Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003


Judith Burnett (2003) 'Let Me Entertain You: Researching the 'Thirtysomething' Generation'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 8, no. 4, <>

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Received: 18/11/2003      Accepted: 18/11/2003      Published: 28/11/2003


This paper explores the limits and possibilities of research in the sociology of generation by taking the 'thirtysomething' cohort as a case study. It addresses a number of critical research issues, namely: how does one identify the parameters of a generation? Are there different sorts of generations, and if so how can this fact be established? And how can one deal with the internal diversity of generations, both in terms of their stratification and in the lived experiences of its members? The empirical research for this study was conducted using focus groups, and analysis loosely follows a grounded theory approach. In the paper, I reflect upon how the context of doing research in an 'entertainment and consumer society' might affect the research process and its findings. This leads me to conclude that research methods themselves have an historicizing character, and that sociology also has a generational flavour.

Age Sets; Ageing; Cohorts; Generations; Life Course; Thirtysomething; Time-space


I am exploring in my work the limits and possibilities of research in the sociology of generation and adulthood by taking the 'thirtysomething' cohort as a case study. I want to try to establish what experiences 'thirtysomethings' have of the concept of generation, and how generations are constituted through contemporary social formations. I am using the literature on generations and life courses, contextualised by work around consumption and, in particular, I am using social theory relating to time-space and the changing constitution of time-space.

In this particular paper, I am going to reflect, more directly, on some of the methodological issues which I have confronted in researching generation in this way. More specifically, I carried out empirical research into a 'thirtysomething' population, using six focus groups, loosely following a grounded theory approach (Strauss, 1987; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). In doing this, I faced a number of critical research issues, namely: how does the researcher identify the parameters of a generation? Are there different sorts of generations, and if so how can this be established? And how can the researcher deal with the internal diversity of generations, both in terms of their stratification and in their lived experiences?

Firstly, I will consider possible ways of defining generations and how this shapes the definition of the research problem. Next, I consider how useful focus groups are for researching the population under study. I will reflect upon the social context in which this research was done, and the extent to which carrying out research in an 'entertainment and consumer society' affected both how I did the research and its findings. This leads me to conclude that methods themselves have an historicizing character, and sociology, itself, has a generational quality. These facts impact on the meaning of generations, and on how researchers must become sensitized to the shifting timescapes within which we are all operating.

* A Definition of Generations

In attempting an empirical study of a generation of adults, I begin with the most basic problem of all: what do we mean by a generation, and how are our understandings of generations shaped by sociology, which has itself been constituted by flows of generations? In contrast to continental European traditions, and lately to American sociology, theoretical and practical explorations of 'generations' have been rather less explored in British sociology, although there is a bibilography of cohort studies.

One issue here is the conceptual confusion between cohort and generation. Pilcher (1995), follows Finch (1986), (who examines the role of age in social formations, primarily as a basis of stratification), in distinguishing between cohorts and generations. For Pilcher (1995:6) (following Glen, 1977), the concept of generation 'is a structural term in kinship studies denoting the parent-child relationship', in other words a familial and lineage based concept of generation. According to Pilcher, this conceptualization can be distinguished from 'everyday language...[where] generation acts as a folk model conceptualization of what are properly, cohort processes, as in 'the sixties generation'. (ibid: 6). However, it is precisely this latter concept of generation that Mannheim uses in his 1952 essay on the 'Problem of Generations.' This immediately shows that there is more than one model of generations, and in setting out to study a generation, (and indeed a cohort) it is important to pin down definitions and to identify which 'sort' of generation or cohort one may be interested in, and/or to show why this sort of categorization is problematical.

For writers such as Pilcher (1995) and Finch (1986), a cohort is a group born either in the same year or in a defined time interval - for example over five years - and who age together. To age, in this context, may refer to the passage of the lifetime of the cohort, rather than, in the more literal sense, to biological ageing. For example, it might include mapping the transitions of a fresh intake into an institution, (educational; militaristic; mental health; penal; work place, etc). Ageing here is a transition, and there is some literature on transitions, not least on youth transitions, which may use generation and cohort interchangeably. Cohorts are often identified by the researcher as a moment of departure or arrival between institutions, or by birth dates. Although such cohorts may develop a social life with shared meanings, they cannot necessarily be regarded as generations, per se.

