I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Melissa Harris-Perry on May 10, for a “Deep Dive” feature her show The Takeaway was doing about young people these days, and “Gen Z” identity. The show has posted now (here or on your podcast app).
I’m very glad they included some of our conversation, even though I’m disappointed they kept the “Gen Z” focus in the show, which to my mind is not helpful. But I consider that progress, and I appreciate it. I also made a transcript of our interview, and below I highlighted the passages they included in the show. This is not to complaint or gotcha against the show — it was a great conversation, which I’m glad I preserved — and they chose good quotes. (Read the whole saga under the generations tag.)
Here is the transcript:
Melissa Harris-Perry: Joining me now is Philip Cohen, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. He’s author of The Family Diversity, Inequality and Social Change. Philip, welcome to the show.
Philip N. Cohen: Hello. Thanks for having me.
MHP: So is there a value to defining people by the label of their generation?
PNC: Short answer is no, in my opinion. But there is a value in thinking about when people are born and how they interact with the world. It’s just the categories and the names that we use to define that experience that are getting in the way.
MHP: Okay, say more about that. And I guess one of the thoughts I’ve been having as we are deep diving into this is, are the generations generation X-Y-Z millennial, whatever? Are they essentially like saying Aquarius, Taurus, Libra? When you read your horoscope or the definition of one of your zodiac signs, you’ll tend to selectively affirm the parts of that description that fit you? “Oh, yes, I am. Just like that. Right.” But sort of ignore the parts of that description that aren’t very much like you. Is that what happens when we call ourselves? Yes, I’m a proud Gen Xer while ignoring some other aspect of what it means to be Gen X, for example?
PNC: Absolutely. I think that’s a great way to put it. I mean, it’s a factory for confirmation bias, but some of us like to also take the counter position and say, I’m not like “Millennials” because of this or that. And so I think there’s a lot of unproductive dialogue that goes on. …As a social scientist, I’m supposed to try to use categories that really matter. Venus and Serena Williams are different generations by this. They’re one year apart. Certain things just really don’t make sense. It does matter when people are born. If you graduated high school, the year of the Great Recession, that matters. So that’s different from being 18 any other year. It’s just not the case that the year of our birth or the time of our birth necessarily defines us more than other kinds of identities like race and class and gender. Or ethnicity or religion. It matters, but it’s not a dominant status for most of us. And science is all about making categories, but these categories are just made up. I mean, there’s no reason to draw the line in one place instead of another place unless you have a specific reason, like I say graduated high school in 2009. That really matters. But that’s right in the middle of “Millennials.” I mean, that doesn’t fit the category at all. So early and late “Millennials” had totally different economic experiences. The category was just made up by marketers, and we just shouldn’t use it.
MHP: Right. So that’s really useful, though, rather than thinking about a generational category, to think maybe to use another word about a set of cohort experiences that are relevant.
MHP: Those who are draft age during the Vietnam War, particularly maybe young men who are draft age or draft eligible during the Vietnam War, graduating into certain kinds of economic conditions. And presumably, if we’re looking at this moment, there’s going to be some important cohort effects for those who were at the earliest parts of their schooling experience in 2020, when the pandemic sort of pivots everyone out of classroom learning. So if you’re a kindergarten or first grader and then for those who were at the end of that experience. Right. So maybe those who graduate in 2020 or in the years around it who have disrupted the end of their K-12 education.
PNC: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. We can’t know exactly what’s going to matter in advance. Will the kids who were in first and second grade in 2021 have some experience that turns out to be totally different from those who were in third and fourth grade? You could imagine starting school has a different effect than being interrupted in the middle of school, but that’s something that sort of has to emerge. I think one problem comes from calling these generations instead of the term you use: Cohort makes much more sense. And one reason is they’re not generations. That’s why I like the Venus and Serena Williams example, because they’re obviously literally the same generation. They have the same parents. Usually when we use the term generation, we’re sort of combining a sense of sort of a group of cohorts and a sense of the biological generation. But it doesn’t really work that way. I mean, in iPhones there’s a new generation every year or two, and technological generations in general go faster than some other things. So I think it makes sense to think in terms of categories of experience. But calling these human things generations is problematic, and especially when we start giving them names. The other downside to this is – and what you said before about sort of confirming our expectations – it just feeds into stereotyping and making assumptions about people in ways which are not the good kind of generalization, which is necessary for understanding society. But the bad kind, which feeds stereotyping and over-generalization. And plus, “Generation Z,” what’s going to come next? We just have to get off this train. We’re at the end.
MHP: No, I think as a mom of an eight-year-old, they’re calling them Alphas.
PNC: Which is like coronavirus variants or hurricanes.
