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9 April 2022

Should we stop talking about “generations”?

The problem isn’t giving birth cohorts colloquially recognisable labels – it’s misusing them.

By Jonn Elledge

“Generation X is weird,” a bafflingly viral Twitter thread recently began. “These 42-57 year-olds are so strange it presents golden opportunities.” If you’re wondering how an entire birth cohort can count as strange – especially the one currently in its forties and fifties, which is, let’s be honest, not exactly the freakiest decades – then I have some news for you: I’ve read the thread, and I don’t know either.

Many Gen Xers, apparently, were children of divorce, and thus yearn for “independence to get it done their way”. You should send your Generation X colleagues well-written emails, because they remember life before the internet and thus go wild for a well-located comma. They want a work-life balance, they want to know who is in charge, and they want to be treated as individuals “not as part of a tribe (millennials) or institution (boomers)”. Generation X, it turns out, is very, very special indeed. And Generation X has had it with being ignored in the interminable generational discourse.

Michael Girdley, the author of this thread, is a Texan business guru, so if it reads as nonsense perhaps it’s because of North American experiences that just don’t apply on this side of the pond. (Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel Generation X, which popularised the term, is about a bunch of disillusioned dropouts living in a desert, not something I recall being a big theme of the Major years.) 

Then again, maybe it just is nonsense. Generational commentary often is. Millennials have not killed the mayonnaise or diamond industries, and if they’re not spending enough money it’s because they don’t have it. And not every boomer owns a massive house with two or three rental properties to spare, as a sampling of that generation are kind enough to remind me whenever I write about them.

And yet. I’m not convinced by the backlash against generational commentary either, and in dismissing these labels as meaningless, I think we may be drifting into baby/bathwater territory. Just because those words are misused, that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful.

Consider “periodisation”, the seemingly universal impulse to split history into discrete blocks and give them names. The thing we call medieval England is generally agreed to cover the period between the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the end of the Wars of the Roses in 1485. After that comes something else: the Tudor period, the Renaissance, early modern England.

This is obviously a dramatic oversimplification – there were continuities between 1484 and 1486, not least in the “people trying to overthrow the king” area; the people of England did not, on laying Richard III to rest beneath his car park, suddenly shed their suits of armour in favour of Tudor costume, complete with decorative feather and ruff. Nonetheless, the late medieval and Tudor periods feel like meaningfully different things. Those labels can be useful, just so long as we don’t mistake a blurry transition for a cliff edge.

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The process of dividing and labelling generations serves much the same function. Someone born in 1970 will likely have had different experiences of education/housing/the internet from someone born in 1990. That’s not to claim that everyone in a cohort will have had identical experiences, regardless of gender, race or class; it certainly doesn’t mean that people born in 1979 are radically different to those born in 1981, just because they happen to fall either side of a fairly arbitrary line. But still, done carefully, it’s reasonable to generalise about a cohort, and if we’re going to do that we might as well have a shorthand for doing it.

So why do conversations about generations tend to end up in such acrimony? Partly because the 20-ish year blocks are probably too long to be meaningful to those of us who live in them, even if they’ll one day be useful to historians. (Hilariously, the Generation X author Coupland was born in 1961, making him a late boomer). Partly because it’s in the nature of generalisations that they don’t apply to everyone, and if you’re the Jeremy Corbyn-voting baby boomer still renting your home it’s inevitably going to sting to be told that the past decade of Tory government and house price inflation are all your lot’s fault. 

But mostly, I think, it’s because those conversations speak to matters of identity. They make political arguments about broad social trends feel like they’re about us. If anyone who had lived through the Battle of Bosworth Field was still alive, I’m sure they’d be using Twitter to explain how it wasn’t that big a deal and actually they saw themselves as much more of a late medievalist than a Tudor, too. 

This, to me, feels less like an argument against giving birth cohorts colloquially recognisable labels, than against misusing them to turn every conversation about public policy into a conversation about ourselves. The problem, as ever, isn’t the tools, but the way that we use them. 

Then again, as a typical Xennial, whose parents divorced but who got online early and absolutely loves a well-used semicolon, I would think that, wouldn’t I?

[See also: For British millennials there’s no end to the bad times]

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