I was on the WHYY radio program Radio Times, on the topic, “Should we stop labeling generations?” The other guest was Jean Twenge, who is pretty far across the spectrum me on this issue — a generations advocate. We had a good conversation. You can listen here, or on your podcast app. (The whole history is under the generations tag.)
Should we stop labeling generations?
WHYY Radio Times, January 13, 2022
Malcolm Burnley: From WHYY in Philadelphia, it’s Radio Times. I’m Malcolm Burnley … Baby Boomers are competitive, Millennials, open minded and a bit overconfident Gen Z, the people born between 1997 and 2012 are surprisingly religious, lonely, phone addicted and afraid to fly the coop. We hold these things to be true thanks to academics, marketers and the media, who all seem to love coming up with names and character traits for large groups of people born between certain years. But is there any merit to thinking these groups of people actually share common traits because the historical or social forces they live through, or simply by virtue of when they were born? More and more researchers seem to be saying no. Others vehemently disagree and say the act of labeling group identities holds empirical value and helps us make sense of the world. This hour, we’re going to explore the debate with two guests who have thought deeply about this. First, we have Philip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and the author of a recent article called “Generation Labels Mean Nothing, It’s time to retire them.” Philip Cohen, welcome to Radio Times.
Philip Cohen: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Malcolm Burnley: Thank you so much for being here. And we have Jean Twenge. …a psychologist and author of multiple books on generational differences, including, IGen: why today’s super connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy, and completely unprepared for adulthood and what that means for the rest of us. Jean Twenge, welcome.
Jean Twenge: Thank you very much.
Malcolm Burnley: …We’re in this moment where identity politics seem to be everywhere, and we’re often as a society, creating new identities along lines of gender and race. So, Jean, I want to open up with you. What do generational labels add in terms of identity? Why do we still use them to begin with?
Jean Twenge: Well, we use them because they are useful and convenient for understanding each other. So really, generational labels have very little difference with, say, grouping people in terms of age or grouping people in terms of race or ethnicity, both of which also often have arbitrary lines and also group people who have many differences from each other. But with generations, if we have a basic understanding of around the time someone was born, we probably know something about their pop culture references. We can kind of understand their perspective in terms of the events they grew up with. And we can at least have an educated guess about some of the cultural values that they probably absorbed when they were growing up. And of course, that last part is where we always have to be cautious that, yes, there are definitely average differences among people of different generations, but we do not want to be prejudiced or stereotyped, just as we don’t want to do that with gender or race or any other identity that we want to treat people as individuals. So to look at someone and say, oh, you’re Gen Z, or as I call them, IGen, that must mean that you are X, that they have certain qualities. And we want to treat people as individuals and not always say, oh, you must be a typical member of your generation. I don’t want to be necessarily seen as a typical woman. Same kind of idea.
Malcolm Burnley: So, Philip … by way of getting into some of the controversy or disagreement around this same question or maybe slightly different, why do you think we still use these labels?
Philip Cohen: I think they’re used primarily in the realms of marketing and media. Most social scientists don’t use the specific categories of these generations with their names and labels. Those of us who study social change, we know that one of the key ways that social change happens is the experiences that people have when they’re born based on when they’re born. So how old you were when 9/11 happened, or if you are trying to start kindergarten in the middle of the pandemic, or if you are trying to get a job in the spring of 2020 when the pandemic starts — all of these things are sort of a combination of when history hits you at a certain point in your life, and that is very important. So generational change, if you look at it that way, is essential. The problem that I and the other researchers who signed this letter that you mentioned have is with the use of fixed categories and also the names for the categories. …Science is all about categorization, biology is all about species and how to define different species, and that scrutiny has just never been applied to these categories.
So unlike gender or race ethnicity, only about half of people can correctly identify the generation label that has been applied to them, even if you show them a list of the titles. So they may identify with certain aspects of when they grow up. They might know what it was like to have been in college at a certain time, to have been afraid of being drafted in Vietnam, to have their education disrupted by the pandemic, and have something in common with those people who went through that at the same point in their lives. So that may be a key part of their identity and personality, but they’re not really identifying with these categories that marketing and consulting people have laid over them.
