Let’s Climb Out of the Generation Trap

This piece first appeared on NextAvenue. It’s about why I’d like people to use “generation” less. A lot less.

When The Who howled “talkin’ ‘bout my generation” in 1968, they were referencing a group of people born and alive at about the same time. That’s what the word means to most of us: generations in a family and, more generally, age contemporaries at different stages of life.  But we use it to mean lots of other things too, and that’s a habit we need to break.

The word sure comes in handy. Belonging to a generation contributes to a sense of personal and collective identity. It’s attractive to social scientists, who look for demographic patterns, and useful to the media because it lends itself to storytelling. We use “generation” to describe not only who lived through what and with whom, but also the meaning and values we attach to those experiences — individually and collectively. That’s a hell of a mandate! But precisely because “generation” refers to so many different things, we use it too much and too carelessly. That’s the problem.

We may think we know what generation”means, but the concept has no scientific basis. Generational durations and beginning and end dates vary. It’s mathematically almost impossible to distinguish between age, period and cohort effects. This leads to unfair representations, like tarring Millennials as disloyal job-hoppers. But that’s an age effect, not a generational effect; it’s how people may behave when they enter the job market, no matter when they were born.

Because it’s vague, convenient and ubiquitous, “generation” is easy to use — and misuse.

In an ageist world, this has far-reaching implications. Generational framing sanctions and supports age segregation, which makes us more likely to accept age divides and inequities as “just the way things are” instead of questioning the grip of age-group groupthink on our policies and prospects. It also fosters age stereotypes — how could any generalization about millions of similar-age people possibly be accurate? — which delude and divide us. Most damagingly, “generation” is used to exaggerate what age cohorts have in common and how they differ, in order to encourage conflict and legitimize inequity: the myth of intergenerational conflict.

Generational framing pits old against young.

Invented by right-wing strategists in the 1970s, the myth of intergenerational conflict holds that the interests of old and young are inherently opposed, there’s not enough to go around and olders and youngers will soon be at each other’s throats. The media promotes this notion because conflict sells. It’s easier to point fingers than build bridges, and when times are tough, we look for scapegoats. This works in both directions, with olders bashing youngers for being lazy or disloyal and youngers blaming their elders for wrecking the planet, vacuuming up government benefits and sticking around in jobs. The song that started the #OKBoomer meme described boomers as racist, fascist Trump supporters with bad hair. It’s tempting to rise to that hateful bait, or to go on the defensive. But then everyone loses, and the planet smolders.

Generational finger-pointing obscures the struggles that confront every human being as we move through life, carrying a unique set of advantages and disadvantages into old age. It makes equity across the lifespan harder to envision and execute, by undermining the solidarity and collective action necessary to implement any social good, from affordable child care to a decent retirement. What we need now, especially in the pandemic’s wake, is support for young people around education, job training, health care, housing and family services and support for Social Security and Medicare for their parents and grandparents. The reality is that nothing matters more to most olders than the welfare of the younger people they love; there is no evidence that young people want to throw Granny to the wolves and it is grotesque to propose that the interests of old and young are inherently opposed.

Generational framing obscures the far larger role that class, along with race and gender, plays in shaping our lives.

Age plays much less of a role in shaping our paths through life than we think it does — far less than social factors like socioeconomic status, geography, ethnicity and gender. Falling into the “generation trap” distracts us from deeper questions of power and privilege. Yes, Congress is filled with people in their 60s, 70s and 80s, for example, but railing about age obscures the roots of the real problem: a political system that enables the wealthy to purchase political office and corporate interests to maintain it.

Applying a generational lens obscures the multitude of inequities that exist within age cohorts and also cut across them. Both the 1% and the 99% are made up of all ages. Net worth increases with age because people tend to acquire assets over time but maps far more closely to education level (a proxy for class). This reflects the legacy  of systemic racism as well as the gender wage gap, which cuts across all age groups and demographics and widens significantly for women of color. Claims of shared status on the basis of age ignore or erase these important distinctions.

Everyone ages. Age is easy to establish. It’s easier to delineate than the more fraught and messy variables of class, race and ethnicity. It’s less uncomfortable to address, because ageism is less examined; we’re only now beginning to call it out. But if we want a more equitable world, we have to wrestle with these commingled aspects of identity and opportunity and give age no more than its due.

Generational framing fosters stereotypes.

Another problem with making claims about an entire age cohort —whether about how much one “generation” has in common with another or how little —is that it invariably results in crude generalizations which undergird all prejudice. Plenty of olders are in better health than millions of youngers. Saints and sinners come in all ages. And so on. The only characteristic older people share, along with diminishing physical capacity, is ever-increasing heterogeneity: the longer we live, the more different from each other we become and the less our age reveals about us. As they say, if you’ve seen one 80-year-old, you’ve seen one 80-year-old.