I have found it helpful to develop a clear line of distinction between the two concepts, cohort and generation, as seen in Table 1. Further, I have found it useful to distinguish between different types of generation. This doesn't rule out the possibility of different types of cohorts, or that cohorts (when they are intakes) may actually behave like generations. Conceptually, however, I have found it useful to keep these concepts apart, even though this produces a set of simple binary oppositions rather than the more messy and uncertain distinctions actually encountered in social life. The distinctions I make are also found in Table 1.

It might be useful here to think of each generation as unrepeatable, whereas cohorts are comparable, their distinguishing features of personality, specificity and uniqueness erased by the tidy definition of the boundaries. Theoretically speaking, setting generation and cohort at opposite ends of a continuum is helpful - although, in the empirical world, far from accurate.

Table 1: The Distinction between Generations and Cohorts

Generations Cohorts

Are composed of groups with elastic boundaries and uncertain edges

Fixed group boundaries

Different generations 'age' at different speeds and 'age' in different ways. This may be a source of difference within generations in generational units.

Generations may find or make - or reinvent - ways of ageing. The mode of ageing is of significance to that generation and to neighbouring generations - who in their co-existence must find a way of working with the variety of modes which may co-exist at any moment in time, or in any specific place.

Cohorts 'age' at a specific rate and by a process set by the institution through which they move, e.g. the process of becoming a qualified doctor may be determined by the medical training establishment; may develop shared social life e.g. a sense of identity, related to the awareness of its uniqueness in time-space (e.g. 'the class of 84 re-union party etc).

Generations may develop shared cultures and systems of identification

These may include spaces and 'events' that become special, and are claimed as that generation's social territory: they are sites of action. The generation may (re)visit these, and use them as core building materials.

Cultural identification is not crucial to, or even necessarily relevant to, the definition of cohort. But cohorts, nonetheless, may develop these identities, and actualize them. Upon actualization, the cohort may, more properly, be regarded as having passed into a form of generation.

Cohorts may develop attachments to particular spaces through which they have passed.

Generations are constituted by the social organisation of time, which is changeable: e.g. lifetime; industrial and family time; productive time; 24/7 society; virtual time. This constitution of time may be critically important to shaping the generation's experience, both culturally, and in terms of its ability to acquire velocity.

Cohorts are governed by a concept of (unchanging) clock time; calendar time; linear and modern time. Cohorts may be compared across time in longitudinal studies, irrespective of whether or how time was/has become/became re-organised in the lifetime of the study, or in the spaces between studies.

Generations may be created by social actors in or out of the generation, and by social processes of every/any kind

Cohorts are exclusively created by social researchers, and in institutional disciplinary practices, such as schools and military organisations which organise groups into sets or classes, which then age in accordance with the disciplinary system.

In modernity, age as a system of distinction shaped specific flows, e.g. age groups in the educational system, and in the institutionalisation of 'old age'.

Familial and socio-historical generations are two possible kinds of generations: individuals and groups share at least two generational locations, one in each category.

Individuals are assigned to one key location and properly belong to one cohort

Generations may acquire velocity (and gain political power) or may be fragmented and disempowered.

Cohorts are static in the sense that the boundaries are relatively fixed and their journey is paced (For example, the Class of 84 does not have the possibility of becoming the class of '86. Neither can it decide to graduate in '75 instead).

Generations produce debris: they consume its own and others' debris, which become cultural and material resources for the acquisition of velocity.

Society is traffic. Debris is an essential building material.

Cohorts are less porous to flows of objects, memories, buildings, and other symbolic systems, for example, music, imagery, artifacts etc. They may produce local and sub-cultural debris, but may not have the capacity to produce large scale debris.

Time-space is flow: generations are one of its constitutive flows

Cohorts occupy time-space, which may be conceived as: regular; ruled by geometry; predictable; recurring, with cycles of recruitment and dispatch; possibly grids; rectangular boxes; categories with known borders.

* Diversity in Generational Forms

The concept of 'generation' has been mobilised in a range of ways, but the primary divide here has been between generation as kinship, (which I will call 'familial generativity'), and generation as a socio-political force, sometimes called socio-historical generations (which I will call 'social generativity').

