Change Through the Generations

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For the Life History & Social Change project, I interviewed Irish people in their 70s, 50s and 30s about their lives. One of the things I noticed was that many of the women in the older cohorts regretted returning to Ireland after a period working abroad in England or the US. Many of them were nurses or worked in factories and returned to a very poor country with few employment prospects for married women (remember the marriage bar, which excluded married women from working in the public sector was not removed until 1973). I remember in particular one women talked about how terrible conditions were in maternity hospitals in Ireland compared to what she had experienced in the UK. When talking about their daughters, there was a sense that they wanted their daughters to make different choices to the ones they had made.

1St Anniv. Of The June '53 Uprising In Berlin

This made me interested in the idea of social change occurring across the generations. This idea came to mind again when visiting Berlin over Easter. I came across exhibitions about the Berlin Uprising in 1953 (the picture left was taken at its first anniversary) and the Green and Peace movement in East Berlin of the 1980s. Looking at the pictures of the marchers in 1953, I wondered how many of them had children who were part of the movements of the 1980s.

I don’t know the answer to this, but there is an interesting article in the most recent issue of British Journal of Sociology by Steve Bruce and Tony Glendinning on decline in the Christian church in the UK. They argue that “the explanation of decline may often be located at least a generation earlier than the period in which that decline become apparent because it owes as much or more to a failure to recruit children than to adult defection” (2010: 108) . Their argument is that religious decline is first seen as a decline in attendance, and then later as a decline in church membership. If their theory is right, the decline we see now in Ireland in church attendance will be followed by in the next twenty years by a fall in church membership*.

The second interesting point the article makes is about the role of the Second World War in this process. In terms of the UK, the decline in the Christian churches becomes obvious in the 1960s, but if their theory is right, had it’s roots in the 1940s. The Second World War they argue disrupted the way religious belief is passed from one generation to the next. They are tentative in their discussions of what happened, but do note that by 1943 about 90 % of women aged 18-40 were employed in the forces or in industry, and this changing role of women within a war society is perhaps partially responsible for the changes seen a generation later.

Of course in Ireland we did not have a huge influx of war generated employment, but there was female emigration to employment abroad. I do wonder if, as the interviews suggest, some similar inter-generational processes of change have occurred here.


[*1973/74 91% of Catholics in the Republic of Ireland went to Mass at least once a week, by 2009 this had dropped to 42 per cent, yet in the 2002 census 90% of people still identified themselves as Catholics. The article by Tom Inglis linked to above has an interesting discussion on how what it means to be a Catholic changes across countries and over time].