Malcolm Burnley: Right. And I want to get into how we — I’m using the collective we — name these generations, but just along the lines of what you were saying. I read this story in The Atlantic … by Joe Pinksker, and he noted some of that data that I believe Philip was talking about or similar data about how people often struggle to identify their own generation. So this says, “the labels have also gotten progressively less meaningful. According to a survey that he says 74% of boomers associate themselves with their generational label, but the share declines with each successive generation. Only 53% of Gen X and 45% of Millennials identify as being part of that” Jean, does that mean that they’re actually less meaningful? Is that somehow discrediting, the fact that people don’t identify as being part of that generation?
Jean Twenge: I’m not convinced that that really matters all that much, that people don’t identify with the particular generation. I’m a Gen Xer myself. We don’t want to be grouped into anything. We don’t want to be labeled with anything that’s sort of part of the generational personality. I think the labels are more useful for analysis and more useful for understanding. And I’m not convinced it really matters that much that people identify with the generation themselves.
Malcolm Burnley: So I want to continue with you. You’ve spent 30 years, I believe, writing books, doing research on generational labels. So you’ve obviously continued to not only believe the merit of this, but seen statistically, quantitatively, and qualitatively the value of this. Could you get into it just a little bit from a scientific or research perspective, like why you think it’s valuable to be able to group people in this way, especially over time?
Jean Twenge: Absolutely. Yeah. I think there’s in some ways, two different questions. We want to make sure that we’re focusing and asking the same question. So one is, do people differ based on when they’re born? And Dr. Cohen and I can both agree that that’s true. I think the vast majority of people agree that that’s true, that people are shaped by the times that they grew up in and the times they come of age. In particular, that generations do differ based on personality traits, behaviors, attitudes, and so on. There are many examples of that. One is, say, especially a few years ago, if you ask people about their attitudes around same sex marriage, you would get a very big difference between Gen Z and the silent generation. And that’s changed over time as well. All generations have changed in their attitudes on that, too. So we know that. We know that there’s differences. But then the question is how do we group people when they do the analysis? Do we use individual birth years? Do we use birth decades? Do we use generations? And those decisions are somewhat arbitrary. Dr. Cohen and I think agree on that, but it seems to be useful to group people into larger groups based on events they experienced or certain differences among generations in terms of mental health or optimism or attitudes. And that makes it easier to understand what’s going on from an analysis point of view … I work with very large surveys of people in many cases that go back decades. And when you’re trying to figure out, okay, how has this changed? How has, let’s say, rates of depression, how have they changed? You have to make that decision about how are you going to group that? Are you going to group it by generation, by years? And it is true that these labels are not as often used in academic papers, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have some value for discussion. They give us a common ground for discussing people born at certain times that I think is useful.
Malcolm Burnley: Okay. So time in society and culture is naturally progressive — I think we can all agree on that to some degree. So there’s always going to be change. And why do we think generational terms, as Jean was just getting into, as opposed to, say, decades as opposed to four year increments? Why can’t we just think of it maybe along a continuum that doesn’t have to be so segmented? Philip, do you have any thoughts on that?
Philip Cohen: Yes. Well, you’re absolutely right. … Even a year is an arbitrary distinction … instead of a day or a minute or an hour. So at some point you break up time just to look at the progression. But there’s no reason to use these generation categories. They are different lengths. The Baby Boom was longer than Generation X for some reason — for no reason, I should say. One of the concerns I have is that once you fix the category in one study and then lay the category onto another study, you miss key things. The Baby Boom was a real event. It was a huge it was an increase in birth rates. And so that will give a certain commonality to the experience of Baby Boomers. They were part of a large group. However, early Baby Boomers came of age in time for the Vietnam draft. So 40% of them served in the military. Late Baby Boomers were after that. So only about 10% of them served in the military. So on one other dimension, they have a completely different experience. Or if you look at the pandemic today and the group that people call Millennials, some of them are 25 and haven’t finished school or gotten married or had children — they’re at a completely different life stage than those who are 40, who have families and are trying to navigate children in school and that whole set of experiences related to the pandemic. But if you had that category “Millennial” in your head before the pandemic came, you would group those people together and you would miss it would not serve your interest in trying to understand the social change.
Malcolm Burnley: …We were talking about how generations previously were both longer and also maybe had more natural definition. Speaking about Baby Boomers, there was an actual event being World War II and coming home after that, that caused that. But since then, it’s been changing a little bit. Right?