While familial generativity has long characterised human societies, and its constitutive power of state, economy and culture has been well documented (in particular in anthropology and in the sociology of kinship studies), the development of modernity in Europe (following Therborn's (1995) concept of routes in and through it), grew urbanised, secularised and institutionalised modes of generational formations which were new and peculiar to modern society. These generational flows were characterised by extra-familial relationships, and their organisation by, and of, the processes and systems of modernity: e.g. in its institutions, its highly commodified regime, and the emergence of specifically modern forms of the state. The codification of distinction by age was one outcome of these processes, with increasingly specified modes of behaviour and management, for example, famously producing 'youth' as a specific social experience and category.

Marx, Durkheim, and Simmel all took as a central research problem an examination of the processes of industrialisation and urbanization. Changing systems of (dis)integration, considered by Tonnies (1955) to be a shift from Gemeinschaft (an everyone-knows-each-other style of integration) to Gesellschaft (anonymity and isolation), could also read as a shift from familial to socio-historical generational formations in its earliest stages. However, Thomas and Zaniecki (1958) show the importance of the continued interaction between both generational forms to the production of a new generational form, one which fits neither of the categories favoured by Tonnies.

In The Polish Peasant Thomas and Zaniecki map a particular flow of generations, and inadvertently, their transformation from the familial and partially institutionalised structures of Polish peasantry at that time, to the associational and extra-familial structure of the burgeoning urban America. The study shows that the liminal spaces of migration, such as the boat journey, and the integrative mechanisms in operation - such as the flow of messages and letters between the sending and receiving communities - led to the successful integration of each fresh arrival of immigrants, which is achieved by maintaining a fluid system of generational formation and dispersal. The generational model that emerges here was a mixed one, using both familial and socio-historical generations to ensure the survival of the community.

The passage through Gesellschaft and beyond into urban, race and class based communities has long been a theme of sociology, but the system of socio-historical generations as a key feature of the new 'nation-state' society was picked up by Karl Mannheim, who identified the problem of generations as one of sociological interest in his famous 'Essay upon Sociology of Generations', in the Sociology of Knowledge (Mannheim, 1952).

Produced in the aftermath of the First World War, and using as raw data the experiences and transitions of young men conscripted into the new German military, Mannheim argues that previous attempts to understand generations had been stymied by reducing them to a biological phenomenon - a process of social replacement, seen as the naturally recurring biological rhythm of human reproduction. In contrast, Mannheim (1952) argues, radically for the time, that generations could develop a generational consciousness, from which springs the capacity to become social actors in their own right - which I think of in terms of gaining velocity and visibility, i.e. of obtaining agency. Secondly, in Mannheim's view generations had developed a cultural life of identification and could become actualized, or could, in a twentieth century sense, realise themselves. Lastly, the dynamics of generational replacement and actualization produces social knowledge.

Subsequent work on generations (Corsten, 1999) has looked at the issues of cultural renewal and invention, attempting to theorise generational formation as a function or capacity to generate new cultural scripts in the face of the failure of existing cultural scripts and networks, which, for reasons of socio-historical change, fail to provide identity and means of mobility. This style of explanation has been used, in particular, to account both for the emergence of radical middle class youth in the 1960s, and for subsequent youth cultures, cast as sub-cultures produced and consumed by inner city working class youth, in classic studies such as those produced in the 1970s by the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. They have also been used as a route into thinking about generations of diasporic movements, for example in Gilroy's (1993) work on tracing extended 'race' flows, moving across time-space. These may be thought of as bearers of culture, communicative systems, and modes of generation produced and maintained through specific modes of oppression.

Recently, sociological interest in generations has been rejuvenated by new work on ageing - for example, on intra and inter-generational relationships - and related issues which have implications for social policy making and the operation of welfare systems. Kohli (1996), for example, considers the structural position of generations as either net contributors or beneficiaries in the welfare system, while Alan Walker et al.'s (1996) work with the EU Observatory on Ageing and Older People, and Giarchi's (1996) work provides a detailed examination of informal and formal care systems (i.e. of generational transfers) across Europe. Arber's (2000) collection surveys different generational formations and their cultural and material transfers.

* 21st Century Generations?