As with national-culture models, there’s more variation within a given group than between groups, whether the group in question is adolescents or Albanians. We tend to think of Boomers as white and middle class, but most of their age peers are neither. Individuals and communities like people of color, queer people, disabled people and immigrants hold multiple identities that have a much greater effect on their trajectories than the decade in which they were born. Historical events that mark boundaries between life stages may not be shared by everyone in the same age group. Roles and rituals that signify life transitions are far from universal across class and cultures.

Age differences are real. It’s about not weaponizing them.

We can’t wish age differences away, nor should we want to. Likewise, every generation points fingers at those who came before them and finds fault with “kids these days.” I was born in 1952, into a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity for white, middle-class Americans, and youngers have many reasons to envy my extreme demographic good fortune. But  we “greedy geezers” are enacting the greatest wealth transfer in history. Families and communities are interdependent. As economics professor and longevity expert Andrew J. Scott puts it, “It’s only zero-sum if we all die young.”

The old are not the enemy. Age is not the issue. The issue is equity across the lifespan, and the stakes have never been higher. The emergence of four — even five— living generations in the 21st century is a tectonic shift. It’s happening at a time of profound uncertainty, in a world riven by deep divisions of class, race and gender. We cannot afford to add age to the mix. The alternative is solidarity across the years: coming together at all ages to tackle these wicked problems and create a more equitable and inclusive future.

Let’s break the “generations” habit unless we’re using the term  specifically —to describe immigration trends, for example, or family trees or genetic patterns.

Try “age group” instead, or “age cohort” if you want to sound like a demographer.

Try “mixed age” or “age-diverse” to describe events that involve an age range, instead of letting “intergenerational” do all the lifting.

Try describing what people are doing or saying or listening to instead of using their age or age cohort as a key identifier.

Instead of referring to yourself as a boomer, Gen Xer or Millennial, try Perennial — writer Gina Pell’s witty suggestion for what those of us who don’t want to be constrained by generational moats start calling ourselves.

Generational framing serves serve marketers, reactionaries and vested interests, but not Perennials—or the public good.

3 thoughts on “Let’s Climb Out of the Generation Trap

  1. More articles about dropping generational labels have since come out. They include:

    Why the Pew Research Center is moving away from using a generational lens going forward. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2023/05/22/how-pew-research-center-will-report-on-generations-moving-forward/

    “Generational Market Research is a Scam” by Daniel Mai, Nov 29, 2023 – a “collective experience-based” alternative to the “flawed birth cohorts-based generational model” that helps “make sense of the human condition in light of time, age, and historical development.” https://www.humanfutures.studio/articles/generational-market-research

    “Quit the millennial-bashing – generationalism is bad science” by Cort W Rudolph, which was published in Psyche on August 17 (https://psyche.co/ideas/quit-the-millennial-bashing-generationalism-is-bad-science) and an Opinion piece by Philip N. Cohen published on July 7th in the Washington Post, “Generation labels mean nothing. It’s time to retire them (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/07/07/generation-labels-mean-nothing-retire-them/).
    Report from he Australian Human Rights Commission: “Generational divide? It’s more myth than reality.”
    “It’s Time to Stop Talking About “Generations” by Louis Menand in the New Yorker, October 11, 2021 https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/10/18/its-time-to-stop-talking-about-generations
    “The Bunk of Generational Talk” by Bobby Duffy in the Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2021 – although Duffy sticks with the trope of “generational differences”

    “Generation No,”TEDxPortlandStateUniversity by David Cadiz about why generational labels are harmful and without basis, and how we can do better https://www.ted.com/talks/david_cadiz_generation_no

    “Generations and Generational Differences: Debunking Myths in Organizational Science and Practice and Paving New Paths Forward”, a 2020 paper in the Journal of Business and Psychology that debunks ten common myths about generations and generational differences at work and beyond https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10869-020-09715-2

    “Generational Labels: Why It’s Time To Put Them To Rest” by
    Sheila Callaham, in Forbes, May 15, 2022 https://www.forbes.com/sites/sheilacallaham/2022/05/15/generational-labels-why-its-time-to-put-them-to-rest/

    Why the Pew Research Center https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2023/05/22/how-pew-research-center-will-report-on-generations-moving-forward/

    1. Thanks for these two links!
      This will be a hard thing to change in society. We like our “easy” explanations for how/why things are.
      I’m going to stop using them today and that’s a start.

  2. This is really good. Just starting to explore this topic. Spent my life “nose to the grindstone” and although my future as a retired person is pretty secure, I can see that is not true for everyone, and really questionable for the generations to follow. I want to work to impact that positively. I like the case you made for not adding age to the mix of things that already divided us. The “Perennial” thing is brilliant.
    Thanks for this.

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