Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.
OK boomers. KK millennials. Whatevs, Gen Xers. Can we please stop talking about generations? Because here’s the 411 (if that’s incomprehensible, jump to slang point below). All you pundits, lifestyle journalists and cultural-shorthand trolls out there in popular-explanation-land: Generations are not a thing. They do not exist.
I know, I know: How can you even say that when we talk about generations all the time! Boomers are rich and overprivileged. They’re ruining the environment and hogging health care. Millennials are lazy and overprivileged. They won’t come to work on time or learn grammar. Gen-grievance claims have no end.
But these are baseless generalizations, which create fake and harmful categories, with rigid designations enjoying no basis in science, logic or demographic reality. Birthplace, birth-order, gender, class and nationality have far more impact on your life chances and outcomes than the year of your birth. It’s as if we all decided to treat left-handedness as a fate-determining feature.
Oh wait – we already did that. That’s why adroit and dexterous are good, and sinister is bad. My friend David, the most talented mathematician I’ve ever known, was whacked with a wooden ruler every time he wrote an equation with his left hand. That was the 1970s, which now seem like the Middle Ages.
That dates me, of course. I laughed when I saw an SUV’s spare-tire cover with an illustration of a six-speed shift and the caption “This vehicle equipped with anti-millennial theft device.” But the truth is that even most people my age can’t operate a manual transmission. Lots of them don’t even know how to drive automatic. I learned from rental cars that car keys belong to the past, with fobs and buttons now ruling ignition. But then so did my stepdaughter, who is not yet 30.
How is something not a thing when it clearly appears to be one? David Costanza, writing in Slate last year, put it this way: “It is important to be clear what not a thing means. It does not mean that people today are the same as people 80 years ago or that anything else is static. Times change and so do people. However, the idea that distinct generations capture and represent these changes is unsupported.”
He might have gone farther. When people believe a non-thing is a thing, and then talk about it as real, it becomes a kind of thing. Genetically speaking, race is not real, but of course its cultural and political impact is massive. When a non-thing orders behaviour, it becomes something, often bad: a social construct, a frame of reference, a basis for hatred. But these ideas are without real foundation, and should be abandoned.
I have another gifted friend who is addicted to categories. He has comprehensively microanalyzed generations and decades so that (I think) he can keep a tidy conceptual hold on the world. According to him, because I was born in 1963, I’m an OGXer – that’s Original Generation X, not the fakers who came later in the sixties. I know how to cook, I can change a tire and I remember Patty Hearst’s SLA nickname. This puts me in some nice company, alongside the man who actually created the Gen X label, Douglas Coupland.
People forget that Mr. Coupland’s novel was a satire, not a sociological tract. His bleak coinages about office work – “veal-fattening pen” for fabric-sided cubicles, say – were just the beginning of a brilliant career of artistic subversion. Today’s gig economy, which disproportionately afflicts the young without bank accounts and mortgages, supports similar neologisms.
You don’t get young people’s slang? That’s because all slang is designed to be tribal and exclusionary. It’s all squad goals! And so it dates really fast. That’s straight-up, hep-cats. Is this column lit, or extra, or dope? (Nope, none of the above.) Are you ratchet? Not even. Bye Felicia. Et cetera.
The point isn’t to deny that there are differences and similarities in outlook depending on age. Of course there are. But those differences and similarities exist for everything. I recognize Mr. Coupland’s references and enthusiasms as much because we both grew up as white, male, nerdy, Canadian air force brats as because we were born a couple of years apart.
All generational thinking is toxic media property, bogus exposure of everything and nothing. Some birth realities are subject to genuine social-justice efforts, including the future humans who can’t yet even fend for themselves. How about we start dealing with that instead?
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