Approaching the study of thirtysomethings, it seemed to me that while we still have 'generations' today, perhaps they are no longer generations as we once knew them. In particular, the new work on ageing comes at a time of critically important change in, for example: biotechnology; medicine and medical care; experimentation with DNA, genes, organs; and the use of technology such as implants, all of which have changed the condition and experience of life (see Haraway, 1991; Lury, 1997). 'Life' may now stem from societal processes produced by (capitalist) science, in its broadest sense, and not necessarily from simple processes of human, animal or plant reproduction. The environment, as conceived for much of the history of industrial-colonial culture, has been irrevocably changed, and includes new materials, cast by social scientists as information systems of (capital-global) power, such as (that which is presented as being) knowledge and its application, in the forms of digitalisation and DNA, etc.

All of this (and much else) arguably changes the generational 'ball game' of the 21st century. Mannheim's generational analysis rests on his critique of his predecessors, such as Dilthey, who had gazed upon generations and had seen them as nature incarnate: natural, biologically determined, and rhythmic. Mannheim's positioning of generations is as culture - thrown up by socio-historical circumstances, and produced by the processes of modernity, such as nation state building and militarism. In the 21st century the distinctions between nature and culture favoured by early sociologists is even less tenable (see Dickens, 1992).

21st century change has special implications for the concept of generativity, not least around the politics, social meaning, and organisation of the available new means to make or prolong life. This alone would be heady stuff, but such transitions as these are occurring in, and are mediated by, the increased speed and social penetration of consumption flows. That which may be presented as 'technological breakthrough' - or Armegeddon, depending upon your perspective - is subject to, and is produced by, new forms of commodification. Its newness and consumption-based novelty is part of its attraction. The ultimate commodification of life is, after all, not an irrational destination for a social formation in which reinvention is a key driver, (see McKendrick et al., 1982), nor where distinction through making 'lifestyle choices' is presented as the new consumer politics, rather than the more troublesome politics of the 'old-style' citizen.

* New Generations: the Arrival of Thirtysomethings?

Turning now to the specific forms of 21st century generations, we can see that new social transitions 'ought', in theory, to be the harbinger of new forms of generation. These might include generations which appear after the youth phase, or those formed in the youth phase but which don't sink into the sponge of adult homogeneity, as was assumed in earlier periods of commodification. This new development presents problems for the sociological theorising of generation, which has traditionally associated generational formation with youth (Mannheim, 1952).

While there have been many studies of youth and ageing, understanding middle age - and the passage through it - has remained the preserve of life course, cohort and psychic literature, rather than of sociology of generations literature. Thus, thirtysomethings, as a social generation, have been relatively little discussed. Mannheim's (1952) broad assumption that youth is the true moment of generation formation - which he suggests is due to the 'up-to-dateness of youth' arising from the lifestyle of youth, which is characterised by 'fresh contacts' - may now be questioned. This is partly because life today holds the possibility that new contacts will be made throughout the life course, and that generational formation may not solely rest with 'new contacts' but is also subject to market, war, and state processes which have become increasingly meaningful and sophisticated in their productive power. These processes provide the raw material for the reconstruction of the self-based on a late-modern model of uniqueness and expressive capacity, with lifestyles which are presented ideologically as driven by personal choice and success or failure. Generational distinction today sits alongside the myriad of other available identities and material locations.

Thus, in approaching research into the 'thirtysomething population', I decided that my conceptualisation was properly one of generations rather than cohorts. Secondly, I decided that I was primarily interested in social generativity, and that it would be important to identify how generations are busily 'being generations.' That is, it should be a study of the mode of conduct of generations under current conditions - claimed by contemporary social theory, of course, to be characterized by a form of globalised consumer identity, in which reinvention is a persistent and integral defining characteristic.

In particular, I felt that this is an interesting conjuncture for the thirtysomethings of today, who experience change in both generational locations - familial and social - and who also have the possibility of a 21st century generativity. Does the thirtysomethings cohort experience this age-frame as the source for a specific identity? And, if they do, what material consequences may arise from this fact?

* Methodological and Theoretical Issues

One implication of the relative scarcity of empirical case studies of generations, is that there is no established approach to doing such work. Existing generational studies have used many different approaches. A major difficulty in replicating them, lies in the historical moment in which they are conducted, the variety of generational systems which have been considered under a variety of theoretical definitions, and the spacing between studies, which position them (and the researchers) in very different 'places' in the biography of sociology, and for the social understandings of generations which were used, and which flow from them (for review, see Pilcher, 1995).

