Why do we need to identify "generations"?

I was listening to a piece on NPR about the Millienials this week and frankly I’m getting fed up with over-analysis and stereotyping of generations. And I wonder if the concept of a generation as a social cohort even makes sense.

The idea of lumping a huge number of people together because they were born in the same arbitrary time interval seems oddly overorganized. People are born every day of every year and culture changes occur continuously.

Yes, there was a bump in the fertility rate in the 1950s with the Baby Boomers, but why is there a need to continue to identify “generations”?

I think there are characteristics and widespread outlooks that vary by generation. The problem, as you point out, is that any attempt to define a start and stop date for a generation lacks support. It is nothing but a shorthand, though, and so long as you understand the weaknesses of the start and stop dates, it makes some sense to generalize and label.

There isn’t really except that as time marches on, people grow up inculcated with different values and cultural norms and it’s interesting and sometimes informative to see how that changes their interactions with society as a group and once they develop economic and professional power, how they change society. But the beginnings and ends are nebulous and not worth getting into an argument about who’s gen x or y or a millenial.

So we have someone to blame for all of society’s problems.

Same reason we “label” everything else – So we can talk about them, and discuss them and analyze them and draw conclusions abut them, which is sometimes called stereotyping them, depending on whether we have favorable or unfavorable opinions about them.

Basically this. We get to deride other generations while admiring our own. It could be simpler though, all generations younger than mine are lazy and ungrateful, all older generations were short sighted and intolerant. So there’s no need to name each one.

I have said before that I prefer to think of my “cohort” as the people who were in high school during my years there. That would mean seniors when I was a freshman and freshmen when I was a senior. Assuming a 4-year school that would mean a 7-year span.

Not that I was fully engaged with people on the extremes of that range, but at least we were exposed to the same (at least similar) social, political, cultural and whatever influences. Older or younger folks wouldn’t share as much as that group in those same influences.

As we get older, the range expands (I think) so that the decades concept make more sense to older people.

As for truly “close” ages, I’d go with give-or-take two years.

Defining categories is a basic component for understanding just about anything, even for tracking trends and other social phenomena. Obviously it doesn’t work very well on an individual level, but those who are interested enough to invent generational monikers are generally only interested in aggregate patterns. They can’t predict how this Millennial or that Baby Boomer will vote or what music they’ll be listening to, but the aggregate patterns do carry some validity to anyone trying to win our votes or get us to buy things.

In mine opinion, stereotyping people based on something they had no input into and cannot change is wrong. Just as we don’t accept racial stereotyping, we should reject birth-date stereotyping. While not anywhere as serious as racial stereotyping, it still sends the wrong message: “others who share this superficial, yet immutable, characteristic with you are like this, do you conform?”. Blech.

Your argument is “Conformity with prevailing cultural and social mores is bad.”

Let’s stipulate that, then.

So what? The phenomenon exists, persists, and is every bit as verifiable as any sociological phenomenon.

“Generations” is a label for a valid observed phenomenon in the social sciences.

Whether anyone agrees with whether it should be observed is fundamentally irrelevant, unless you’re willing to extend the argument to its logical conclusion: social sciences shouldn’t exist. And that’s a completely different Great Debate. (hint hint)

I think this discussion is better suited to IMHO than GQ.

General Questions Moderator

It’s the baby boomers’ fault.

Agreed. A 22-year generation (which Generation Y/Millenials are supposed to encompass) is a little silly, but using the seven years after the start of your freshman year of high school seems like a solid target for a like-minded generation.

Anecdotal, but the generational thing has been used where I work to improved communications. It’s based on stereotypes, but I find they generally apply to most of the folks I deal with who are in different generations then me. Of course there are intricacies with each person, but I know that, in general, the older generation prefers face to face conversations over email, while the generation younger than me prefers to communicate via email or text. I am more formal in my emails to the older generations, while I’m looser with the younger. It’s helped me develop better relationships with people in a company and region where we have ‘the big crew change’ coming, along with an inundation of new grads (and I’m somewhere in the middle).

You may be joking, but I think you are right. Now that we are The Powers That Be, we are trying to define our children and grandchildren with the same tools we used to measure ourselves.

“Talkin’ About My Generation” has turned into talking about *your *generation.

It is beyond silly to me to use such a wide age range, particularly in the era when life changes at the speed of technology. I am irked to no end to be lumped in with Milennials because I was born in 1983. Life experience at this age widely varies, but I was in high school before I had access to the internet and I’m being compared with kids who were born around 9/11. I was a freshman in college when 9/11 happened. I have nothing in common with these kids.

The idea of categories makes sense.

What makes no sense is to make any category larger than about a single year. Society changes slowly and more-or-less smoothly, with occasional spurts & slowdowns. And so the upbringing style & foundational events of any cohort changes similarly.

So a person born in e.g. 1960 is, on average, a little different from a 1958er and also a little different on average from a 1962er. The 58er and the 62er are more different from each other than they are from the 60er. And so on.

To assert that everybody born from 1945 to 1962 is an identical “baby boomer” and people born in 1963 are utterly different is so stupid as to be laughable.
I suppose that IF one could identify agreed-upon major inflection points in social history and fashion, the punctuations in a punctuated equilibrium as it were, one could choose one’s generation groups as spanning each smooth section between major inflection points.

But it’s going to be real hard to identify those changeover points. Much less agree to them across the social sciences.

Most inflections aren’t “points”. e.g. 9/11 was an event which took a couple hours to transpire. The effect on society took about 2 years to percolate through. Meanwhile other events from a year before or after were also percolating through at their own rate. So the final “before and after” effect was blurred over a span of years. Again it’s not logical to draw bright dividing lines across all the shades of slowly-changing gray.

Because it’s useful to recognize that people born during a particular timeframe may share common experiences, outlooks and cultural reference points.

As much as any generation likes to think they know everything, in reality they don’t, or not in the context someone 20 or so years younger or older might.

It’s useful in that if I’m talking to a 20 year old intern about “picking up girls”, I’m probably talking about going to a bar and chatting them up while he might be talking about using his Tindr app.

No one is asserting that except for you.

Someone born during my generation (X) within 3 or 4 years up or down would have a similar cultural experience. They might be a freshman while I’m a senior in high school. They would have listened to the same pop music or watched the same shows and movies. They would have exposure to similar technology at around the same age. They would have witnesses similar historical events.

What is more difficult is figuring out where the cutoff is. Why 1945 instead of 1944? Sure you can base it on historical events like those who were born before or after WWII or the fall of the Berlin Wall. But who would remember if they were 1 years old when that happened or born 3 years later?

I was born less than 7 weeks after the end of WWII . . . definitely post-war, but 3 months earlier than the first Boomer. So technically, what generation am I in? Well, I was in college from late 1963 to 1970 (basically the time span that the Beatles were popular and together). That makes me unmistakably part of the Boomer generation. Almost anyone who came of age during the 60s has a whole lot of common experiences that we carry with us all these decades later.

I’m still trying to figure out what “Pepsi, Generation Next” meant.