“Twelve Going on Thirty” OR “Is the Globe and Mail the Worst Newspaper Yet?”

16 Mar

What do I have in common with a 12-year-old? Other than being alive, right now, in the same world, I’d like to wager ‘not a whole lot.’

Yet psychologist Jean Twenge is working on the assumption that we share a generation, and for the Globe and Mail, it just might be “the worst generation yet”.

Twenge and her colleagues found that the vast cohort born between 1982 and 2000 (that is, people aged 12-30, including pre-pubescent people in junior high school, who daydream about Justin Beiber and were babies when the twin towers fell, as well as people who’ve been through medical school, who might remember the Berlin Wall, who might have school-aged children of their own) is “more civically and politically disengaged than Gen-Xers or baby boomers were at that age” and is “more focused on materialistic values and less concerned about helping the larger community.”

Now, I’m sure these researchers “controlled” for age with some fancy statistical manipulation, but I’m not buying it. The absurd practice of dividing population into aggregates, based on pre-determined birth-year intervals, and then examining the people in those aggregates to see what commonalities emerge, is a dangerous, misleading and divisive use of social science.

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Yet it’s widely condoned in sociology and psychology, and especially management science. It makes the world easier to deal with, conceptually, in neat little self-contained parcels, but the world isn’t a neat-little-parcel-kind-of-place. If you talk to ordinary people at length about what a generation is, as I have, you find that they recognize the slipperiness of the concept when it comes to actually applying it to the people around them in any uniform, final way. It’s a useful concept for describing patterns and social processes, and the wave-like introduction of new people and especially new ideas into our social worlds and cultural repertoires, but it makes a flimsy container for actual people. This is particularly the case when you try to shove a 28-year-old like me into the same box as a 12-year-old.

I remember being 12. All I wanted to do was play in the woods. I thought a mushroom cut was a good idea. I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian. I wished I was a cat. By 13, all I wanted to do was go to the mall, hang over the railings and whistle at boys. I didn’t think washing my hair was very important. I wanted to be a fashion designer. By 16, all I wanted to do was drive around yelling at pedestrians. I wouldn’t have been caught dead on a bicycle. I still wanted to be a fashion designer. By 20, I’d somehow ended up in university. All I wanted to do was make money so I could buy clothes. I thought wearing a red shirt with red boots and a red bag and getting into my red Hyundai Scoupe was fashionable and understated.

Until I was 20, I thought politics was a drag, I just wanted to be left alone to live my life, and I only really cared about myself and my tiny personal orbit. Today, all I want to do is put down roots and make a difference in a community. I ride my bicycle everywhere. I watch the news and I know about politics. I am different from all of those other selves, because I’ve aged, and because ageing in our contemporary age structure means moving through a whole series of constructed life stages, with all of their attendant expectations and norms and social pressures and constraints and enablements.

This isn’t to say that the idea of generations doesn’t have some use for understanding the complexity that arises where two different kinds of time – biographical and historical – intersect. What I am saying is that conflating that amorphous and messy idea with the idea of cohort (which is what we really mean when we point to shared birth years), as Susan McDaniel puts it, “while popularly engaging, is analytically imprecise, as well as misleading and socially divisive.”

This conflation is not the only problem with Twenge’s study and the Globe and Mail’s reporting of it. The other problem, just as ubiquitous as the first, is that the emphasis on the psychological traits of different cohorts of young people at different historical junctures eclipses the equally or more important role that socio-historical conditions play in shaping people’s lives and their very beings.

I have already written about this at length, here and here. I’ve tried to emphasize the socioeconomic and cultural factors that shape people’s responses and adjustments to things like work, community and politics. I’ve done this because the social, supra-individual aspect of so-called ‘generational differences’ is crucial for understanding why young people’s lives might play out differently from the lives of their parents and grandparents.

But, unfortunately, even though most psychology researchers will emphasize the impact of “culture,” it’s the psychopathology of generations that ordinary people, journalists especially, seem to latch onto. We like to think that the differences we call “generational” are primarily psychological, reducible to some whims and character traits that somehow come to characterize entire waves of people who share nothing for certain except a birth year (or an 18-year range, in this case).

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We also like to think we’re bearing witness to something entirely new – the “worst” generation, worse than all others before it – but a little humility is in order. Every so often – usually around periods of significant technological, social, economic and political change – the laser beam of public discourse zaps in on generations, and young people in particular, as the crucial fulcrum-point between the old and the new. It happened in the 1960s; that’s when The Gap, purveyor of fine khakis, got its name, from a popular book by the same name. It resurfaced with the artistic and literary “discovery” of Gen-X. It’s happening now, and it will most certainly happen again.

It might be time to unknot our underwear. Sure, it is the Globe’s style to pass off under-researched hyperbole as “controversy” – that’s how they justify Margaret Wente – but we’re not obligated to participate.

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One Response to ““Twelve Going on Thirty” OR “Is the Globe and Mail the Worst Newspaper Yet?””

  1. Beth March 21, 2012 at 5:11 pm #

    Love the images … and I’m tired of being referred to as selfish, materialistic and ‘disengaged’ too just because I fall into a particular age bracket (although to be clear, I was actually born in 1981–so does that mean I am suddenly valorized as a caring and politically active gen-xer? Funny thing is, if you went into the Globe and Mail archives, I bet you’d find plenty of articles referred to the lousy/lazy/ selfish generation x too. Seems like I recall hearing a lot of that when I was a kid.)

    And in terms of some grander implications of such horrendous generalizations, here’s a question: It seems to me I have frequently heard this rhetoric from not just your run of the mill old farts, but specifically the old white farts who, unfortunately or not, run our country. For instance, I have heard this same rhetoric being used to dismiss certain acts of political activism (i.e. Occupy), justify why the concerns of younger generations remain unaddressed (i.e. hiked tuition rates) and/ or explain low voter turn-out rates by the 30 and under crowd with the reasoning ‘well, they don’t really care about anything else except facebook and their iphones anyway’.

    What do you think? Is such rhetoric not simply lazy analysis, but yet another way of consolidating, maintaining and justifying political and economic power by a particular group of individuals who happen to fall into a particular age bracket (that seems to me, is neither generation x OR y I might add)?

    Thanks,

    Beth

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