According to Wilkinson (1999: 222): 'The choice of one method over another is not simply a technical decision, but an epistemological and theoretical one.' Using the concept of 'interception', I was seeking to understand:

Using the concept of interception led me to consider those methodologies which seek to find or encounter social relations 'as they are happening', perhaps by imagining the actors as being in mid-flight. Since generational social life has consciousness, as well as location, at its core, I became interested in subjectivity and the wish to 'see' generational consciousness at work. I decided to take a modified phenomeonological approach, borrowing from Schutz (1967) and the work of the Chicago School, alongside contemporary social theory about time-space, and mobilities in, through and of them, in particular the work by John Urry (2000) and Barbara Adam (1990; 1998).

I wanted my research to capture social meanings rather than actions, and to find or make space for demonstrations of such social acts, which I assumed, for generations, would be an essentially group or network project. This led me towards the use of grounded theory, using Glaser and Strauss (1967) and Glaser (1992), in particular. I hoped that this approach would provide me with the necessary space to develop social theory around generations which was properly grounded, using the 'funnel' approach (Agar, 1980: 13): that is, working one's way towards understandings, edging and leaping towards emergent themes, but able to go back to participants and to pursue ideas and hunches as they arose.

The use of focus group leant themselves to the research more readily than alternative methods for a number of reasons, not least their collective and analytical focus. For example, according to Templeton (1987: 5): 'A focus group, in essence, is a small, temporary community, formed for the purpose of collaborative enterprise of discovery.' For Bloor (2001: 5-6) 'The [focus] group is a socially legitimated occasion for participants to engage in 'retrospective introspection' to attempt collectively to tease out previously taken for granted assumptions.' Bryman (2001: 336), meanwhile, points to the history of focus groups, identifying characteristics of both the Focused Interview (Merton et al 1956) and the group interview: '[T]he focus group method appends to the focused interview the element of interaction within groups as an area of interest and is more focused than the group interview' [emphasis added].

Secondly, Wilkinson (1999) points that while no method is feminist per se, focus groups are a valuable resource for feminists, providing a shift of power away from the researcher, and enabling participants to find a voice. Moreover, focus groups may be thought of as mimicking naturalistic flows of interaction, and may reveal the processes by which meaning is negotiated and built. According to Wilkinson (1999: 225), focus groups draw on, '[E]veryday experiences of talking and arguing with families, friends, and colleagues about events and issues in their everyday lives. It is exactly this ordinary social process that is tapped by focus group method.' Focus groups, then, arguably, provide a useful means of 'intercepting' a social flow and gaining insight into its machinations and complexities.

Since I was using grounded theory, I also needed a method which would allow me to explore and build theory, which Calder (1977: 356) sees as a specific strength of focus groups, which (even though knowledge produced through such groups may lack a scientific status, and is essentially provisional) are: 'a way of accomplishing the construct-generation process.' Staging a series of focus groups also allows the researcher to develop and refine concepts in between each event, and to look for specific patterns in a relatively specific and organised way. This is an advantage over so-called 'one-hit' methods, such as a large- scale survey, for example. Bloor (2001), Wilkinson (1998; 1999), and Bryman (2001) all agree that focus groups provide opportunities for participants to bring forward their own concerns and themes, since they talk to each other not to the researcher, and may prompt, contradict, clarify and collude.

I decided on six focus groups as a starting point, with a possible two or three additional ones to follow, if patterns and categories were not emerging. I also decided that the focus groups should have a range of sizes and durations. Thus, a working group of colleagues in a staff meeting may benefit from a large group, obtaining 'protection' in terms of limits on how much, and in what depth, subjects might speak. I felt that this was preferable for a work-based group, which may experience issues of hierarchy and inhibition, while a much smaller, longer meeting might be staged, for example, for a book club group of feminists - which eventually consisted of a pair of sisters and a pair of 'best friends' who had known each other for some twenty years. This provided a very different social context, one that allowed for confidences, a high degree of trust, and the ability to clarify and contradict in order to establish key themes.

