Do Generations Matter?

The European Council on Foreign Relations has published an interesting article on generational change in the Russian foreign policy community. Its author is the well-known Estonian expert Kadri Liik. She is a frequent guest in many forums on relations between Russia and the West, including the EU-Russia Expert Network on Foreign Policy (EUREN) and the annual Valdai Club conferences. Her report is based on a series of interviews and focus groups conducted with young Russian experts, students and government officials. Unlike a large number of biased texts on Russia, Kadri Liik has tried to provide a balanced and empirically-verified look at the new generation of Russian specialists on international affairs. Of course, some of her interpretations “hurt the eyes” of the Russian reader. Personally, I have a lot of questions regarding the research methodology she relies on (selection criteria, design of interviews and focus groups, processing principles, etc.). However, the very problem of the new generation is extremely important. It stimulates the discussion, provides many reasons for reflection and makes us think that perhaps Russian scholars should be conducting such studies themselves. 

At my disposal there is no batch of interviews and focus group materials. However, I’ve developed my own opinion about the new generation, based on many years of experience teaching at MGIMO, managing a fairly young research team at the Russian International Affairs Council, and cooperating with a large number of Russian experts. My opinion is subjective, but from the point of view of sociological methodology, it could be considered as the experience of a “participating observer”. 

First of all, the cyclical nature of generations is an obvious fact. The outlooks of my twentysomething colleagues are different from mine, to say nothing of the older generation. However, problems arise when there are attempts to operationalise differences. What exactly do we mean? After all, differences can be due to a number of parameters. And far from always, they will be connected with each other. For example, a new generation lives in a fundamentally new communication environment. Information is over-accessible. Does this mean that the new generation is less vulnerable to the influence of ideologies that come from outside or from inside? In theory, yes, because information has become much easier to verify, contest, or put up for discussion. In practice, everything is more complicated. An abundance of information may well give rise to a superficial assessment, or yield laziness in the deep understanding of the facts. And that means a low barrier to critical perception. As a result, there is a higher degree of vulnerability to an ideologised narrative, regardless of its origin. Apparently, such interrelationships can vary significantly, depending on a large number of factors – property, region, gender, as well as determined by the psychological differences of the respondents, for example, personal traits. In other words, the obvious fact of cyclical generation upon closer examination is extremely complex and rich in surprises. 

Another example is the correlation between the well-being of a country and the relation of generations to wealth. The classic hypothesis of Ronald Inglehart suggested that those who grew up in an era of instability and economic upheaval will be “materialists”; that is, prone to perceiving material well-being as a basic value. And vice versa. Those who grew up in a period of stability and prosperity will be more prone to “post-materialistic” values. In other words, in terms of Inglehart, my contemporaries who were born in around 1980 and socialized in the 1990s should be materialists. Whereas the current twenty-year-olds are post-materialists, because their socialisation occurred during a period of stability. Obviously, this pattern can be extremely nonlinear. This is a particular observation of Kadri Liik. It seems that the new generation should be “ideological”, but it turns out to be quite pragmatic.

Children and Global Warming
Richard Lachmann
Young peoples’ public and private actions will determine governments’ policies on global warming and determine whether organized human life on this planet can survive, writes Richard Lachmann, Professor of Sociology Department, University at Albany.
Expert Opinions

Despite the complexity of assessing the differences between generations, I would still highlight several common features that, in my opinion, are characteristic of the younger generation. 

First of all, there is less of a tendency among my twenty-year-old colleagues to concentrate on long-term life tasks and projects. One example is the preparation of candidate and doctoral dissertations. This is a serious long-term process that requires the mobilisation of resources and time, especially if one needs to work at the same time. Moreover, the immediate return on such work is far from obvious. Fruits can be obtained many years after defence of a thesis. Even if there are favourable conditions for solving such problems (management support, work on a similar topic at one’s place of employment), only a few people manage to prepare ground-breaking research. In general, the focus on obtaining status by obtaining a degree and establishing one’s rank has become less pronounced. Paradoxically, this is combined with the need for a stable framework, a comfort zone and a system of coordination that would allow for both career advancement and regular employment. Finding a way out of one’s comfort zone by launching projects or pursuing conceptual revolutions amid one’s daily work routine seems to have become less common. In other words, the attitude towards risk is changing. Betting on global projects like a doctoral dissertation is losing its value. But spontaneous and short-term “investments” in self-improvement are gaining value, such as “instruction courses”, training, summer school, etc. 

Concentration and perception of risk, in my opinion, determine one’s attitude towards authoring research literature. Interest in the preparation of well-founded and thorough studies is giving way to a preference for a light journalistic genre. Writing a sharp political text without digging into literature and methodology is considered more preferable and profitable. The trend goes beyond the younger generation. A lot of “adult” scholars prefer “hype” to attention to detail. At the same time, twenty-year-olds are much more adaptive and flexible. Their horizons and their spectrum of interests are wider. It seems that they are more able to diversify the dimensions of their lives. However, this could be characteristic of younger people in general, regardless of cyclical differences. By the age of 30-40, their preferences may well become more linear. 

At the same time, I do not see the principal accents of youth in political and professional preferences. There are those who fanatically seek public service. And there are those who do not want to be an official at all. Among my students and colleagues, there are both convinced “Westerners” and inveterate conservatives, supporters of conditional “freedom” and conditional “order”. There are those who obtain their advanced degrees in the West, who at the same time consider it the main threat. And there are those who barely have any contact with it, but consider the West as the ideal. The same we can say, for example, about attitudes toward China. Such points of view often take the form of a bell-shaped distribution. There are extremely few radicals from one or another side, and opinions trample around a conditional average. However, history shows that at some stages the minority plays a critical role. So the dominance of the “average performer” amid conditions of “stability” shouldn’t coax us to remain complacent.

Problems in relations between Russia and the West, as well as their solutions, are hardly worth looking for through the lens of generational transitions. At the very least, it would be difficult to single out an ideal standard or portrait of people who are capable of the actions and steps desired by the “elders”.

Here a conflict arises between “historically objective national interests” and the perception of these interests by specific people. In international relations, this is a dispute between conditional realists and constructivists. But that is another story.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.