Use better social science categories than “generations”

Millennials, Boomers, the Silent Generation, Gen Y, etc. are all categories that people generally think describe real phenomena. But, are they useful categories for describing patterns within American society?

Photo by Sarah Chai on Pexels.com

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…

In any case, “explaining” people by asking them what they think and then repeating their answers is not sociology. Contemporary college students did not invent new ways of thinking about identity and community. Those were already rooted in the institutional culture of higher education. From Day One, college students are instructed about the importance of diversity, inclusion, honesty, collaboration—all the virtuous things that the authors of “Gen Z, Explained” attribute to the new generation. Students can say (and some do say) to their teachers and their institutions, “You’re not living up to those values.” But the values are shared values…

In other words, if you are basing your characterization of a generation on what people say when they are young, you are doing astrology. You are ascribing to birth dates what is really the result of changing conditions.

As this piece notes, popular discourse often treats generations as monolithic blocks. Everyone in a particular generation has similar experiences, outlooks, values. Is this actually true? Or, are other social forces at work including changing conditions, lifecourse changes, social markers like race, class, and gender, and more?

I remember seeing earlier this year an open letter from social scientists to Pew Research asking them to discontinue using generation categories. This is one way that change could occur: researchers working in this area can replace less helpful categories with more helpful ones. This could be scientific progress: as our understanding of social phenomena develops, we can better conceptualize and operationalize these. With sustained effort and keeping up with changes in society, we could see a shift in how we talk about differences between people born at different times.

Yet, this also takes a lot of work. The generations labels are popular. They are a convenient shorthand. People in the United States are used to understanding themselves and others with these categories. Sociological categories are not always easy to bring to the public nor do they always find acceptance.

At the least, perhaps we can hope for fewer articles and opinions that broadly smear whole generations. Making hasty or less than accurate generalizations is not helpful.

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