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The Dangers of the Generation Myth

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Everyone remembers the 2019 “OK Boomer” meme which poked fun at older generations for misunderstanding Millennial and Gen Z culture. While the “OK Boomer” meme is a trivial example of how our society recognizes generational differences, it actually reflects a much bigger issue — society’s obsession with separating people. Segregating diverse groups of people generationally to social stereotypes overlooks the other social, economic and political factors that account for people’s varying experiences. 

Society’s fascination with generations first began with sociologist Karl Mannheim and his 1928 essay on the “theory of generations.” The premise of this theory is that pivotal historical events heavily shape the traits, values and attitudes of the people living in that period. For example, people will argue that the Great Depression, the events of 9/11 and more recently COVID-19 have generational impacts. 

The generation theory has no biological basis and has far less importance in deciding our personal differences than many people think. Each generation is defined as roughly 30 years apart and assigned the widely known names of the Silent Generation, the Baby Boomers, Millennials and Generation Z.  Studies have failed to show that a generation gap even exists. A 2012 meta-analysis of 20 studies examining generational differences in work values only found small and inconsistent differences between age groups.

The focus on generational differences distorts public thinking, ultimately pinning us against one another and causing tensions and animosity around issues that we need to be united on.

For example, there is a prominent misconception that younger generations are raging eco-warriors on the topic of the climate crisis, while older generations are uncaring and complicit with the degradation of our natural resources. A recent U.K. study shows that there are little to no differences between older and younger generations regarding their engagement with climate action. The study even found that in their sample, older people were more likely to act in environmentally conscious ways than young people.

Professor Bobby Duffy, author of “The Generation Myth,” states in a Prospect op-ed that the role of the generation myth has “crept into so many discussions about climate concern that it’s become an accepted truth that the young are at war with older generations who are not only utterly unfussed about the future of the planet, but are culpable for the current crisis.” 

Despite these findings, we still see this misconception repeated all over the media. Popular U.S. pop artist Billie Eilish told New Music Express in 2019, “Hopefully the adults and the old people start listening to us [about the climate crisis]. Old people are gonna die and don’t really care if we die, but we don’t wanna die yet.” Even reputable Time Magazine plays into the generational myth when they named Greta Thunberg as person of the year in 2019 for being the “standard bearer in a generational battle.”

We also see the generation myth present in our social behaviors during the pandemic, where the older generations are seen as the victims of the virus and the younger generations as the perpetrators. This creates flawed thinking that results in unwanted animosity during a time when unity is a necessity. 

As the virus poses a greater risk to older people, lockdown became known as a policy enacted to to protect the vulnerable elderly. In sociologists Jennie Bristow and co-author Emma Gilland’s 2020 book “The Corona Generation: Coming of Age in Crisis,” they argue that the prospect of health services being overwhelmed from COVID-19 patients “present the elderly as a burden on the system, who have a moral responsibility not to get sick.” 

In contrast, Bristow and Gilland also observe that young people are seen as irresponsible actors and “viral super spreaders.” This even went as far as teens reporting that they experienced older adults intentionally distancing themselves from them specifically because of the irresponsible and superspreader stereotype. Ultimately, Bristow and Gilland share that the generational wars perspective excludes the nuances of how the pandemic affects class differences and instead puts the blame for COVID-19 on different age groups.

Rather than focusing on simplified, deterministic generational groupings, the discussion should focus on more continuous and multidimensional processes. Aside from the minimal evidence supporting the generation myth, judgement based on vague generational stereotypes are alienating people who don’t fit the label. We need to redirect the talk of generations away from stereotypes and towards the harm it perpetuates.

Erika Cao is an Opinion Intern for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at caoea@uci.edu.