Philip Cohen: Well, the society hasn’t really changed. It’s just the convention has changed. There’s no reason that Gen X and Millennial have shorter than the Baby Boom except the impatience of researchers who are in a hurry to name the next generation. In fact, generations in real life have been getting longer, of course, as people get married and have children later in life. So it really doesn’t make any sense that Millennial s, by some accounts, are only 14 or 15 years long, whereas the Baby Boom was 18 years. There is no reason for it.
Malcolm Burnley: Jean, I want to kick that to you. I know that it used to be considered 30 years was a generation. I believe there’s some biblical origins to that, and now it’s half that, maybe even less. Why that shift? Is it technology that’s driving that? What, in your mind makes generation shorter?
Jean Twenge: Yeah, I’m glad you asked. I think we have moved from a system of generations, meaning parents and children and their children, to a concept of social generations. And I think there actually is a very good reason why the Millennial generation is shorter and why the Gen X generation is shorter than boomers and shorter than the silent generation. And that’s technology. So events are important. The pandemic, World War II, Vietnam War, they do shape generations. That is the classic view of generations is to see them in terms of how old were you when you experienced a certain event. But in recent times, there have been other influences which have been just as strong or stronger. First among those is the speed of technological change. When I speak of technology, I’m meaning writ large, also includes changes in medical care, in all kinds of technology that influences our day to day lives, everything from airplanes to washing machines to television. I’m not just thinking of smartphones and technological changes sped up. So smartphones are a great example. They went from introduction to half of people in the US owning one in five and a half years. That is the fastest adoption of any technology in human history. So that speed of change, change in the culture, change in technology has sped up. So I think that’s why you can make an argument for why recent generations should be shorter.
Malcolm Burnley: Philip, at the beginning, you started the article I mentioned in the Washington Post referring to the Williams sisters, the champion tennis players, and how Venus and Serena are technically by the definition, in two different generations, despite hardly having a gap. We have a comment on Facebook from Diane that speaks to that. She says, “My husband’s, born in 1958, me, 1959. That statement, ‘OK, Boomer,’ isn’t allowed to be spoken in our house because it sounds like, okay, stupid. We aren’t stupid.” That speaks to something that I’ve heard from a number of people that they feel like often these terms are used in a weaponized way. Is that consistent with what you find, Philip, or are there also, I guess, other, more virtuous ways to use it?
Philip Cohen: No, I think that certainly is a risk. And I would not suggest that everybody who’s using these terms is committing some sort of age discrimination, but I do think they become very convenient handles for that kind of stereotyping and discrimination. So a lot of the use of the term popularly amounts to essentially old people or kids these days. And there’s a sense in which we never expected Millennials to grow up. And it’s really weird that they did because the stereotypes about them were about young people. So it’s an awkward process. And it certainly is the case that change is accelerating in terms of technology. And I absolutely don’t want to diminish that at all. But when you say the Williams sisters are technically in different generations, I just want to be clear that I wouldn’t say “technically,” I would say conventionally by a standard that doesn’t make sense. I use that example because it shows you that if you went into trying to understand something like that family or that experience with a fixed category, you would be undermining your own analysis. Before you start, there are things about did you grow up in a world in which the Williams sisters existed as international star Black female athletes? That’s a different world than existed before. Or in terms of politics, if you think about what was the first election you voted in, or technology, did you have a smartphone when you started high school? These are key ways that world events shape people’s lives. And my problem is just with trying to wrap categories on them before we have even studied them. And I think the person who said, “OK, boomer” can’t be spoken in our household is really onto something, because the easy use of categories really contributes to that kind of stereotyping.
Malcolm Burnley: Yeah. One thing I’ve been wondering, which speaks to what Philip was saying and I want to get your input on this, Jean, is that my understanding is the history of naming generations really dates back only a couple hundred years and has really accelerated in the 20th century, late 20th century. But one thing that seems to change with this convention of naming generations early in their lives — or in their formative years, before we fully know what that generation is going to accomplish or maybe fully know how those traits are going to change or not. So why is there this obsession or emphasis to define a generation, I guess in their formative years as opposed to in their adult years?