MHP: Oh, that’s so terrible. And yet that seems like probably what’s going to happen. All right, so I have a Z Gen daughter and I have an Alpha daughter. And my Z-Genner does look at my Alpha and calls her an iPad baby. … which is, again, all probably more about cohorts, since, again, they’re also literally of the same generation in that they are sisters.
PNC: Well, I think if you were going to draw lines around people, I think people who joined the military around the time of September 11, I think people who grew up on personal smartphones and social media, that’s a real difference between those people and people who came before them. And that can be within a family, even though they’re the same generation in terms of the family. But that’s a different experience. And there’s reason to believe that that makes a real difference for people. There’s a key insight, which is there are some things that are about age as we age, our bodies, our brains develop in certain ways, and there’s history. September 11 happened, the pandemic happened, and the way we interact — the way those two things meet our age and our history — is the cohort. It’s being not just 18 years old, but being 18 years old in 2020. I don’t want to lose sight of that and not think in those terms, but we just have to dial down the stereotyping and pre-defining the experiences before we know what they really mean.
MHP: You talked about this being the kind of stereotyping or the kind of generalizations that are not the good kind because there are important kinds of generalizations. Right. You and I could not be social scientists if we didn’t make generalizations. Right. But I love this language of the good kind. So what are the kinds of problematic generational generalizations that can come from using these labels?
PNC: Well, like any sort of categories like gender or race ethnicity, they have a tendency to flatten experiences, and that can be useful for certain purposes as long as you have your eye on it and make sure that you’re avoiding the pitfalls of that. But one problem with the generations is — take the stereotype that used to be that Millennials are sort of spoiled or entitled. Well, that obviously has a certain race and class bias built into it. And so with the generations in particular, there is a tendency to use the dominant group to define the qualities of the whole generation. So the idea that Millennials are more progressive. Well, young people are more progressive generally, but there’s a whole so called generation, if you will, of Trump young people. Also, it’s just the flattening of experience is only useful if it’s serving some key purpose that you can really put bounds around and justify. And it makes sense – people discriminate on the basis of gender in the workplace, and so that’s a reasonable category. We should collect data. We should identify people by their gender. We should think seriously about the categories we use, and we should be aware that they are not universal experiences. So we can use that same kind of reasoning when we think about cohorts. There are homeless Millennials and there are entitled, spoiled Millennials. And before we draw lines around a group and give it a character, we have to think, are we imposing sort of the dominant group narrative on this in a way that is obscuring really important experiences?
MHP: Yeah. As you talk about that framework of Millennials are living in their parents’ basements. And I’m like, “only if their parents can afford a basement.” Right. The presumption of a very particular class and race based experiences.
PNC: Avocado Toast.
MHP: I’m sorry. Go ahead.
PNC: I’m sorry. Avocado toast is the example. Millennials love avocado toast. Well, some do.
MHP: My Gen Z does like avocado toast because she went away to college in California. And I mean, avocados. Talk to me about some of the more valuable and useful generalizations that we can make from cohorts, which I’ll use just as our term here. So you’ve talked about some around joining the military. Are there some relative to what has typically been called Generation Z? So I’m just going to think of these as, like the 25-year-olds to about I guess maybe about the 10-year-olds or so, which is obviously a huge swath. But are there some sort of cohort, meaningful experiences within those young people that you think we should focus in on?
PNC: Yeah. I think for one thing, that young people today are living through a period of rapidly increasing economic inequality, political polarization. Those are real phenomena that are part of the environment that young people are growing up in today that probably will have meaningful consequences for them. I think climate change is and will be experienced in a whole new way by today’s young people and become part of their experience forever. And I think then also technology. The fact that technology, especially around children and young people and the way they use it, has changed so rapidly and the way they communicate really does set them apart from today’s older people. So the things that seem like glaring generation gaps that have always appeared between generations in terms of slang and language and norms around things like dating and relationships, that’s all very normal. But those aspects that are associated with technology really have accelerated. And so the gaps may seem larger than they were in previous generations. And I think those are real experiences. Some of these things are also – the older generations are unique in their own ways. The baby boom, which is sort of what started the current wave of generation talk, really was a cohort experience because it was a very large group which changed the population in important ways. And they were the group that were born into this sort of Leave It to Beaver nuclear families more than any other previous generation and then turned against that the most. So that was a unique set of experiences. And those people, despite the simplistic, sort of, “Okay, Boomer,” those people changed society in important ways that are still with them. Today’s baby boomers, for example, divorce and cohabit outside of marriage much more than previous generations of 60-year-olds. That’s an example that I think is very real. And I think when you juxtapose their experience to today’s young people, you get a sense of a very big what I think you can reasonably call a generation gap.
