Generalizations About Generations: How Stereotypes Help And Hurt Our Culture
We like things to be orderly and to make sense. It’s why we have such an obsession about storage compartments, closet organizers and labels. Sometimes in our zest for organization and tidiness we get carried away and try to place labels and categorizations on one another.
In our quest for understanding of our place in the universe, we try to create meaning about ourselves and those around us.
Often, we develop generalizations about one another based on “type.” This can be toxic when it comes to stereotypes of race, gender or sexuality. It can also be damaging when it is applied to categories of people by generation.
Usually our generalizations about generation are not meant with malicious intent. It is more a reflection of an underlying cognitive process that sorts incoming information.
Our brains are like file-folders that put like-things together as a means of survival and problem solving. The challenge lies in the fact that we don’t always get it right.
Sometimes our natural tendency to generalize information for later use gets skewed by a variety of external factors. We may have a set of individual experiences with members of a certain generation and this is added to what we are shown in media.
Since media is such a heavy presence in our lives, much of our understanding of what is going on in the world, including the behavioral trends of generations, is learned through a screen of some kind.
Each generation is shaped by core values, historical events and popular culture.
And each generation looks to their own set of heroes and leaders to shape the next generation. Even certain mannerisms, elements of humor and cultural artifacts help separate one generation from another.
People born between 1943 and 1960 are known as the Baby Boomer Generation. This generation is frequently thought of as patriotic and loyal. Baby Boomers are believed to value job security, hierarchical structure and build a lot of personal identity through work.
In addition to these stereotypes, Baby Boomers are said to value formal types of communication, carry a lot of faith in institutions and honor the building of legacies. Known for being competitive and ambitious, Baby Boomers prefer to work alone rather than in groups.
Generation X, those born between 1961-1980, are often generalized as being self-reliant
and self-sufficient, somewhat impatient, and self-educated. Gen Xers are said to be entrepreneurial self-starters with a higher percentage of successful women than other generations before them.
Millennials are those who were born between 1981-2001.
The people of this generation were considered special and were celebrated as children. Millennials are generalized as loving freedom and flexibility, seeking meaning in work life and being tech savvy more than prior generations.
The stereotype of Millennials is of materialism, value of group work and social consciousness. Millennials are said to have high expectations of themselves and value life experiences. Similar to reading a horoscope, most everyone can identify with the varying traits listed in each of the generational definitions above.
The truth is, we are far more complex than any trite definition can capture.
The sociological purpose behind defining generations is like our own individual need for understanding similarities and differences. When we can step back and analyze the trends of a culture and the ways in which members of a generation behave, we can try to predict what the future might hold, or what it may mean for future generations.
Stereotyping people by generation can result in a variety of outcomes. On the surface, it may seem as if stereotyping could only lead to discrimination of one kind or another.
Sometimes generational stereotypes can be complementary.
We tend to consider stereotyping only in its worst forms; fostering negative, misleading assumptions about others, causing hatred and discontent. Once in awhile a stereotype can become a positive cultural assumption.
Just as not every Baby Boomer fits the definition pinned on them by sociologists, there will be discrepancies for any of us when trying to define one another. But, when it comes right down to it, if you had to ask someone to fix your computer, you are more likely to have faith in the Millennial than the person born in 1942.
Maybe that’s unfair, since we don’t know if the older person may be a tech wizard, but the odds tell us that the Millennial will more likely be able to help. Similarly, we would most likely turn to a Baby Boomer for advice on professional strategies, or a Gen Xer for ways to start a business venture.
Throughout our lives, we experience others telling us we’re “too young,” “too old,” or “too (fill in the blank).”
These limitations can feel artificial and contrary to our sense of individualism. This pushes us to push back against the stereotypes to show what we are capable of and why we defy the “norm.” In a sense, this fighting back against those who define us becomes a mark of our generation. As individuals we strive to make our way and we negotiate through our developmental levels, finding new versions of ourselves along the way.
As individual as we are, together our experiences and behaviors do form a collective pattern; some of it flattering, some not. The political landscape of our time, the cultural icons, the technology, all plays into the background of our individual lives.
How we respond to this backdrop defines the mark we make as a group of people passing through time.
How we respond to our world and the ways in which we shape it define our generation.
We seek meaning and purpose while we are here. We respond to the world we live in as well as we can, trying to adapt to the ever-changing scenery. Cultural expectations shift and so do we. Our accommodations become part of the multi-layered dimension of our generation of people. It become part of the stratified timeline, like the growth rings of a very old tree.
In reflecting back on the ways of prior generations compared to our own, it is important to value the good that each passing group has brought and learn from the mistakes.