One benefit of getting older…

12 May

…is that you age your way out of the generational gaze. You know the one. The one that fixes on everything younger than 30 or 40, and can’t see anything but narcissism, entitlement, deviance and degrading values.

I wrote this blog many months back, and a much shorter and slightly different version of it was published over on the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Centre’s blog. What didn’t make it into that version was a lengthy critique of some of the empirical evidence that today’s young people are more narcissistic / less community-minded than previous so-called generations of young people. I’ve been spurred to publish the longer blog by a recent flurry of articles (are we seriously doing this again?beginning with Joel Stein’s TIME magazine piece, ‘The Me Me Me Generation’.

Many others have already taken on Stein’s argument – my favourite is entitled ‘Every Every Every Generation has been the Me Me Me Generation’ by Elspeth Reeve – but I figure this is a pretty good opportunity to dust off a draft and save it from the trash folder. I confess I haven’t even read Stein’s piece. It’s behind a paywall so that only rich old Boomers can access it. I’ll read it next time I go to an airport and pretend I’m really going to by a magazine at the newsstand.

*If you want more of this, I have a whole book for you! Check out Generation, Discourse and Social Change (2013). Hit me up for a free copy, or check it out of a university library if you just can’t wait for the paperback version.

Le Blog:

“They want more. They always want more… they just expect more… they’re gratitude-less. They’re not grateful… you can never satisfy [them]. You offer something up and it becomes an expectation. There’s a real sense of—well, an entitlement.”

That was 50-something Penny, speaking to me in a research interview two years ago, about “the younger generation”. She had some first-hand experience with them, working at a software company where there had recently been a bit of an influx of twenty-something hires. I had asked her if she noticed any age-related differences among the people she worked with. She didn’t hesitate for a moment.

A quick survey of recent media opinion pieces, and especially the comments section of online newspapers, suggests that Penny’s take on Generation Y is the hegemonic view of today’s twenty- and early thirty-somethings.

When it comes to work, this view generally paints Generation Y as lazy and non-committal, yet with an overblown sense of “entitlement” about salary, time off, and career progression.

As recent graduates, they’re said to bring a sense of “credential arrogance” to the workforce, as one of my interviewees put it, believing that their post-secondary degrees, and not their performance, will confer seniority on them.

This same sense of entitlement is said to rear its ugly head in school, first, as exemplified by the student who claims to “deserve” a certain mark, regardless of effort.

In politics, too, Generation Y appears to be going about things all wrong. Low youth voter turnout numbers have led many pundits and ordinary people to declare this generation “apathetic” or “politically disengaged.”

These characterizations go hand-in-hand with the argument that previous generations had it worse. It usually goes something like this, mined from the actual comments section of a Huffington Post article:

“It was much harder in my day. We had to deal with things your lazy generation can’t imagine. We had the Cold War going on and were worried about nuclear weapons exploding any day. You read about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Well I lived through it and you have no idea how it feels to have a bunch of nuclear weapons aimed at you. You have to go to University to get a job big deal. You didn’t have World War 2 going on like my father. He was dodging bullets and mortars in Europe while you worry about Black Friday or what the latest gizmo is. I lived through 18% mortgage rates. People declaring bankruptcy by the thousands. Families leaving the keys in the house because of banks foreclosing. Every generation has its own unique set of circumstances. Quit complaining and grow up.”

“Who had it tougher? Those who fought and died to give you the rights you take for granted, and worked to create an economy you feel a false entitlement to enter from the top.”

“The Boomers, of which I am one, worked for things and over the years upgraded to get where they wanted to be. What I see now are Gen Xs wanting/having everything right from the get-go. They want BIG houses, brand new cars (and 2 or 3 of them), big boats, designer clothes, etc. My parents didn’t buy anything they couldn’t pay cash for, my generation were willing to go in the hole; however, not to the depths that you see now. Quite frankly, I couldn’t sleep at night with that kind of debt load. These days you don’t see a high-schooler driving ‘a beater’ like we did.”

It doesn’t take much to recognize these rants for what they are: the old “uphill, barefoot, both ways to school” adage, just in a different form.

Yet, they continue to crop up everywhere, their authors apparently unaware of their unoriginality.

When Generation Y speaks back to these rants, as they often do, they point to stagnating wages, the expansion of non-permanent employment, abominable student debt, soaring house prices, the difficulties of making a dual-earner relationship work, post-secondary institutions that are bursting at the seams, the inflation of post-secondary degrees, and the overall uncertainty of our economies and labour markets, even in once-reliable sectors.

They are compelled to justify their expenses – ‘you need a smart phone in this day and age’; ‘I hardly spend anything at all on clothes and entertainment’ – and tally up their commitments, working hours, sacrifices and delayed gratification.

