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Understanding generations: political economy and culture in an ageing society

The British Journal of Sociology
Volume 56 No 4 December 2005
pages 579-599

Abstract

Sociological understanding of generations can be enhanced by avoiding defining them rigidly as chronological cohorts but rather linking people's accounts of their generational experience with an historically informed political economy. It then becomes possible, for example, to understand the complexity of generational politics. This paper uses data on the 'War Generation' taken from the Exeter Politics of Old Age project to link an empirically based political economy of generational inequality with a cultural sociology of generations. The 'War Generation' recognizes itself and is referred to by others in terms of a common identity. It is also an historical generation; its values, attitudes and, above all, sense of national solidarity and mutual obligation were forged in the direct experience of war. But it is also divided by divergent economic interests in property and pension rights based on the historical experience of the life course by successive groups and this segmentation can be observed in political action. The political culture of the War Generation manifests both continuity and change. Understanding these dynamics requires listening to people constructing their worlds, understanding their full range of historical experiences, and analysing the conditions for their conflicts and their cohesion.

Keywords: Generations, 'War Generation', political economy of old age, generational cultures

John A Vincent
Department of Sociology, University of Exeter

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