Generational thinking: A bogus, pseudoscientific enterprise?

C C Offline

EXCERPT: Science fiction uses generations as guinea pigs in thought experiments: writers will change one important feature of human life, but leave the rest intact, in order to hypothesise how a single, world-rearranging shift might play out. In S M Stirling’s Emberverse series (2004-), a mysterious event alters the laws of physics, neutralising electricity and gunpowder, and the kids who are born after ‘The Change’ – archers, farmers, fighters – are different from the ones who knew the powered world. In Robert Heinlein’s "Orphans of the Sky" (1963), people living in the closed environment of a multigenerational starship mutiny and kill many of their leaders; years later, their descendants have lost any true knowledge of their situation and believe that their ship is the whole world.

These fictions work because they are controlled experiments. They allow you to shove aside the complexities of life, to isolate one variable, one aspect of human experience. They give you a window into the plasticity of human culture, the impact of big historical events, the exercises of power between young and old, and the way that we make and re-make our worlds through education and tradition.

But in real life, I find generational arguments infuriating. Overly schematised and ridiculously reductive, generation theory is a simplistic way of thinking about the relationship between individuals, society, and history. It encourages us to focus on vague ‘generational personalities’, rather than looking at the confusing diversity of social life.

[...] Generational thinking doesn’t frustrate everyone. Indeed, there is a healthy market for pundits who can devise grand theories of generational difference. [...] authors [...] and founders [...] have made a fine living out of generational assessments, but their work reads like a deeply mystical form of historical explanation [...] an elaborate and totalising theory of the cycle of generations, [...argued to...] come in four sequential and endlessly repeating archetypes.

[...] The archetypal scheme is also a theory of how historical change happens. The [...] idea is that the predominance of each archetype in a given generation triggers the advent of the next (as the consultancy’s website puts it: ‘each youth generation tries to correct or compensate for what it perceives as the excesses of the midlife generation in power’). Besides having a very reductive vision of the universality of human nature [...there is futurism that predicts...] a major crisis will occur once every 80 years, restarting the generational cycle. While the [...] ideas seem far-fetched, they have currency in the marketplace [...]

The commercial success of this pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo is irritating, but also troubling. The dominant US thinkers on the generational question tend to flatten social distinctions, relying on cherry-picked examples and reifying a vision of a ‘society’ that’s made up mostly of the white and middle-class. In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2009 on the pundits and consultants who market information about ‘millennials’ to universities, Eric Hoover described [] influential book about that generation [...] as a work ‘based on a hodgepodge of anecdotes, statistics, and pop-culture references’ with the only new empirical evidence being a body of around 600 interviews of high-school seniors, all living in wealthy Fairfax County, Virginia.

[...] Academics have been chewing over the concept of ‘generations’ for more than a century, and have by and large concluded that generational thinking is bogus. Distinctions between given age groups in a society can be an interesting lens for examination – but only if the person framing the questions is painfully cautious to qualify her terms, set careful parameters, and examine her assumptions....

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