It’s Time to Stop Talking About “Generations”

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Source: The New Yorker

The discovery that you can make money marketing merchandise to teen-agers dates from the early nineteen-forties, which is also when the term “youth culture” first appeared in print. There was a reason that those things happened when they did: high school. Back in 1910, most young people worked; only fourteen per cent of fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds were still in school. In 1940, though, that proportion was seventy-three per cent. A social space had opened up between dependency and adulthood, and a new demographic was born: “youth.”

The rate of high-school attendance kept growing. By 1955, eighty-four per cent of high-school-age Americans were in school. (The figure for Western Europe was sixteen per cent.) Then, between 1956 and 1969, college enrollment in the United States more than doubled, and “youth” grew from a four-year demographic to an eight-year one. By 1969, it made sense that everyone was talking about the styles and values and tastes of young people: almost half the population was under twenty-five.

Today, a little less than a third of the population is under twenty-five, but youth remains a big consumer base for social-media platforms, streaming services, computer games, music, fashion, smartphones, apps, and all kinds of other goods, from motorized skateboards to eco-friendly water bottles. To keep this market churning, and to give the consulting industry something to sell to firms trying to understand (i.e., increase the productivity of) their younger workers, we have invented a concept that allows “youth culture” to be redefined periodically. This is the concept of the generation.

The term is borrowed from human reproductive biology. In a kinship structure, parents and their siblings constitute “the older generation”; offspring and their cousins are “the younger generation.” The time it takes, in our species, for the younger generation to become the older generation is traditionally said to be around thirty years. (For the fruit fly, it’s ten days.) That is how the term is used in the Hebrew Bible, and Herodotus said that a century could be thought of as the equivalent of three generations.

Around 1800, the term got transplanted from the family to society. The new idea was that people born within a given period, usually thirty years, belong to a single generation. There is no sound basis in biology or anything else for this claim, but it gave European scientists and intellectuals a way to make sense of something they were obsessed with, social and cultural change. What causes change? Can we predict it? Can we prevent it? Maybe the reason societies change is that people change, every thirty years.

Before 1945, most people who theorized about generations were talking about literary and artistic styles and intellectual trends—a shift from Romanticism to realism, for example, or from liberalism to conservatism. The sociologist Karl Mannheim, in an influential essay published in 1928, used the term “generation units” to refer to writers, artists, and political figures who self-consciously adopt new ways of doing things. Mannheim was not interested in trends within the broader population. He assumed that the culture of what he called “peasant communities” does not change.

Nineteenth-century generational theory took two forms. For some thinkers, generational change was the cause of social and historical change. New generations bring to the world new ways of thinking and doing, and weed out beliefs and practices that have grown obsolete. This keeps society rejuvenated. Generations are the pulse of history. Other writers thought that generations were different from one another because their members carried the imprint of the historical events they lived through. The reason we have generations is that we have change, not the other way around.

There are traces of both the pulse hypothesis and the imprint hypothesis in the way we talk about generations today. We tend to assume that there is a rhythm to social and cultural history that maps onto generational cohorts, such that each cohort is shaped by, or bears the imprint of, major historical events—Vietnam, 9/11, COVID. But we also think that young people develop their own culture, their own tastes and values, and that this new culture displaces the culture of the generation that preceded theirs.

Today, the time span of a generational cohort is usually taken to be around fifteen years (even though the median age of first-time mothers in the U.S. is now twenty-six and of first-time fathers thirty-one). People born within that period are supposed to carry a basket of characteristics that differentiate them from people born earlier or later.

This supposition requires leaps of faith. For one thing, there is no empirical basis for claiming that differences within a generation are smaller than differences between generations. (Do you have less in common with your parents than with people you have never met who happen to have been born a few years before or after you?) The theory also seems to require that a person born in 1965, the first year of Generation X, must have different values, tastes, and life experiences from a person born in 1964, the last year of the baby-boom generation (1946-64). And that someone born in the last birth year of Gen X, 1980, has more in common with someone born in 1965 or 1970 than with someone born in 1981 or 1990.

Everyone realizes that precision dating of this kind is silly, but although we know that chronological boundaries can blur a bit, we still imagine generational differences to be bright-line distinctions. People talk as though there were a unique DNA for Gen X—what in the nineteenth century was called a generational “entelechy”—even though the difference between a baby boomer and a Gen X-er is about as meaningful as the difference between a Leo and a Virgo.

You could say the same things about decades, of course. A year is, like a biological generation, a measurable thing, the time it takes the Earth to orbit the sun. But there is nothing in nature that corresponds to a decade—or a century, or a millennium. Those are terms of convenience, determined by the fact that we have ten fingers.

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