Jean Twenge: I think it’s really simply to try to understand the upcoming generation. So it’s kind of a funny little way that it works that older generations are always very often really interested in understanding the younger generation. The younger generation is not interested in understanding the older generation. I don’t know why that is. And I think it comes mostly from a good place of, say, teachers and college faculty members want to understand their students. How are my students different from the students I had five years ago or ten years ago or twenty years ago? Managers want to understand how are my young employees different? How do they see the world differently than when I first started my career? So I think it comes from that idea of wanting to understand. I think that example is a great one of we didn’t expect the Millennials to grow up. That’s actually why we really need generational labels to understand people, for people to say at the beginning of the pandemic, people are complaining about all the Millennials going on Spring break. I love the comments for Millennials online. They would say “we are too old” with a period after every word. We’re at home with our kids — because then it helps us understand to say, no, that’s not the generation that you’re talking about, that’s Gen Z or IGen who is in college now. And that helps shift our understanding that people in their 20s are now born at a different time.
Malcolm Burnley: We got a comment from Katherine that I can definitely relate to. Full disclosure, I’m a Millennial. I should have probably said that at the beginning. So Katherine’s comment is “I’m a Millennial. We were supposed to be more confident and entitled, but also anxious and depressed, social justice oriented, but also selfish, overachievers in school, but also unprepared for the real world. Now I see the same thing written about Gen Z. Is each generation actually more unhappy and unprepared or entitled than the one before? Or is it just a continuation of older generations’ handwringing?” Jean, would you like to take a crack at that one?
Jean Twenge: Sure. So in some cases, we do have linear changes, meaning each generation is more, say, self confident or individualistic or depressed than the one before. That’s been a very common path. That was a very common pattern, especially from, say, Silent Generation to Boomers to Gen Xers to Millennials. And as time goes on, we get a better understanding of these things because a lot of that changed with Gen Z. A lot of those trends started to turn around. Optimism and self confidence was going up for four generations, and then it just fell with IGen. Mental health is a much more complex picture where depression was going up and it kind of leveled off with Millennials, but still at a historically relatively high rate. And then it’s just skyrocketed with Gen Z. So there are different patterns for some of the different traits. But I do think one big caution is necessary that I’ve often heard this said, well, people said that about the previous generation. That doesn’t make it wrong. A lot of changes have gone in the same direction for quite a long time. Other times, then they’ll turn around. It just depends on which traits or behavior or attitude we’re speaking of.
Malcolm Burnley: For example, I think you noted in your research, if I had this right, that individualism has long been on the rise generation to generation, but narcissism is one that seems to be reversing course or at least lessening with this current generation Gen Z. Could you make sure I have that right first of all and explain if that’s true, that narcissism is one, or the idea of generations being selfish may actually not be carrying on?
Jean Twenge: Yeah, that seems to be the case. So we were able to look at scores on the most common measure of narcissistic personality traits, which, by the way, is not the same as the clinical disorder. This is just variation among normal people in how self focused they are, how great they think they are. Those items like, I think I am a special person – if I ruled the world, it would be a better place. And scores on that measure, we’re steadily increasing among college students between early eighties, which would have been, say, late Boomers, early Gen Xers all the way through to about 2008. And then with the Great Recession, it turned around. And even as the economy improved, those scores did not go up, possibly because of some of the influences around social media and smartphones, always in exact science to say exactly why the changes happened. But, yeah, that was a change that turned around. Those scores started to fall around 2008 among college students, and they fell all the way back to close to the level of where they were in the early 80s. So that’s a trend that went one direction, and then you had a complete reversal.
Malcolm Burnley: So, Philip, we obviously don’t have different DNA between generations. It’s not like we are fundamentally different creatures. Right. But as we’ve been talking about, there are multiple theories of change about generations changing, I guess, based on external events or stimuli or maybe simply their values are different — being born in a certain environment. So I guess there’s certain theories either that they’re exerting their influence or maybe they’re being influenced by events that are happening to them. Is there a big debate, I guess, among sociologists about that? Does it feel like there’s more of a consensus on one or the other, and how do generational labels fit into that?
