Judging Generations

Recently, the University of Michigan came out with the Generation X Report. It’s surprisingly upbeat about us young whippersnappers.

But I still get kind of annoyed at anything that purports to analyze or judge a generation. I think I’ve got good reason. People love to judge Generation X, and almost all of the judgments are only slightly to the polite side of “defective.” And I came into this world near the arbitrary cusp between Gen-X and Gen-Y, so I’ve been hearing how terrible I am since I was about 7.

It continues today, often in absurd ways. On many occasions I’ve had colleagues denigrate “what we have to do for you kids these days” with a well-practiced put-upon sigh and stinkeye combo. As this includes things like “having a web site”, it’s hard to take it too seriously. Except that I have to; some of these old vs. new battles have had really harsh consequences for my career (being right about whether the internet matters can hurt you if people with power over you are wrong) which I’m only now finding ways to rectify.

So I have a few reactions when people want to tell me all about what Generation X–or any other generation–is like. First is the observation that bias in this matter is impossible to avoid. All people are a part of a generation, and they’ll naturally base their views of correctness on their own ideals. The trouble is, when it comes to views  “prevailing” frequently has little to do with “right.”

Second is to point out that these judgments overemphasize differences. They have to — “Old people and young people fundamentally pretty similar” isn’t nearly as compelling copy as “7 ways these alien children are going to destroy the world.”

Third is to question the value of these broad generational descriptions at all. Even if they’re well-intentioned (and having been written off as a lazy, shiftless slacker from the time I was in elementary school, I certainly wonder about that), do they have any value? Nobody works with a stereotype of a generation; they work with real live unique individuals. It’s going to be a lot more effective to talk to (and listen to) them than to view them as a foreign species that can only be studied in the pages of National Geographic.

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