When is it accurate, and therefore acceptable, to generalize about generations? Are stereotypes about Greatest/Traditionalist Generations, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials valid, or do they instead promote misunderstanding, polarization, and ageism?
I’ve been wrestling with these two questions for quite a while, but more particularly since I returned from a conference at which I gave a presentation called “In Other Words: Transforming the Language of Ageism.” It was a wonderful time full of great energy. While my talk focused on rethinking how aging is perceived and how older adults are negatively impacted by ageist language found in the media, the workplace, and in institutional models of care, the participants and I also discussed how ageism can be aimed in the opposite direction, with Millennials most often targeted.
When the session was over, a number of participants thanked me for tackling the important subject of ageism toward elders. But what surprised and touched me were the number of Millennials who also came up to me to thank me for speaking to their experiences.
It’s clear that ageism is everywhere and hurting everyone and that we need to do all that we can to eliminate it. Involved in this commitment to disrupt aging and ageism is the need to ask an important question: Is there a way in which the differences in our ages really do matter? If so, how?
I think I’ve come up with an answer. Yes, generations are different, not because their members differ from one another as biological human beings, but rather, because of the events and external pressures each group experienced in their formative childhood and teen years and the ways in which most of them adapted to such influences. Let me explain.
My father was a member of the Greatest Generation and my mother, the Traditionalist (Silent) Generation. The most influential events of their formative years were the Great Depression and the two World Wars. As a result, they and their society adapted by embodying frugality, intense patriotism, responsibility to community, commitment to marriage and family, strong religious faith and work ethic, and optimism about the future.
I’m a Baby Boomer. My generation grew up in an affluent America of the 1950s through ’70s. We were the first children to be the recipients of direct marketing (Saturday morning TV cartoons, superhero toys, etc.) and to be the center of social attention. Our general response was to see an unbridled future of possibilities (space travel, the Peace Corps) and ourselves as the movers, shakers, and reformers of social values at every stage in our lifespan: during the Vietnam War, the rise of national feminism, the sexual revolution, environmentalism, and the expansion of the Civil Rights movement. We continue to carry with us our impulses toward equality and personal growth as we redefine aging as an asset rather than as a process of total decline.
The Gen Xers? They grew up during Watergate, the energy crisis, the end of the Cold War, increased incidence of divorce, economic downsizing and layoffs. As the first “latchkey” generation of single or two working parents, they learned early on how to take care of themselves and to distrust the effectiveness of social structures to provide for them. Their generational behaviors reflect independence, entrepreneurism, pragmatism, and skepticism.
And those “pesky” Millennials are the social media digital natives who have learned to negotiate their way through a nanosecond world of global communications, terrorist attacks, overscheduled lives, and helicopter parents. Growing up in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, they are self-confidently striving to rebalance society in more spiritual, tolerant, humane, and interdependent ways.
Now, of course, when speaking about members of any generation, it shouldn’t be said that all people in that cohort respond in all –– or any –– such characteristic ways. But an overwhelming pattern can be detected when examining their lives as a group. However, there are two important caveats: Populating every generation is a significant number of people who live in poverty and/or are subjected to racial, ethnic, sexual, or other discrimination that marginalizes them and reduces their chances of fully integrating into society as members of their generation. We must never forget this. In addition, there are members of every generation who, independent of poverty or discrimination, are outliers in their responses to the events and external influences in their lives.
That being said, do the above characterizations sound accurate? If so, and if it is reasonable to discuss generational differences in this way, how can we keep ourselves from falling into the trap of ageism?
I think the answer is to understand that generational traits can always be tempered by intergenerational experiences in which all of us can learn new ways to think and act in the world. For example, if I as a Boomer can seek out opportunities to be with Greatest/Traditionalist people, Gen Xers, and Millennials, I might be able to learn effective ways to become (respectively) a more responsible, pragmatic, and interdependent human being –– and maybe share ideas on how to keep fighting for equality while growing personally.
Generational traits are just that –– traits. They aren’t unalterable fingerprints nor are they placards to hold up with arrogant pride in protest of the viability and dignity of other generations. When we speak of generations, let’s do so without resorting to ageist attitudes or demeaning jokes. And let’s call out others who do.
If we fail to appreciate the ways in which every generation is different, we deny ourselves some valuable resources for expanding our understanding of what it means to be a human being –– of any age.