10/12/2012 12:32 GMT | Updated 09/02/2013 05:12 GMT

The Generation Frame

But we also have a balance between generations, with four roughly equally sized and culturally quite distinct adult cohorts co-existing - those born pre-1945, baby boomers, gen x and gen y. It's easy to miss this when we discuss our national demographic profile, because we tend to focus on how the population is ageing.

We're at a key point in the influence of different generations on our society. In his book The Pinch, David Willetts talks about how we're in "generational equipoise", where the median person is around 40 years old and can expect to live to 80. But we also have a balance between generations, with four roughly equally sized and culturally quite distinct adult cohorts co-existing - those born pre-1945, baby boomers, gen x and gen y.

It's easy to miss this when we discuss our national demographic profile, because we tend to focus on how the population is ageing. That is undoubtedly true - but it's also vital to understand that our current old are still dying out, and they have very different values and attitudes to our future old. Changes in our generational profile are driving significant shifts in the national balance of opinion, and raise important questions about future consensus on a wide range of political and social policy issues - as Ipsos MORI's new Generations analysis highlights.

Take, for example, views of welfare - and a specific question on whether the government should increase benefits for the poor, even if it leads to higher taxes. This is a very current debate, with the government forcing a vote on benefit cuts, and testing Labour's resolve in opposing it. The government are confident they are reflecting public opinion - and trends on this question suggest they may be right. Agreement that we should increase benefits has halved and disagreement has nearly doubled between 1987 and 2011; now significantly more disagree than agree.

But it is how this varies among cohorts that is vital to understand for future policy, and our analysis suggests three major patterns.

Firstly, over the period, all generations show a downward trend in their support for more welfare spending. There is a clear "period effect" as it's called, where the general mood has shifted.

But second, the generations are different and stay different from each other. This suggests that attitudes to welfare do have a very important generational aspect: the context you grew up in is really important to relative views of redistribution.

And thirdly, building on this point, there is a clear, consistent generational rank order: the pre-war generation are the most supportive of further redistribution, followed by baby boomers, then generation X then generation Y. The very practical point here for policy-makers is that the younger generation seem to have a different view of welfare, even after allowing for the general shift in attitudes across society.

We are exploring this further in a project for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, jointly with Demos. But it suggests a more "individualised" view of rights and responsibilities among younger people in the UK; they have received much less support across such a wide range of areas of their lives, and they have responded by expecting less.

As Willetts points out, older groups are net beneficiaries from welfare spending, and therefore widespread support across cohorts can only be maintained if younger generations believe that a similar contract will remain in place when they're old. This seems likely to prove increasingly difficult, given that younger groups seem to have a much weaker perception of the contributory nature of welfare and what they get out of the contract.

But this isn't the only policy area where a generational understanding is vital. Our analysis of generational opinions doesn't always show such clear-cut distinctions between each individual cohort - sometimes one generation stands out as distinct.

For example, similar analysis on trends in satisfaction with the NHS between generations shows that the different generations do generally follow a similar trend - there are undulations in the 1980s and 1990s, and then a sustained increase in satisfaction across each generation as health service funding increased in the 2000s.

But the other point that clearly stands out is how different the pre-war generation is from the rest - they are significantly more satisfied than following generations at each point, at least since the late 1980s. This gap remains pretty consistent, which suggests that being old in itself is not the primary explanation.

Instead it suggests the importance of growing up when the NHS was being founded and first delivered. This in turn could be due to pride in its institution, or memory of what it was like before it existed.

It has often been observed that the oldest age groups are happier with many aspects of public services, and one possible explanation suggested is that people expect less as they move into this group. The trends seen in our analysis on the NHS suggest that this lifecycle effect may turn out to be less important and that it's a cohort effect that drives this pattern, in the case of health services at least. This is important to understand: as the composition of the population changes, we may see our current older population being replaced by one that is a lot less grateful.

The importance of differences between generations is clearly not new. Karl Mannheim published his seminal work "The Problem of Generations" in 1928, which outlined how formative experiences are vitally important to setting views, and how the strength of links between contemporaries will grow as ties between generations within families weaken. This was something of a break from the orthodoxy, but looking at modern societies, it seems incredibly prescient.

More recently this generational perspective has taken a particular twist, with a surge in studies focusing on the likelihood of increases in intergenerational inequity and conflict - mostly driven by concern about the burden placed on future generations by the good fortune of baby boomers.

But in the focus on boomers, and how those following are facing a much tougher time, there's been relatively little attempt to understand how values and opinions vary across the full range of generations. Politicians and policy-makers are going to increasingly need this full generational frame to make sense of public opinion.