Stating your generation holds the same tone as stating your blood type or astrological sign. They are all things you can’t control, but they can help define you and even provide a sense of pride.
For instance, I’m a millennial Aquarius with type O-negative blood. Involuntarily, you may have formed an opinion about me based on this set of facts.
However, one way these identifiers differ is that blood type and astrological sign don’t typically inspire hostility from others who don’t share them (even if you’re an Aries and your date is a Capricorn).
On the other hand, generational labels are a way we define ourselves while simultaneously shaming others. People feel an obligation to defend and represent their generation in a way that doesn’t exist for other arbitrary labels.
Generational typecasting has the perceived effect of helping us understand the behavior of others. Baby boomers are perceived as hardworking but ultimately selfish and technologically challenged. Millennials are seen as narcissistic and lazy but ultimately adaptive. But like with all generalizations, most of these perceptions are false and lead to more distance between, rather than a better understanding of, one another.
Who belongs to each generation?
George Masnick, senior research fellow at the Harvard Joint Center of Housing Studies, is an expert on generational dividers and definers and has written about intergenerational relationships. He says the accepted amount of years that define generations started with baby boomers because they are defined by something very specific—the spike in birthing rates. This uptick happened from 1946 to 1964, nearly 20 years, which created a tidy timeframe by which to define other generations, even if their character traits were not as strong.
For example, Masnick says, there is nothing particularly compelling about Generation Xers, born between 1965 and 1985. Compared to the baby boomers, they are half the size, and there wasn’t much, economically or technologically, that defined them.
Australian research firm McCrindle also described Gen X in the least attractive terms, calling their influencers “pragmatic” and “practitioners” and their financial values as “medium-term goals” and “credit savvy.”
However, there are some cultural stand-outs that emerged with the Xers. They were the first kids to grow up in dual-income housing, which led to the term “latchkey kids” (meaning kids without adult supervision). In his book, X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking, author Jeff Gordinier noted that celebrities like Jon Stewart and Quentin Tarantino are both Xers and heavily influence the pop culture landscape. And, though not recognized for their technological savvy, Gen Xers were the first to grow up with the internet.
Today, many people claim to be Gen Xers simply because they don’t want to be lumped in with the negative stereotypes of millennials, who are the first generation after baby boomers that have strong, clear definers and have lived through significant, easily identifiable moments in history.
Born between 1984 and 2004, millennials were between ages 5 and 20 for 9/11 and, according to Pew Research Center, were old enough to understand the significance of the attacks. Many probably don’t even remember a time when wars were not being fought in both Iran and Afghanistan. The first time many millennials were eligible to vote, they had the option of electing a black president and were part of the youth force that did so.
Of course, a key definer of millennials is their perceived obsession with technology. “Millennials grew up in an age of iPhones and Twitter,” Masnick says. “They are able to access so much information through technology.”
Baby boomers grew up with the expansion of television, and Gen Xers grew up with the expansion of computer technology, but both generations’ main forms of communication were still telephone and face-to-face. Millennials grew up with the explosion of the internet, texting, tweeting, and meeting others through technology.
Millennials are also the most ethnically and racially diverse generation in American history, according to Pew. Older generations see their children interacting with cultures and technologies they aren’t familiar with, giving them the impression that the millennial experience is radically different from their own.
Another difference between millennials and their predecessors is their career paths. Because millennials entered the workforce during a recession, many of them have, in comparison to previous generations, delayed careers. According to a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 54 percent of young adults ages 18 to 34 were employed, the lowest it’s ever been since the government started collecting data in 1948. Additionally, 49 percent of young adults ages 18 to 34 said they took a job they didn’t want just to pay their bills, and 24 percent worked for no money at all to gain experience.
“It’s mostly just ignorance on the part of the baby boomers on how different the world is,” Masnick says. Boomers see those in their twenties and think they have a different set of values because they were buying houses, getting married, and holding secure jobs when they were that age. But all these things are happening for millennials, just about a decade later.
“In their twenties, they are not having kids, but a lot are having kids in their thirties,” he says. “A fairly high percent are having kids in their thirties but are doing it in a different way. They are not getting married, they are having kids first; they are in long-term relationships and get married after.”
According to the 2012 Pew Research Center report, 31 percent of millennials postponed marriage and having a baby because the weak economy led them to a more precarious career path, and one-fourth had to move back in with their parents at some point after graduating high school.