They explain the reality of temp work and unpaid internships, and the worry that these stations are not passing-points on the way to good careers, but whirlpools on a vast sea of crap jobs and unpredictable markets.

Even when they protest in the streets, as hundreds of thousands of young people did last year in Quebec’s “Maple Spring”, they’re told they should wait for an election, go to the polls, and change the world through democratic suffrage. When they say the choices on the ballot don’t reflect their values, they’re told to “start their own political party.” When they don’t, the prophecy is fulfilled: Millennials are apathetic and lazy.

The saddest part of these conversations, over and above the question of who’s right or wrong, is that they always descend into petty fights over who had it worse, and who is more virtuous for having survived and possibly thrived in their particular historical moment.

Also sad, for a sociologist who studies generations carefully and critically, is how the concept of generation becomes a tool for individualistic division and competition instead of an indicator of the importance of social, political economic, and historical context. Generation becomes a catch-all for every apparent (and usually anecdotal) schism, a way of setting “people your age” apart from “people my age”, without much attention at all to the contexts that make generation more than just age.

The “Science” of Generations?

Of course, not every apparently “generational” difference is purely anecdotal. Some of them are backed up by the scientific authority that comes along with “factor analysis” and “p values” and “regression models”.

Yet there’s a problem with the scientific “evidence” of generational difference: it’s wildly divergent. Over the last two decades, numerous quantitative studies have attempted to measure and compare the attitudes, beliefs, values, behaviours and personality traits of different generations. Some have found that the younger generation – X or Y, depending on the study date – is more environmentally and socially conscious, less materialistic, more community-minded and less cynical than the Boomers, while others have found the opposite.

Psychologist Jean Twenge has tried to settle the dispute once and for all, drawing on annual surveys of high school students and university entrants from the 1960s to the present.[1] Looking specifically at the surveys’ sections on “life goals, concern for others, and civic orientation”, Twenge and her colleagues attempted to compare levels of “community feeling”, “narcissism”, “empathy” and “civic engagement”, as well as the presence of “intrinsic” and “extrinsic life goals” across three generations: The Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y.

Their study concludes that today’s generation of young people is more “narcissistic” and less “empathetic” than previous generations, as evidenced in “lower levels of community feeling,”  “less intrinsic and more extrinsic life goals, less concern for others, and lower civic engagement.”[2]

Twenge has trumpeted these findings loudly and confidently in popular media. She has even produced a whole book called Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before. On its cover, a bare, tattooed midriff sits atop low-slung jeans, the physical manifestation of entitled narcissism, every parent’s – and a whole culture’s – worst fear.

But peppered throughout her otherwise authoritative writings are quiet warnings about the validity of her research findings. She admits, for example, that they must be “interpreted with caution” because many of them refer only to young people who enroll in a 4-year college degree. Moreover, the study design cannot differentiate between time period effects and generational effects – in other words, there is no way to tell whether the young Boomers surveyed in the 1960s actually held on to the same values as they aged. When one considers the dismantling of the welfare state in the US, Canada and the UK over the lifetimes of most so-called Boomers – the individualistic legacies of the popular Reagan, Mulroney and Thatcher governments – one might doubt the staying power of their communitarian, youthful values.

Another limitation is that the survey questions on which Twenge’s study is based were designed in, and mostly unchanged since, the 1960s. The meanings of many of the central concepts in those surveys – concepts like community, environment, society, and politics – are by no means static. They are historically contingent, shifting with our knowledge of the world around us, our reference points, and our ways of knowing, all of which have been transformed through processes of globalization, de-industrialization, and technological developments. The idea that we can measure “levels” of things like “community feeling” is questionable, especially when the very concept of community itself is socially constructed, or as Benedict Anderson put it, “imagined,” and imagined differently in different times and places.

But there is an additional problem. Twenge’s study does what nearly every other quantitative study (and many qualitative studies) of generation does: it begins from the unproven – and perhaps unprovable – assumption that generations are discrete, definitive categories of people, whose boundaries can be determined in advance based on birthdate alone.

It thus commits what we might call an a priori fallacy: it starts with an answer, not a question. It starts, confidently and un-reflexively, with the boxes – Boomers in Box Number 1, Generation X in Box 2, Generation Y in Box 3, and then sets out to organize data into these pre-fabricated containers.

The thing is, the meaning of generation can’t be taken for granted. As I explored in my own research, its meaning has stumped philosophers, theologians, psychologists, sociologists and historians for centuries. Its general definition is an unanswered philosophical question; the boundary of each individual generation is an under-studied empirical question.

Too often, studies of generational differences simply adopt the categorizations of previous studies, or they draw arbitrary boundaries around nice, round numbers and evenly spaced categories. One has to wonder what would happen if the boundaries were bumped five or six years in either direction. Would the generational differences be the muted, amplified, or the same?

