Let’s Drop The Generational Blame-Game
Millennials, Gen-Xs, Baby-boomers: we’re all in it together
Which category do you fall into? With a quick calculation, I seem to land somewhere between Generation X and Millennial, depending on exactly where you draw the line. I do remember reading Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X when it first came out in the 1990s, so that probably settles the matter.
My parents are certainly Baby-Boomers. My closest friends fall into the same age-bracket as me, aware that middle-age is about to start knocking. At the co-working space where I sometimes work, fully-fledged Millennials are in abundance and the number of Generation Zs is growing by the week.
Here’s a quick run-down of the different names we give to the generations:
- Baby Boomers: Baby boomers were born between 1944 and 1964. That makes the between 55–75 years old
- Gen X: Gen X was born between 1965–1979 and are currently between 40–54 years old
- Millennials: Millennials or Gen Y were born between 1980 and 1994. They are currently between 25–39 years old
- Gen Z: Gen Z were born between 1995 and 2015. They are currently between 4 and 24 years old
The labels we attach to these rather arbitrary groups can be useful as shorthand characterisations, but all too often they can be the source of vitriol and blame as well.
Millennials find themselves castigated as feckless snowflakes, typecast as emotionally weak and lacking risk-taking spirit. Gen-Zs are overly concerned with safe-spaces and neutrality, whilst also being selfie-addicts and phone-zombies.
Baby-Boomers in their turn are accused of sabotaging their children’s future, ignoring climate change whilst hoarding power and money. They voted in Trump and they’re making Brexit a reality. Whilst the young are having trouble finding their feet in the job market, burdened with student debt and struggling to climb onto the property ladder, Baby-Boomers are taking long holidays with pension plans the rest of us can only dream of.
As for my generation, the Xs, we’re stuck somewhere in between: not quite old-fashioned and not quite newfangled either, cynical yet ambitious, romantic for a pre-internet era whilst also being the first to make our livings from it. We’re told we had it too easy, and maybe we did.
The blame-game is an easy one to play, but it comes with intrinsic problems. Chief among them is the idea that juxtaposing one generation against another is simply a matter of comparing student debt figures or the average cost of a new house. It is easy to assert differences between generations, all the more easy when the discourse suggests that one generation is somehow displacing another, like train carriages being shunted along the tracks.
In truth, every generation has had to deal with its own set of challenges and opportunities. For the younger generations, the financial crash of 2008 was pivotal and has probably exacerbated the divide, since it pretty much exactly coincided with the first decade of the work-life of Millennials. That’s a difficult environment to begin your career with. The first decision any company will make in times of hardship is to cut back on their intake of new staff. That hits the new-starters the most.
In response, many young people have turned to the gig economy to pursue their opportunities, an inherently unstable environment with no leave or sick pay, no pension scheme or healthcare, no maternity/paternity provision.
It’s not all bad, of course. The gig economy appeals because it is a style of employment that offers flexibility and choice. Many young people have the freedom to pursue their “dream career” underpinned by idealistic values. That’s the sort of flexibility and choice that baby-boomers could never have imagined for themselves.
This disconnect can lead the older generation to judge the younger generation by the wrong standards. Baby-Boomers tend to forget that the young workforce is plagued by the forces of incredible choice along with deep instability. Young people can listen to any music, watch any film, access any information, can travel cheaply and widely, yet also find themselves doubting the sense of personal identity that these choices have made precarious.
Boomers tend to reflect positively on their own upbringing as a more stable and uncomplicated time. Freedom meant freedom to play and imagine outdoors, with a simpler diet that was nonetheless better than their parents and probably more healthy than today’s. And once childhood was done, a predictable pathway through college and into a job-market lay ahead, one that was full of opportunities – especially for graduates – and probably life-long.
But we shouldn’t forget the fact that far fewer Baby-Boomers went to university than compared to today’s generation. In fact, data suggests that up to 4 times as many young people graduate from college education than in the 1960s. Today’s young people are more educated and more connected, with all the advantages that that brings.
In such ways, the shifting circumstances between generations give rise to a different landscape of possibility. We can all find ways in which the lives of one generation have been harder than others, and ways that the same lives were easier.
In short, it makes no sense to finger-point.To do so over-simplifies the historical realities of the different generations. To fall into the blame-game is to forget that these sweeping descriptions are little more than pejorative stereotypes that capture few of the nuances that make every generation interesting.