psychology and the Analysis of Ego. Std. Edition London: Hogarth Press Vol. XVIII.

Hall, S. (2017) The Fatal Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Mannheim, K. (2017) ‘Conservative Thought’ pp 260-350, and ‘The Problem of Generations’ pp 351-398, in From Karl Mannheim, ed. K. Wollff. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Money-Kyrle, R. (1968) ‘On Cognitive Development’. In Collected Papers of Roger Money-Kyrle. Perthshire: Clunie Press (1978)

Money-Kyrle, R. (1971) ‘The Aims of Psychoanalysis’ In Money-Kyrle, R., op. cit.

Williams, R. (1958) Culture and Society pp 3-19. London: Chatto and Windus