Generational thinking is just a benign form of bigotrySiva Vaidhyanathan
I am a millennial. I know this because countless articles have asserted that I am one and who am I to disagree? If you were born during the period between 1980 and 2004, you’re one too.
If, on the other hand, you were a baby at any time between 1965 and 1980, you’re a part of Generation X, a group that gave us the logical musical combination of grunge, Britpop and the Spice Girls.
If you’re a child of the mid-to-late noughties or after, you’re part of Generation Z and people from older generations, myself included, are having trouble with the fact that you’re not a baby anymore.
So we’re all neatly divided out into generations, but does that actually mean anything, or are these titles just yet another lazy way to classify people? Does this have any effect on who we are as people, how we interact with our world, or how we work?
The Problem With Generations
Generation labels are, on the one hand, simply a convenient shorthand for talking about a group a people around the same age, who experience similar life milestones around the same time. But on the other, they can be a frustrating way to write off people as a homogenous group rather than addressing the complexities of larger societies.
In an excellent essay for Aeon magazine, Rebecca Onion writes, “The dominant US thinkers on the generational question tend to flatten social distinctions, relying on cherry-picked examples and reifying a vision of a ‘society’ that’s made up mostly of the white and middle-class.”
I would argue that we should be wary of labels, full-stop. When you brand a particular group of people for any reason – e.g. their generation, their gender, their religion – and expect certain behaviours from that group, we damage the beauty and depth of what it is to be a human being. But maybe that’s just my idealist, self-centred, individualist, millennial mindset speaking!
When it comes to work, these arbitrary labels allow management theorists and marketers to make blind assumptions about what motivates their employees and what kind of lives their staff envision for themselves, instead of just addressing people as sentient creatures capable of independent thought.
Because I was born as part of the same generation as the person who sits next to me, doesn’t mean that our motivations are the same, that how we think is the same, that our experience is the same. That said, I know that generations as a shorthand are here to stay. They’re easy, trendy, and good for sound-bites and headlines. Our own perceptions however, don’t have to be so narrow. Age has very little to do with what a person can achieve professionally and personally. Generational thinking makes us underestimate our colleagues, our bosses, our employees and ourselves.
On this point, Onion quotes Siva Vaidhyanathan: ‘Generational thinking is just a benign form of bigotry’, and this remains a very clear fact. Never mind #OscarsSoWhite – terms like ‘millennial’ and ‘baby boomer’ rarely take into account ethnically diverse communities, or people who grow up in impoverished neighbourhoods.
If we want our current and future societies to work for everyone, we need to address the needs of each person born into each generation, not just the ones who are rich enough or white enough to make the cut.