This is all the more problematic because when generation is based on arbitrary ranges of birthdates alone, it is reduced to just age. The idea that political economic and historical context matters is there, to some extent – and in some cases more than others[3] – but it is generally pushed to the background.

Generational differences are rendered instead as psychological, individualistic differences, as though they develop spontaneously and instantaneously, at the level of the individual. It’s as if a switch is flipped every fifteen years: this year it’s the narcissism switch; fifteen years ago it was the slacker switch. The opportunity for cultural critique – and a sociological imagination – is wasted too often. Instead, the research simply feeds the hungry fires of intergenerational conflict.

This, apparently, is the state of the “science” of generations: divergent, deductive, and built on questionable foundations. If we take seriously the criticisms and contributions of the reflexive turn – the emphasis on examining and assessing our ontological and epistemological assumptions rather than leaving them unquestioned, calling into question the “objectivity” and “neutrality” of science – we might argue that it is hardly science at all.[4]

At the very least, we must question how social scientific research on generations shapes social life, informs people’s understandings of the world around them, and rationalizes the judgments we cast upon one another. Is it possible that in reifying the boundaries between this and that generation, social scientists have helped cultivate feelings of enmity between older and younger people?

In any case, the more we iterate generation as an axis along which people should align, the more we legitimate it and rationalize it as a category and an order. We might be okay with that, but we cannot be oblivious to it.

In my qualitative research on generations and work, I drew on interviews with 52 Canadians of various ages to argue that attempts to define or characterize different generations – whether as part of a scientific project or a conversation around the water cooler – constitute a politics of representation.[5]

The basic premise of the politics of representation is that by representing things with language, we imbue those things with meaning. Because language is always ongoing in various forms of discourse, and because it never comes from a single source or develops in isolation in a single context, the meanings of words (like the things they represent) are never “fixed” and rarely “unitary.”

Therefore, there is always the possibility that meanings will be contested, and that certain interests will be served more by some meanings than by others. Hugh Mehan summarizes the implications of this possibility as follows, pointing out the political dimension of contestation and alerting us to the fact that language and meaning are objects and tools of power:

Language has power. The language we use in public political discourse and the way we talk about events and people in everyday life makes a difference in the way we think and the way we act about them. This sentiment is captured by Tom Stoppard in his play, The Reality: ‘If you can get the right words in the right order, you can nudge the world a little’  [ . . . ] Words have constitutive power: they make meaning of things. And when we make meaning, the world is changed as a consequence.[6]

In my research, I found that the battle to make meaning of generation was waged on all sides. The key battleground I explored was work, and it was there that I found the language of social science unleashed in the everyday lives of ordinary people. Generation Y’s orientation toward the task of making a living – whether they eschewed comfortable jobs for creative ones they found fulfilling, or found themselves unwittingly hopping between short-term contracts – was framed as “entitlement”, the connections between their working lives and the major political economic shifts of the last forty years downplayed. The Boomers’ commitment to work, meanwhile, was framed as a function of “materialism” and “workaholism” rather than a legacy of Protestantism or a sense of loyalty to The Company.

The sense-making strategies of ordinary people and the “science” of generations seem to feed back on each other, offering both sources the authority they need to continue doing what they do. It is in the wake of this feedback loop that the management science of generations – the “generations management” literature and consulting boom – continues to flourish, supplying coworkers, managers, recruiters and analysts with the easy conceptual categories they can use to get a handle on diverse workplaces without having to deal with the idiosyncracies and contingencies – the mess – of real life.

Moreover, the uneven scrutiny hefted on Generation Y begs us to ask about whose interests are at stake in defining them as petulant, selfish brats who don’t know how the real world works.

Indeed, the more interesting social scientific questions, to my mind, revolve not around the qualities of different generations, but rather around the construction of generation as a category, and the related attempts to criticize or reform the generational subjectivities we find unpalatable – the narcissism, the individualism, the apathy. In looking at who is trying to describe a generation and how, we can learn a lot about power, and this, as Bent Flyvbjerg puts it, is how social science can truly matter.[7]

[1] Twenge, J., Campbell, K. and Freeman, E. (2012). ‘Generational Differences in Young Adults’ Life Goals, Concern for Others, and Civic Orientation, 1966 –2009’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102(5): 1045–1062.

[2] Twenge, ‘Generational Differences’, p. 1060.

[3] James Cote’s work, for example, pays a little more attention to political economic context, although it still makes sweeping generalizations about “young people.”

[4] See, for example, Bourdieu, P. (2004) The Science of Science and Reflexivity. London, UK: Polity Press.

[5] My book (Generation, Discourse and Social Change) is forthcoming with Routledge in early 2013.

[6] Mehan, H. (1997) “The discourse of the illegal immigration debate: a case study in the politics of representation.” Discourse & Society 8(2):249–270.

[7] Flyvbjerg, B. (2001) Making Social Science Matter. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


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