Philip Cohen: Well, the short answer is: they don’t. But you’re right about the question of the different kinds of forces at work. If you think about the sort of the very simple math of time, we can break down the events or the things that shape people into the categories of age, how old you are, and that’s sort of biological. So are you of childbearing age? Are you postmenopausal? Are you older young? There’s the period that you’re living in. So are you alive at the moment that something happens, like a war or recession? And then there’s the cohort that you’re born into the time you were born. So age and period and cohort, and each of those things can have independent effects on people. So some things affect everybody at once. That’s what we call a period effect, like climate change. Some things affect people based on age, like those biological things I mentioned. And some things are at the intersection, are cohorts – so, being a certain age when something happens. And in terms of social analysis, it’s very tricky to parse those things out. And one of the reasons is there’s different kinds of change happening at the same time. So, for example, I’m a sociologist. My cohort I was in graduate school in the 90s when certain fads were in fashion for the kind of research that we did — that may be totally different from somebody who is an actor or an athlete or a truck driver. If you play in the NBA, if you came up during the time when high school players were allowed to go straight to the NBA, that changed the whole league. So that changed your career in a way that didn’t affect me as a sociologist at all. I was much more affected by the personal computing revolution. But those are both cohort effects. That is, how old were you at a certain time? But they’re not universal across society.
Malcolm Burnley: It’s funny you bring a basketball. I had a question about that. I’m a huge basketball fan, and I often think about maybe this corollary to sports where generations are talked about a lot, and that’s true of music, and I think a lot of different fields. Right. But we think of generations differently, maybe with respect to age versus, say, in basketball. Right. When a generation of when a player played or there was a certain rule. And so it’s tricky and confusing. I think our use of generation is often very different, right?
Philip Cohen: We talk about generations of the iPhone or generations of the Internet. And like Jean said, human generations aren’t about reproduction anymore, the way they were thought about once, sort of in the biological sense. But the key thing there is that time moves at different speeds in different arenas in a way. So iPhone generations are shorter than professional athlete generations.
Malcolm Burnley: So we have a comment. Joan said, “I don’t remember being called a Baby Boomer as a generation until we established our identity during the Vietnam War. But we were not homogenous. Some of us protested the war, some of us joined. Our music was distinct in many ways. I think our behavior characteristics were what led the media to look for the label for us.” She continues, one thing that she brings up I think it’s important to note here is how all generations are obviously not monoliths, but different class, race, sex differences, all sorts of other identities can inform how we either conform or don’t conform to these generational labels. Is that right, Jean?
Jean Twenge: Absolutely. I mean, people are complex. We have many different identities. And when we think about who we are when we were born or our generation is just one part of that. I think the thing that is remarkable, though, is how consistent many generational differences are across different demographic groups. So, for example, with Gen Z or IGen, we have really enormous mental health crisis in this generation. Rates of depression began to rise among teens and young adults around 2012. They’ve now doubled the percentage who are depressed in that age group, and that shows up across race and ethnicity. It shows up among both boys and girls, men and women, and it shows up across different areas of the country. It’s pretty consistent in some cases. Some of the changes are a little bigger for girls and women, but it has affected many of these groups. So even though there are many different influences on people, it’s really pretty amazing how many of those generational differences show up, no matter where you’re living or what your social class is or what your race or ethnicity is or what your gender is.
Malcolm Burnley: I want to play a short clip from Richard Linklater’s 1993 film Dazed and Confused, which is often considered somewhat of a generational look of youth culture in the late 19s 70s. We’re going to play that right now.
A: I’m just going to get drunk, maybe get laid.
B: I’m serious, man. We should be up for anything.
C: I know we are.
B: But what?
A: I mean, God, don’t you ever feel like everything we do and everything we’ve been taught is just to service the future?
B: Yeah, I know. It’s like it’s all preparation, right?
A: But what are we preparing ourselves for?
B: Death, life of the party?
C: It’s true.
A: But that’s valid because if we’re all going to die anyway, shouldn’t we be enjoying ourselves now? I’d like to quit thinking of the present. Like right now is some minor, insignificant preamble to something else.
B: Exactly. And that’s what everybody in this car needs. It’s some good old worthwhile visceral experience.
Malcolm Burnley: So I’m wondering, we talked about how pop culture can sometimes both reflect and potentially influence generations, too. I guess, Philip, our cultural touchstone, say, like Dazed and Confused, do they produce certain character traits of generations? Do they reflect them? Where do those fit in, I guess, to this conversation?
Philip Cohen: Well, one of the amazing features of modern society and generational change, I think I would say, is that we have what we would call reflexivity in these discussions. So we’re having this discussion, Jean and I sort of our Ivory tower academics, but anybody can listen. Or if people make a movie about it, the generational terms suggested in a movie might be the ones that stick. So it’s absolutely the case that the discussion about these things, whether it’s in the cultural arena or in the media or in research, feeds back on itself in a way that is very unpredictable. That’s part of the fun of it. And it certainly gives us, if I would say one positive thing about the generation labels is that it gives people a common language. The downside of that is all the stereotyping and astrology type stuff. But on the positive side, it sort of is a conduit for that kind of reflection. And so I think that kind of interaction between arenas, that dynamic is really great.
