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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: October 2020

Introduction

Summary

Every old man complains of the growing depravity of the world, of the petulance and insolence of the rising generation.

Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, 8 September 1750

The life course marks the passing of time as a series of personal transitional events. In contrast, age relations are inexorably linked to historical change. In the former the expectations of youth gradually give way to the experience of age, but in the latter it is the experience of the elderly that eventually must give way to the expectations of the rising generations. It is this process of intergenerational transition that is placed under the spotlight in this exploration of eighteenth-century society. The investigation culminates in the political sphere, unearthing generational tensions during the tumultuous parliamentary election that took place in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1774. But it begins more than three decades earlier in the nurseries and schoolrooms in which formative years were spent, and traverses the volatile terrain of adolescence before turning to the adult world of the 1770s. This exposes the roots of the political faction that emerged as the children of the 1740s reached adulthood. Yet, the following chapters are about so much more than a generational divide in the political arena, or even the enquiry into how and why this age-based tension arose. This account of England's rising generations rethinks how historical actors are viewed, presenting an analytical framework that obliges us to recognise that people lived through not in the past; and as Reinhart Koselleck argued, if history is to be distinguished from the social sciences it requires ‘a theory that makes it possible to accommodate the changes in temporal experience’.

Age Relations and Historical Change

The interactions between age groups are central to cultural adaptation. Customs are most open to being transformed as they are passed from one generation to the next. It is, therefore, surprising that age relations are not a conventional category of historical analysis. It is not that age has been overlooked, but stages of the life cycle tend to be considered in isolation, and even when intergenerational relationships are investigated limited attention is given to the fact that individuals progressed from childhood to old age, or that they did so as part of a generational cohort.