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Opinion

Let's Climb Out of The Generation Trap

Why this ageism authority wants us to use "generation" less. A lot less.

By Ashton Applewhite

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.

A boomer adult and a millennial young adult. Generation gap, multigenerational, Next Avenue
Credit: Getty

The word sure comes in handy. Belonging to a generation contributes to a sense of personal and collective identity and belonging to something larger than ourselves. 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!

Because it's vague, convenient and ubiquitous, "generation" is easy to use — and misuse.

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.

Why Viewing People By Their Generation Can Be Ageist

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. (Talkin' to you, author of "OK Boomer, Let's Talk.")

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.

Generation Bashing Goes in Both Directions

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.

Thinking in generational terms obscures the far larger role that class, race and gender play in shaping our lives.

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.

What Matters More Than Age

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.

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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.

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.

Historical events that mark boundaries between life stages may not be shared by everyone in the same age group.

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 and Millennials as white and middle class, but many 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.

How to Think Less Generationally

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 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 marketers, reactionaries and vested interests — but not Perennials — or the public good.

Ashton Applewhite
Ashton Applewhite was Next Avenue's Influencer in Aging of the Year in 2016. She is the author of "This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism," blogs at ThisChairRocks.com, and is a leading spokesperson for a movement to make ageism as unacceptable as any other prejudice. Read More
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