Malcolm Burnley: So I have to say, full disclosure, the more I looked into and research this topic and research for this conversation that we’re having, the more I felt somewhat nihilistic, I would say about generations, about age. We were saying generations might be arbitrary, but then if you look at it, decades are arbitrary, and then in some respects, multiple years or presidential tenure is arbitrary. So I’m wondering, Jean, can you pull me back? I mean, can you kind of reinstall some sense of confidence in me? I feel like I was kind of unplugged from The Matrix, if you will, to quote a movie that’s very defined by Millennial s, that none of these things matter. And I know that you feel like they very much do. So I’m just wondering, so why should we care about this?
Jean Twenge: Well, I think, again, we have to make sure we’re asking the same question that does it really matter what the name is of each generation or exactly where the cut off is? Probably not. They’re useful, really, and they give us a common ground. But are we influenced by being born in one time versus another? Absolutely. If you compare your life and what you have experienced to your parents, to your grandparents and to your great grandparents, you can immediately see why there are definitely differences and how important those differences are. Plus, to make it a little bit lighter, that clip from Days and Confused shows just how much fun it is for people to reflect back on their generation’s experience with high school, for the generations that follow, to try to understand what those experiences were like and to understand in terms of their own experience. Days and Confused is an interesting movie because it was set in 1976, so it’s about boomers in high school, but it came out in 1994 when the young people were Gen Xers. So it’s a movie that was popular with Gen Xers, even though it was about boomers. And I think the kind of clip like those three people talking in the car show why it’s a movie that has a GenX sensibility, even though it was about boomers. And it allows us to have fun with those things in the culture and all of the differences we experience, having grown up at different times and understanding ourselves, understanding our children and understanding our parents better. That’s why it’s important. That’s why it’s fun.
Malcolm Burnley: Philip, do you have a thought there?
Philip Cohen: Yeah, I do. I think that’s a great point. I wrote a little reflective essay when I turned 50, and turning 50 was pretty boring. But what was interesting was looking back at what it meant to be 14 and 1981. That’s a much more interesting fact about myself. And of course, I bring a contemporary perspective to looking at that moment, but being 50 years old is kind of boring. But when I think about how I got here, when I think about what it meant to be in junior high school, when Thriller came out, the Michael Jackson album, that’s a defining moment. And the subsequent technological change, the fact that one person that I really looked up to in the 80s carried around a large briefcase full of Grateful Dead cassettes that were rare and hard to come by, and he had to have the humidity checked before he walked into a room. And now I can listen to the Grateful Dead channel on satellite radio in my minivan all day. That’s in one lifetime. So that is fascinating and interesting, and I think I appreciate that in a way that somebody who didn’t live through the 80s can’t.
Jean Twenge: …I think there’s a very interesting thought there, which is that this is the essence of generations and why they’re interesting, that it’s not just that cultures change. It’s not just that events happen. It’s that those events have effects on people. And they’re not just superficial effects, like I lost my job during the pandemic or I got married later. Those are things that change people’s life courses but also change what’s going on in their heads. That if you were born save after 1980, that you have never known a world that put duty before self as an absolute value, that you were probably always told you can be anything you want to be and you’re special. It changes the whole way that you look at yourself and at culture and your life, and it influences how you make decisions and how you operate in relationships, that it’s not just the changes and events and what’s going on outside that. It also is all of those abstract things about how we think and how we feel and how we relate to each other, that those changes as well.
Malcolm Burnley: I’m also wondering about the idea. I couldn’t help but think about the Greatest Generation and how potentially these generational labels either set up individuals for failure or maybe to not live up to expectations. Or conversely, I’ve often heard people say, “I’m a self hating Millennial.” I don’t actually like my generation. And it’s such a strong stance either for or against. I mean, Philip, are these generational labels problematic in that sense, too, that there’s either a burden or expectation that comes with them?