But despite these differences, Masnick says relations between generations have never been better. Kids have healthier and more communicative relationships with their parents than older generations had with theirs.
“I don’t think one group dismisses another,” Masnick says. “There is just misunderstanding or simply not understanding what is going on.”
Do the stereotypes hold up?
According to David Costanza, PhD, author of “Generations, Age, and the Space Between: Introduction to the Special Issue,” there is no science to back up the link between character traits and the year someone was born. For example, baby boomers see millennials as self-absorbed, but that trait could be assigned to any young person in any decade.
Baby boomers: Millennials are selfie obsessed narcissists.
Also baby boomers: *sends physical Christmas cards detailing successes of entire family with professional photos to everyone they’ve ever met*
— Andy Verderosa (@andyverderosa) December 26, 2017
“All young people are narcissists,” Costanza says. “But millennials 20 to 25 years old, based on the data, are not any more narcissistic than I was when I was 25. There is no scientific proof that backs up that any of the stereotypes associated with baby boomers, millennials, or Gen Xers are real.”
And while some detest being associated with their generation, others take pride in when they grew up. Just like when I meet another Aquarius and like to compare how much we align with the traits we are supposed to have, being part of the same generation as someone can lead to a quicker bond.
“It’s like a fraternity or a sorority,” Costanza says. “There are some positive aspects of things. I mean, some people are looking for an affiliation, and there are positive stereotypes.”
But what Costanza says is most interesting is that instead of pinning character traits to a person’s age, we like to attribute them to their generation. It would be just as easy to say that young people, as opposed to millennials, are self-absorbed, but we like to link traits to when someone was born, not what age they are right now. Like with any stereotypes, attaching traits to labels creates an excuse for misunderstanding someone without putting in the actual effort to communicate with them. It’s easier to say “the older generation doesn’t understand” than it is to make an honest effort at communication.
There is no doubt that marketers use age demographics to sell products, and sociologists segment populations to study the world, but what leads to the perceived contention?
Why is there a divide?
With such little evidence of truth behind these generational traits, who is fueling this segmentation? Why is there an ever-flowing stream of tweets pitting boomers and millennials against each other when, according to science and our everyday interactions, there actually isn’t much friction? Jennie Bristow, PhD, author of the book The Sociology of Generations: New Directions and Challenges, says generations do serve a purpose in our own psyche.
“The way I understand generations is that it is a concept,” she says. “It’s a way of people making sense of their moment in time.”
It’s also a way to connect with others and point to historical moments or influential pop culture references. For example, a frequent point of connection among millennials is how their parents pulled them out of their elementary school classroom on 9/11.
However, Bristow believes the segmentation of generations is predominantly negative, and much of it starts in the classroom. She says kids learn how to perceive and treat adults in their life from their teachers, and because education has changed, so has youth’s connection with older generations. For many kids, teachers, not parents, are their connection to the older generations. But as teaching has become more standardized and outcome-based, Bristow claims there is a loss of honest interaction between two people who grew up differently. “It makes it a bureaucratic process of managing and not a genuine generational process of education,” she says.
But ultimately, Bristow believes this war between the old and young is fabricated and fueled by politicians. “It’s a political- and policy-level attempt to manufacture a divide between older and younger generations for a particular kind of policymaking,” she says.
Blaming one generation for all the problems of today seems a fairly effective way gaining votes. Instead of pushing policies that foster coexistence, policymakers can extract and emphasize differences and use those differences to say one generation will become irrelevant if the desires of another are pursued.
“My overriding argument is that, at the moment, generational conflict is something that has been manufactured for instrumental ends,” Bristow says. Which perhaps answers the question of why this label is so much more divisive than any other.
Good morning! Don’t forget that the oldest Millennials are 38 at this point, so that snarky think piece you just wrote/read/shared is probably all wrong and just full of someone who hates the attributes of youth that have been a constant kind of since forever.
— Sam Sanders (@samsanders) July 24, 2018
Policymakers couldn’t really benefit from pitting an Aquarius against a Virgo. It would take some bold creativity to blame everyone with O-negative blood type for the economic crash. Politicians can, however, effectively benefit from the misunderstanding between generations, as it’s easy for older people to forget what it’s like to be young, and those who are young have no idea what it’s like to be older. It’s just as hard for baby boomers to place their memory of being young in today’s world as it is for younger generations not to think of the elderly as unadaptive and cranky. And as long as someone is benefitting from that friction, it will always exist.