I also felt drawn to pre-existing groups of thirtysomethings, a naturalistic approach, but I was mindful of Merton's warning (1990:138) that social homogeneity is productive, and that, 'educational homogeneity outranks all other kinds in making for effective interviews with groups.' So I looked for pre-existing groups, the composition of which was marked by pairs or trios of participants who had known each other a long time (at least 10-15 years), and who shared similar social identifiers and locations, whether this be by gender, ethnicity, educational attainment, class position and so on. Geographical and social locations for conducting the groups were varied, and ranged from an evening in someone's home with a take-away curry, to a work based staff meeting, or a meeting in a local park cafe.

The six groups I worked with - and the rejections I received - are shown in Table 2:

Table 2: The Focus Groups

Link PersonGroup Formative ProcessExistence Now
A. BathCohortStudents
B. NottinghamPoliticalPeer
C. RedditchWorkWork
D. IlfordPeerPeer
E. BarnetWorkWork
F. NottinghamCohortPeer
RejectionsShared existenceRejections/problems
GEx-prisonersNo explanation given
SENetworkBusiness owners stated: 'suspicious of research'
PCommunityMonks: all but one are too old!
SDisplacementImmigrants could talk, but only in secrecy, I could never use conversation
JMotherhoodCouldn't organise
SClubAstronomers: lack of interest

In fact, most people who were approached were interested in the research and, by and large, groups consisted of people who were working with some sort of definition of thirtysomething already in their imagination, long before I arrived with my own ideas. I guessed this fact referred, most famously, to the concept of thirtysomething presented by the media and which originally came from the American ABC network's T.V show which was actually called Thirtysomething.

The series formula is to follow a peer group or cohort of largely white, middle class professionals, as they make their various excursions into the 'outside' world, followed by a return to the group for reflection and some engagement, signifying a process of learning. The series is instantly recognizable for its conventions and storylines - conception in the thirties; working in advertising and marketing; friendship groups, etc. - and for its production values and insights, which might best be described as 'lightweight.'

Since this series began there has been a wave of TV productions, films and novels that have picked up on some of those themes, often using peer groups (including working groups and friendship groups) as the unit around which a narrative is constructed. The list includes TV series such as Ali McBeal, This Life, and Cold Feet, as well as Helen Fielding's novel and film based on Bridget Jones' Diary, and also, perhaps, the successful 'post lad' novels of Nick Hornby and Tony Parsons. The existence of this popular cultural conception of the generation under study would obviously shape, in some senses, the approaches of my subjects.

However, no focus group, or majority of focus group members fitted the popular media stereotype of the 'thirtysomething'. Those who were recruited for the study were diverse in origin, and consisted of a range of people apparently able to interpolate themselves into the idea of 'being thirtysomething' in a way which bore little resemblance to the popular mediaised image of this generation. My subjects, for example, included an entire group of white women of working class origin, almost all of whom had left school at the first available opportunity, married young, and had started families before the age of 21 (See also Innes & Scott, this volume). In spite of the disjunctures between the media image of thirtysomethings and the make up and experiences of most of my subjects - and the diversity of the groups - no substitute terminology was presented by the groups for consideration here. In fact, the thirtysomething specificity as a 'shared' experience seemed to be widely accepted by every group, although a group of men in their thirties could not interpolate themselves into this identity with the same sort of ease.

* Into the Field: the Focus Groups in Action

After a short introduction, the participants were asked to complete a time line chart in groups of twos and threes. They were asked to write up anything significant they could remember happening in each of the four decades of their lives. The upper half of the chart was reserved for public events, while the bottom half of the chart was reserved for 'personal' events, which the groups universally took to mean a mixture of everyday, personal, and individual or family-household events. This activity was presented to the groups as one of, 'remembering significant things', and the groups behaved as though they were 'having memories' which flowed sporadically, typically in bursts lasting a few minutes. Groups worked mainly - but not secretively - on their own charts.

The time line was useful for locating biography in social processes; for revealing the exact inter-subjective point where they meet; and for raising issues of theory. An example is the role of collective as opposed to individual memory. Are they different? The use of the time line is also important for highlighting examples of generational consciousness - and their boundaries. The time line could also function both to ignite flashbulb memories (Brown & Kulik, 1977), and to locate individuals within the group's historical contexts, as I searched for Mannheim's significant historical shaping moments (Mannheim 1952).

