Let’s Get Rid of Generations, OK Boomer?
Don’t take offense to Gen Z’s hashtag. They’re actually onto something.
Phew. Glad we’re not there.
Here’s the thing I discovered after spending three years working on a book about generational warfare: I’m not sure I even believe in the idea of generations to begin with. This might sound like Gladwellian contrarianism, but bear with me for a moment. The very idea of generations has been around for millennia. The word appears all over the King James Version of the Bible, though the Hebrew word translators turned into “generations,” tolodot, probably means something more like “stories.” As Joan Didion said, we tell ourselves stories in order to live. The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, writing in the early 1930s, put forward a “theory of generations,” considering the influence of generations as a result of an “inexorable chain” of human of interactions tied to his early belief in phenomenology. Hard to argue with, but hard to make much of, either. Of course there are humans who sort and group based on their ages. And to be certain, there’s such thing as a cohort — a group of people who were born roughly the same year as you. But to try to make a coherent argument past that, that there are groups of people who think and believe the same things over years, is, to my mind, a fool’s errand.
I’m not to the first to think this. In his seminal 1927 essay “The Problem of Generations,” German sociologist Karl Mannheim takes up the question and lands somewhere similar. In considering the relative difficulty of making much hay of the idea of a generation, he concludes that “the medium of such realization… is not unitary Zeitgeist but rather one or the other of the concrete trends prevailing at a given time.” Which is to say he believes more than me that there’s such a thing as generations, but not by much. Perhaps even more useful, early in the essay he unpacks the 18th century British philosopher David Hume on the idea. Hume felt that while the idea of a generation might apply to “a butterfly or caterpillar, so that the older generation disappears at one stroke and new one is born all at once,” this isn’t how humans further their race. “Only because mankind is as it is — generation following generation in a continuous stream… do we find it necessary to preserve the continuity of our forms of government.”
Blurriness is a terrible foundation for thought — or revolution, for that matter.
And about that government. What put the nail in the coffin for me of this idea of generations, the way we tend to use that term, came when I read the way the most craven writers of our age tended to use it. Much was made in 2016 of Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s love of a book called The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe. These writers authored a series of books, starting with Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, that purports to be a kind of prophecy based on the idea that following each generation’s cyclical qualities, we can predict cultural future. Their arguments amount to a kind of snake oil. Sample sentence: “In this book, we describe the ‘peer personality’ of your generation. You may share these attributes, some of them, or almost none of them. Every generation includes all kinds of people.” It leaves you desperate for a shot of CBD oil, stat. Perhaps the best antidote to this slippery thinking is the father of that idea of “cohorts” I mentioned above, Norman Ryder. Longtime professor of sociology at Princeton, Ryder began reimagining demography studies in the ’40s and ’50s, and by the 1960s (peak boomerism!) had begun publishing regularly on the idea that people born in cohorts, in roughly the same year, could be studied with far greater accuracy than the hazy “generationist” idea. In his 1965 article “The Cohort as a Concept in the Study of Social Change” a classic of the subject, he writes: “Generationists have leaped from inaccurate demographic observation to inaccurate social conclusion without supplying any intervening causation.” He goes on to call their work “arithmetical mysticism.” Ouch.
As Ryder reminds us, cohort-driven demographers can surely use cohorts to present far more useful statistical analyses than generationists — and yet the latter persist. A 2018 report by Bain & Company received much attention for predicting the conflict the #OKBoomers are just now turning into noise. “The baby boomer generation,” the report states, “powered a long but temporary surge in labor force growth. Now this group is moving into retirement, and labor force growth is slowing.” Late in their report on the coming conflict between boomer retirees and millennial adults, the folks at Bain imagine “increasing demand for multigenerational homes… The combination of rising income and wealth inequality… rais[ing] questions about how resources are divided between baby boomer retirees and working age millennials.”
One thing that does come out of boomer-era hucksters like Strauss and Howe, or overbroad reports like Bain’s, is that baby boomers themselves are the closest to a definable group we’ve had or will have. There are identifiable cohorts in there, and they can be strung together. Probably that’s part of the problem, part of the reason generationism persists. The greatest generation, the Gen Xers, millennials — none are nearly so neatly defined by their birth years, causing the line between cohort and generation to blur. But blurriness is a terrible foundation for thought — or revolution, for that matter.
So the Gen Zers, long may they reign, cohort by cohort, have the most credibility of any of us when they try to identify a boomer zeitgeist. Who could blame them for their insistence on being granted the microphone at this point? My own favorite anecdote in literary history shares some affinity with their instincts: In October 1902, when James Joyce was just 20, he met William Butler Yeats. At the time Yeats was the most famous writer in Ireland, and nearly twice Joyce’s age. The iconic poet was making a trip to Dublin, and a mutual friend was desperate for the two to meet. When they did, Joyce said, right to the master’s face: “We have met too late. You are too old for me to help you.” Or to put it a little differently: OK boomer.