I’ve always felt orphaned by talk of generations. Born in 1980, I was a little too young to experience the full Reality Bites/grunge Gen X vibe. On the other hand I didn’t get a computer or email address of my own until I was 18. To my eternal shame, I still remember not understanding why the internet was a big deal when someone first explained it to me (Sorry Evan, you were right). I am very much not a stereotypical Millennial either.
We now have a bunch of catchy terms like ‘Xennial,’ ‘Generation Catalano,’ and my least favorite, ‘geriatric Millennial,’ for the “micro-generation” between Gen X and Millennial, but my experience of feeling excluded from typical generational categories left me skeptical of the whole enterprise. Is it helpful to group people into 15-20 year blocks? Isn’t that kind of arbitrary? And do these groups even actually share fundamental similarities?
Studies show many commonly held beliefs about particular generations are nonsense — Millennials aren’t the entitled avocado toast munchers they’re made out to be — but a recent New Yorker article goes further. In it Louis Menand argues the problem isn’t just an imprecise understanding of particular groups, but the whole idea of breaking up the population into generations in the first place.
How helpful is the concept of ‘generations’ really?
In the long article, Menand lays out the history of our obsession with generations, explaining that the impulse to divide people into these groups sprung up in the 1940s when young people started staying in education longer. ‘Youth culture’ was born and with it the impulse to define each new cohort in order to sell them stuff.
Generations are just a convention we cooked up to make conversations about sociology and marketing easier. But do these terms actually help us understand anything more clearly? Menand wades through several books on the issue to conclude that generations aren’t actually all that helpful.
First, generations are incredibly diverse, and when we start talking about ‘Gen Z’ for instance, what we usually really mean is a particular type of young person who is not representative of the group as a whole. “A woman born to an immigrant family in San Antonio in 1947 had very different life chances from a white man born in San Francisco that year. Yet the baby-boom prototype is a white male college student wearing striped bell-bottoms and a peace button, just as the Gen Z prototype is a female high-school student with spending money and an Instagram account,” Menand points out.
Second, people’s concerns and character change consistently across life stages. Teenagers obsess about identity. Young adults fret about paying their rent. Becoming a parent makes you more risk averse. These effects often get conflated with ‘generational’ trends.
Finally, there is simply no evidence for a lot of the differences ascribed to generations. In his book The Generation Myth, King’s College London social scientist Bobby Duffy uses data to show that “people in different age groups are much more alike than all the talk about generations suggests,” Menand reports. “There is no evidence, he says, of a ‘loneliness epidemic’ among young people, or of a rise in the rate of suicide. The falling off in sexual activity in the United States and the U.K. is population-wide, not just among the young.” Gen Z is no more ethical than previous young people. Verifiable workplace differences among generations are non-existent–an important notion to keep in mind when you’re leading a team of employees with a range of ages.
Things change, but maybe not because of ‘generations.’
Clearly, particular fashions belong to particular moments and cultures shift over time. When I entered adulthood only 35 percent of Americans supported same sex marriage. Now something like 60-70 percent do, depending on which poll you consult. Changes like that call out for explanations. But do generations really help us understand the rise and fall of ideas? Or is talking about generations just a way to sell consulting services and give us the illusion of order in an unruly world (much like listicles, astrology, and Myers Briggs)?
My particular odd birth year has long made me skeptical of talk of generations. I was happy to learn there’s plenty of evidence that slicing and dicing age groups actually doesn’t teach us much of anything useful after all.