Finally, the use of the time line exercise mobilised Merton's core function of retrospection, the defining quality of the focused interview, where fine grade detail is gained through participants' accessing their own interior monologue. For Merton (1990: 22) the magic here lies in participants acting as, 'their own "Intro-spectometer" recording ... the imagined details of ongoing human experience.' This is an interesting use of the concept of retrospection - as a verb: 'to retrospect', for example: ' When the interviewee is not encouraged to retrospect, much of the complexity and depth of his original response may be lost' (Merton, 1990: 25) [emphasis added].

Importantly, Merton's choice of the concept of retrospection is in preference to the resort to memory. Retrospection involves a conscious, or knowing, reflection. It is knowledge produced in a particular way, located in a particular context of knowledge since gained, the sentiment being: knowing what I know now, in retrospect. Merton is clear that here lies the strength of the focus group method, to be mobilised by the moderator in the presentation of the sum total of experiences that the interviewee has raised. This is a process of 'reinstate[ment]' and one 'suggests[ing] that the interviewee "look back" or " think back" on them.' (Merton, 1990:32).

* History and Thirtysomething

The time line exercise rather undermined my subjects' views of thirtysomething as being linked to the one popularly presented in the media. When I reflected upon this fact, I came to see that thirtysomething narratives offered by popular culture actually tend to be characterised by a lack of history. Individuals, if they have any history at all, may be narrowly circumscribed by a history of, typically, 'failed' relationships and/or 'failed' or somehow 'problematical' fertility, mixed up with some narrative on work or career, that is typically unsatisfying and characterised by ambivalence in relationships with colleagues. For females, the concept of thirtysomething has increasingly become a short hand cultural code for young women who are searching for a (heterosexual) mate under the specific circumstances of what is generally represented as being 'the ticking body-clock.' The relationship to the labour market (represented as location in personalized career) brings in an added dimension of dissatisfaction or dilemma.

History, in its broader sense, does not encroach upon the bland, ahistorical lives of thirtysomething females as represented in the media. The changing circumstances of both the 'body-clock' (presented as invariable, ahistorical, and as a function of biology) and the passage of the life course, is not historicized or set in any social context, beyond that of individuals making privatized choices by reason of their personality, priorities or market position. Biographies are social, up to a point, and glimpses of 'a past' are allowed only when fully compatible or coherent with the identity of the present. Incoherent material is largely airbrushed out, leaving the thirtysomethings on show as 'here and now', rather than as 'there and then.'

* Discussion and Evaluation

As the flow of memories and stimulations gradually ceased, each person then completed, alone, a brief questionnaire providing data on basic demographics such as age and educational level of attainment. The discussion that followed explored thirtysomething as an experience and a form of identification, and raised certain pre-defined questions,for example: where the borders of neighbouring generations may lie; what is this generation's future; and what are the current concerns of the groups? Analysing these data revealed some ragged borders to the concept of generation, but also clearly demonstrated that the groups could broadly identify neighbouring generations, based upon a selection of criteria including the socio-economic position of different generations, experiences of intimacy, of going to work, and experiences of education. Uncertainties surrounding experiences of family and work were positioned against areas of greater certainty, which seemed to relate to a concept of self conceptualized in terms of perceived relative maturity, coherence and competency, when compared to the more youthful self - the most common point of comparison.

The factors that most shaped expectations were those relating to 21st century generativity, including fertility today, familial and peer group relations over the next twenty year, and experiences of survival and sickness or death in older age. The second most important factor here was the economy, largely externalized and represented as being a system over which individuals had little or no control. However, no group had anything very positive to say about the latter, and in particular, the groups were especially notable for their general aversion to anything connected with formal politics or, for example, the workings of the financial services system. Not even the most stably employed middle class graduates in the groups could say with confidence that they had pension provision, and only two individuals out of the entire series of groups were able to say that they had the sort of provision which would remotely meet their needs in retirement.

I found that focus group interaction was a good and useful way of intercepting networks of people who are 'doing' generation. It was clear that focus group discussions, while rather more formalised than that generally engaged in, were not entirely foreign to many members of the groups, many of whom claimed to have spoken collectively of 'being thirtysomething' previously, and who already had a workable understanding or conceptualization of generations. The time line exercise was useful for producing narratives of memory and history, which worked well with Mannheim's ideas relating to consciousness. The visual impact of seeing the time lines was also very useful, since it showed how people move through their own life course transitions, across time and through social space.

