Formative experiences matter more than birthdays in shaping the identity of a generation, says Brunswick’s James Dray
It is easy to jump to sweeping conjecture when talking about differences between generations. Groups such as Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials are defined by social conditions shared by cohorts born in the US. Yet those terms are often applied out of context and in countries where such conditions are not a factor.
Three different effects come into play when referring to groups of people as generations. Period effects refer to contemporary behaviors shared by everyone, regardless of their generation. Lifecycle effects describe behaviors that change with age, no matter when people were born or where they live; voting participation, for example, may diminish among the elderly because physically getting to the polls becomes more difficult.
Lastly, there are cohort effects, which are what we generally think of when we talk about the behaviors and outlooks of a particular generation. In societies undergoing dramatic change, generations grow up in circumstances distinct from their elders and, as a result, develop their own attitudes and expectations.
In my doctoral thesis on voter turnout in Africa, I looked for a marker that could provide some clue as to what formative experience could make an entire generation more or less inclined to vote throughout their lives. The factor that jumped out as most significant was the institutional context in which citizens had their first voting experience.
It seems intuitive that citizens who grew up when voting was most free and competitive should habitually participate at higher rates. However this does not seem to be the case. Take for example a 40-year-old citizen who reached voting age during the initial years of a country’s post-colonial period, when voting competitiveness was limited or absent – in Ghana in 1957, for instance, or in Mozambique in 1975. This person is 2.5 percent more likely to cast a ballot than a citizen who came of age during the earlier colonial period, but also a further 2.5 percent more likely to vote than one who came of age in the later, multiparty period.
The reason has to do with how rewarded individuals feel after a vote. More competitive systems offer more ways to lose and fewer paths to be on the winning side. This fosters dissatisfaction and dampens enthusiasm for voting in general. That can stamp the way people regard the voting process throughout their lives and, by extension, color all of their participation in society.
This example tells us two important things: first, in analyzing behavior patterns specific to generations, formative experiences matter; and second, our intuitive ideas about members of a particular generation could easily be wrong without more detailed evidence and analysis.
In a country such as South Africa that has experienced dramatic social upheaval, people born more recently will have radically different socializing experiences than their parents. That has the potential to create a lasting impact on social activity and political orientation. In turn, powerful social movements among these disaffected young people can become generation-shaping moments for them and for those younger – echoing the upheaval of the collapse of apartheid that shaped the formative experiences of their parents, and affecting societal culture as a whole for decades to come.
James Dray is a Director in Brunswick’s Johannesburg and London offices. His 2010 doctorate at Oxford, “Voter Turnout in Sub-Saharan Africa,” was awarded the Political Studies Association’s Arthur McDougall Prize.
Illustration: Lincoln Agnew