Philip Cohen: Yes. First of all, let me just say that what Jean said is fascinating, and I think that’s totally right. I do think the self-hating Millennial is an interesting thing. What they’re really rejecting is the ways that the category and label is used. “I don’t like the person that is described when people stereotype Millennials,” and that’s pretty reasonable. Or that’s different from saying I don’t like people my age, which is quite a different thing. That might be narcissism, it might be depression, or it could be a social alienation… That goes back to what I was trying to get out before with this idea of reflexivity, is people are thinking about what the categories mean to them, and that’s the dynamic in this, the way we process historical social change now is through this very analytical frame of “I am this, I belong to this group. I know that other people think certain things about this group, and my identity is in the interaction between those two things.” So that’s just the beauty of social change, both the good and the bad.
Malcolm Burnley: I don’t mean to focus on Millennials so much, but as Jean, as you laid out at the beginning, it seems like Millennials often draw the ire of so many different generations. Jia Tolentino in the New Yorker just had this incredible description of Millennials that I wanted to just read. She says, “A composite image emerged of a twitchy, phone addicted pest who eats away at beloved American institutions the way the bol weevils feed on crops.” Describing Millennials. Simply put, why do people have such an issue with Millennials?
Jean Twenge: Well, I think people have an issue with generational change overall. So I’m a Gen Xer. We were called slackers almost immediately. People said we had herky jerky brains, that we were dumb and violent and stupid. This just happens. There are these negative stereotypes that get put often on younger people, and some of them have a basis in truth, and some of them do not. So with Millennials, there is definitely some proof around to say Millennials … are … much more self confident than boomers were at the same age, which actually kind of goes against some generational stereotyping there. And it is absolutely true that Millennials took longer and are taking longer to hit adult milestones, like settling into a career or marrying or having children. That’s just because of the way society has changed. We take longer to grow up now, and it just shows up among Millennials, and it’s a symbol of the way that things have changed. So I think that has a lot to do with it, that you’re seeing the manifestation of the way that things have changed. And that can be scary, especially for older people. You think about how things have changed around you. Some of those things are good, some are bad, some are neutral, but it can change, can be frightening. And I think that is probably why each generation gets subjected to some of that treatment.
Malcolm Burnley: Philip, we didn’t spend too much time talking about the letter that you and 150 other researchers and professors wrote was sent to the Pew Research Center we mentioned at the beginning instructing or asking if they would drop these cultural generational labels. And Pew’s response was that they were considering it. Where do you think things go from here? Do you think it seems like there’s a lot of energy around criticizing generational labels? Where do you think we go from here?
Philip Cohen: Well, I don’t think it’s sustainable. In that letter, I sort of seized on the moment of hitting something that we were calling Generation Z to say maybe this is a good moment to put the brakes on this. We can lay this tradition to rest and not try to come up with a creative, original name that defines the characteristics of a generation that hasn’t really come of age yet and start applying something more arbitrary like decades or years, and just get back to analyzing the question before we determine the answer. We’re all interested in social change. We know that social change happens unpredictably. It seems to be accelerating, especially in the technology realm. We should not be putting new names on forthcoming groups that haven’t yet expressed themselves or experienced even their young adulthood yet. So I think in the research community, there’s a pretty good consensus that the downside is greater than the upside, on using generation labels. On the other hand, the click economy and the people who are writing popular articles you can’t beat them. How many times do you see the headline for an article add something about generations when there’s nothing about generations in the article — it’s because headline writers have different incentives than people who write the articles. They need clicks and the public loves generation labels and arguing about them. So it may be a lost cause, but I think at least it will be helpful if we’re increasingly skeptical and maybe we’ll get off this train.
Malcolm Burnley: Well, I think we’re going to have to leave it there. Philip Cohen, thanks so much for joining us on radio Times.
Philip Cohen: Thank you. It was a great conversation.
Malcolm Burnley: His article in the Washington Post is titled, “Generational labels mean nothing. It’s time to retire them.” And Jean Twenge, thanks for joining the conversation.
Jean Twenge: Thank you very much. Great conversation.
Malcolm Burnley: Absolutely really enjoyed it. We’ll have to have you back on to maybe continue this. That’s Jean Twenge, author of numerous books including IGen, an upcoming book on generational labels. That’s it for today’s edition of Radio Times. … Diana Martinez is the engineer for today’s edition of Radio Times. The show is produced by Debbie Builder and Paige Murray Bessler. I’m Malcolm Burnley.