* Issues of Time-space in doing Research: 'Will we be on the telly?'

One of the issues that arose during focus group recruitment was that of taping, confidentiality and publicity. In exploring these ethical issues, I came to see more clearly aspects of the historically specific nature of my research. For example, few respondents were uneasy with tape recording. One participant was even disappointed that full names would not be used in any final research write-up and another was disappointed the research was not the basis for a television 'event' of some kind.

Such comments, arguably, offer some insight into the working practices of participants and into aspects of contemporary culture. The generation being interviewed has a clear familiarity and ease with a highly mediatised/marketised cultural milieu. The ability of respondents to locate the group in that context was especially interesting: was I, in fact, being shown a 'mediaised' personality by the participants? Perhaps they were already anticipating an imagined audience of unknown millions who might one day catch a glimpse of them in words or pictures? While the 'safety' level offered the groups was high, and participants could escape disclosure of sensitive material in a fairly anonymous way, it was nonetheless clear that at least some of those involved were openly disappointed that they might never form part of a revealing sociological version of a Big Brother household. It also seems clear that the ethical conventions that guide our understanding of good practice in social research have been formulated in a very different historical and cultural era. For some respondents, too, the research experience constituted 'a good night out': an indication, in fact, that I had been expected to provide some 'edutainment', a notion that was quite compatible with the expectations of a service economy and perhaps even the recent marketisation of Higher Education.

* Conclusions

In this paper I have raised, in a preliminary way, some theoretical and methodological issues arising out of a small piece of empirical research on generation, using a sample of thirtysomethings. Firstly, I distinguished between cohorts and generations, and secondly between two primary forms of generations, familial generativity (which describes kinship relationships) and social generativity (which describes socio-historical generations). In contextualising Mannheim's paper on the identification of socio-historical generations in a nature-culture frame, I suggested that changes in both familial and socio-historical relations are leading towards the development of a new, hybrid form of generation, which I tentatively called 21st century generation.

In approaching the study of thirtysomethings, I took the socio-historical concept as a primary unit although found that the focused group discussions yielded important insights into familial generativity and of how this is changing. I defined what I was researching as the flows of: bodies; emotion; environment; concept building and inter-subjective construction; and inter and intra-generational exchange and transfer. I found the concept of 'interception' especially useful in identifying methods, such as the use of group encounters, which might enable us to examine social life in flux. This is important, given Mannheim's assertion that generations have both consciousness and location.

Focus groups appealed here because they mimic aspects of naturalistic group processes, and show how groups manage meanings. As such, they provide access to conceptual worlds, and to systems of identification. I completed six diverse focus groups in different geographical locations. Generally speaking, men were less receptive to the meaning and importance of the concept of thirtysomething than were women, and women also responded rather better to the focus group experience. I structured sessions around a time line exercise in order to locate biography in history and individuals into collectivities. This revealed the usefulness of Mannheim's notion of shared location and consciousness and, importantly, showed me how clearly the political and social life of my generation has been expunged by the ahistorical representation of the mediaised 'thirtysomething'. Secondly, a short questionnaire enabled me to gather important demographic data and cross check some leader effects. Thirdly, a focused, group discussion was useful for revealing meanings, and generational boundaries and negotiations.

The process of 'talking about' doing the focus groups revealed for me the extent to which the participants brought prior knowledge of social research methods to the process - for example, some already had some familiarity of focus groups - as well as how the meanings of 'doing generation' could be related to wider social contexts, such as reality TV and consumer culture. This led me to rethink the idea of methods entering and becoming part of social life - as a unique event and experience, a source of theoretical complexity, and a part of the timescapes in, and through which, we do research. In particular, mediaised modes of production and consumption had shaped respondents' views of publicity, and fame, and these were affecting the ways in which respondents' viewed ethical questions, such as privacy. Motivations for engagement in the research were, as a consequence, complex and highly diverse.

In engaging in this research, I also became sensitized to myself as a generational actor, a role which I was unable to fully escape in group interaction, not least since I, too, sought and made social understandings through the research process, and the groups assumed this fact and, in turn, acted reflexively towards me. This has left me with many unresolved issues, not least: what difference, if any, has my own position made to the research? And to what extent is my own sociological perspective and understanding imbued with my own generational consciousness? Questions for another day - and another paper.


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