MHP: Okay. I want to zero in on that for a second, because I do find as a child of a Boomer, I do find the Boomers you said they were born in to be Leave It to Beaver households, but many of them were also exposed to Leave It to Beaver popular culture. Right. So I just want to zero in on this for one second and see what you can help illuminate here. There’s obviously a great deal of angst at this moment in being expressed in many state legislatures about this sort of dynamics of culture and classroom. And perhaps it’s a somewhat unspoken idea that children absorb whatever we hand to them in popular culture or in curriculum, and then they will mimic it and they will be it as they grow into adults. But I think of all the Barbies I’ve played with as a child and how I’m pretty sure that’s probably the basis for my feminism. It was actually like being up close and personal to these plastic dolls. I was like, “Oh, this is whack.” And I cut all their hair off and became a feminist. Right. And I’m wondering if when I think about my mom, who is very Leave It to Beaver in her pop culture and in her home and definitely grew her hair long, married a black man and ran off and did all of the opposite of what pop culture was telling her. I’m wondering what we know about the kind of cohort dynamics of connection with the popular culture of their childhood and whether or not it leads them to reproduce it or to rebel against it.
PNC: Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, the joke among academics is we’re supposed to have all this power to tell young people to think, but we can’t get them to read the syllabus (which is exaggerated – that’s generation stereotyping for you). But if you think about that Baby Boomers, I think this is partly what drives conservatives crazy to this day is about the Baby Boomers, because that is the perfect model of the family system that failed to reproduce itself. I mean, those kids who were born in the fifties and sixties – more than any generation before them — were the most likely to live in isolated nuclear families with stay at home mothers and employed fathers who married at a young age. And that goes across races and classes more than it ever did before. That group of young people did not practice what they experienced as children. They saw that style of family life, and they did not emulate it. So there is a story about backlash and social change that is repeated to some extent generation after generation. I don’t want to assume that sort of always happens. But that particular shift from sort of which looks in retrospect like right to left on the cultural political scale has been infuriating conservatives ever since. And if you go back to, I don’t know, Breaking Away or those old stories about conservative parents and their rebellious teenagers, today’s conservative movement is deathly afraid of that. And I think if you look at gender and sexuality in particular, which young people today have changed so much on, that the fluidity, the complexity of their identities, their comfort with changing language and norms is really unsettling to a lot of older people. And it’s not surprising that one reaction to that is to try to clamp down and enforce intergenerational sameness. And, of course, it’s not going to work, and it causes untold damage and trauma for young people who have to live through that. So we have to pay attention to that.
MHP: And I’ll have one last one for you. So you’ve talked about the climate change crisis that these young people are going to inherit and experience in important ways. Can you speak to what it very well may mean for a generation or multiple cohorts of young people to come of age here in the United States, potentially without access to the reproductive rights that the generations and cohorts prior to them have enjoyed?
PNC: Yeah. I think the climate one way that the climate change is similar to the reproductive rights crisis we’re going through now is that in both of those cases, they’re unsettling a story that previous generations had about society, which was one of progress, which was that technology would improve life – which it did in many ways, of course – and that fundamental rights, once extended, were permanent. And in addition to just how terrible it is to have Roe v. Wade overturned and have the right to abortion threatened for everybody of childbearing age, now it’s really the first time that Constitutional rights that were explicitly articulated that were taken away. It’s not the first time the Supreme Court did bad things, but it’s the first time they said, “You know what? You had this fundamental right and now you don’t.” And I don’t know how that interacts in people’s consciousness with the climate change crisis, but they’re both examples where the future cannot be assumed to be brighter. And I think that’s really hard and young people today, we know in addition, because of the pandemic, are going through a lot in terms of their mental health, in terms of their confidence and security in the future. [I don’t] like to be dark about the future, although I frequently am … but let’s just say it’s a set of interrelated challenges and we really have to find ways to rise to that moment.
MHP: Is there anything I’ve missed, Professor Cohen? Because it’s our deep dive and we’ll talk to multiple voices, but anything else that I’ve missed that from your work.
PNC: …I don’t know if it fits, but from my research focusing on families and one thing that I think is unsettled from the pandemic, from climate, from now the Roe v. Wade decision: family choices are often long term decisions, and decisions about long term commitments, and it’s really hard for people to make long term commitments when they don’t have a clear vision and confidence in the future. So when we look at things like marriage and childbearing and other related family decisions, I expect and we’ve already seen some from the pandemic that people are more likely to hold off on those long term decisions when they don’t know what’s going on and what their future holds. So that’s part of it and I don’t know if that fits into your story. I’m happy if it doesn’t. That’s fine, too, of course.
MHP: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Philip Cohen, for joining us today.
PNC: Hey, personal dream come true to be on your show so thank you very much.
MHP: Thank you.