Why Generational Differences Matter Less Than You Think

We shouldn’t read too much into pop sociology, especially when investing other people’s money. William Strauss and Neil Howe built a following by studying substantive differences among generations: Baby Boomers, Millennials, Gen X and so forth.

But that view is mistaken, according to Bobby Duffy.

Duffy asks whether our lives largely shaped by when we were born, as popular “generational analysts” try to convince us. Or are generations more similar than different? In a new book, The Generation Myth, Duffy, a British policy scholar, argues – somewhat effectively – for the latter.

Peak generational silliness was achieved by Strauss and Howe, whose work (much beloved by both Steve Bannon and Al Gore) listed Anglo-American generations and their associated stereotypes from 1584 to 2069.1 In their later book, The Fourth Turning, they set forth a theory that categorized history – and their imagined future – into 20-year periods that follow one another deterministically: high, awakening, unraveling, and crisis. Each cycle thus lasts 80 years. We are (surprise!) in a crisis period.

It was high time somebody debunked this pseudoscientific nonsense. Duffy gives it a try in The Generation Myth, an “answer song” to Strauss and Howe’s bestselling books. Duffy’s book is full of interesting observations, arguments, and data. He is mostly correct that, in Tyler Cowen’s words, “the generations just don’t differ that much from each other.”2

Unfortunately, The Generation Myth doesn’t hang together as a book. The chapters are disconnected. Duffy’s writing is unexceptional. He lacks the storytelling ability needed to turn his rich lode of material into a powerful argument. Nevertheless, readers will be better off having read it.