Words by Ana Kinsella.
Internet culture and the conflict-hungry media have reinforced generational stereotypes: Millennials love avocadoes, Baby Boomers love moaning about Millennials and Gen Zers are either revolutionary activists or phone addicts with goldfish memories—it depends who you ask. But can a group of people born within a few decades of each other truly have a common cause? Ana Kinsella digs deep into the archaeology of age groups, and discovers a system of tribal allegiance that is more about what you’re not than what you are.
Millennials find humor in the way their parents use the internet. Note the recent success of “A group where we all pretend to be boomers”—a Facebook group with almost 300,000 members—where millennials derive pleasure from posting like their elders do. Sample post: Stare At A Sunset And Ask “How Can Anyone Not Believe In God???” Sample comment on that post: This is what I keep telling Karen! Clearly, there’s a rich seam of comedy to be found in the gap between generations. Without the generation gap there are no generations, or at least no broadly defined groups of people determined by age as well as by idiosyncratic associated traits. We define ourselves in opposition to those who came before us.
The media finds shorthand ways of summing up any given cohort: Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) are into avocado toast and flexible work; Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) cling to authenticity and an outdated fear of selling out; Boomers (born between 1944 and 1964) love work and lack tech literacy. One thing evident from all the memes and the Facebook groups is that we like the safety provided by these labels. Even when millennials rail against the articles that paint them as lazy, they’re still eager to be acknowledged for the traits that they might share. It’s sociology as astrology: the thrill of self-recognition coupled with the desire for relatability. The generation game is just another way of organizing basic human relations in a complex world.
But this is just easy stereotyping to avoid the real point. In reality, each generation is defined by the material conditions around it: Millennials aren’t preprogrammed to love avocados and precarious work. They’ve been conditioned to love them.
That’s the crux of the argument in Malcolm Harris’ book Kids These Days (2017), an analysis of the social and economic conditions that make millennials who and what they are. “As a materialist, I always look to the relations of production in order to understand social phenomena,” the author explains. “Generations are a byproduct of those relations at a particular time.” Kids These Days points out that generations are characterized primarily by crises, whether that’s a market downturn or a political revolution; for millennials, the combination of accelerated capitalism followed by the 2008 financial crisis proved to be a defining moment.
This argument was foreshadowed by the pop sociologists William Strauss and Neil Howe, who developed a generational theory during the 1990s that remains a part of the contemporary debate. The Strauss-Howe theory views American history in generational terms. In their 1997 book, The Fourth Turning, the authors state that history moves in 80-year cycles. Within those cycles, 20-year generations coincide with historical events in patterns that repeat over time. In short, history and its actors are destined to repeat themselves.
It’s a controversial theory—The Fourth Turning, with its insistence on the inevitability of crisis and collapse, is noted as a favorite of former Trump strategist Steve Bannon—and not without its critics. In 2017, The New York Times wrote that many academics “dismiss [The Fourth Turning] as about as scientific as astrology or a Nostradamus text.” Yet its sequence of generational archetypes—Boomers as the Prophet, Generation X as the Nomad and Millennials as the Hero—has helped move discussion about generations from a tactic of the marketing industry to common parlance. But Harris says, “It’s important to think of generational relations in specific terms and not be tempted to fall back on past patterns.” He continues, “This is not the ’60s! Not everything exists in relation to the ’60s. That is an error of baby boomer thought which they have tried to impose on the rest of us.”
Still, there are some patterns that do repeat. For instance, as long as there have been people with children, there have been parents lamenting how the kids are just plain different. The moral panics that accompany millennials in the press—that they’re lazy or work-shy, that technology has broken them—are simply rehashed versions of arguments that have been aimed at young people for decades. So if a pattern does exist between generations, it’s because the base mechanism of how a generation defines itself is what repeats. One generation makes a right old mess of things, and the next generation arrives just in time to clean it up—or at least, to figure out new ways to live with the mess. We learn from the attitudes of those who came before, and we use that to define ourselves in opposition to them.
“As long as there have been people with children,
there have been parents lamenting how the kids are just plain different.”
Maybe that’s why every generation seems to consider themselves truly distinct. The crisis that defines your cohort, whether the Great Depression and World War II for the so-called Greatest Generation, or the global economic downturn as experienced by millennials, forces your grouping to adapt and find a way to survive.
So what does that entail for Generation Z—those born between 1997 and 2012? Harris thinks it may be too early to call. “The useful research I’ve seen on post-millennials mostly points toward them having lower expectations with regard to their life outcomes as compared to the ‘Win win win!’ millennials,” he notes. According to Petah Marian, senior editor for trend forecasters WGSN, this means a state of prolonged emergency and anxiety. “We were initially defining this generation based on how they experienced the internet and technology,” she says. “But now the primary crises that are defining Gen Z are the climate crisis and, in the US, school shootings. When we consider what their lives and attitudes might look like in the future, we’re really considering what impact being in a state of perpetual anxiety or concern will have, not only on physical body chemistry but also on how people will want to live.”
Marian thinks that at the very least, Gen Z might be able to learn something from the mistakes of the millennials who preceded them. “Where for millennials there was an expectation that the capitalist system would work in their favor, Gen Z harbors no such illusions,” she says. “This is a generation that is not looking to rely on those traditional systems to help create a better future—this is what’s driving their activism and their entrepreneurialism.”
Those low expectations will serve them well when dealing with what’s ahead. Between the climate emergency, a lurch to nationalist populism and the looming threat posed by automation, the future doesn’t paint a very optimistic picture. Let’s hope this new generation can make something out of the mess that has been left for them. At the very least, we can expect some interesting memes to come from it.