Thursday, February 25, 2016

Generalization gap

According to the Chinese calendar, this is the year of the monkey. It happens to be my year, as well as my mother’s, and my mother will tell you if you ask that a monkey is the best thing to be. Of course, if you tell her you’re something else—horse or dragon or some sort of cloven-hooved animal—she’ll tell you that’s a great thing to be, too. Since she doesn’t really believe any of the zodiacal hokum—the idea that everyone born within a certain period of time shares certain conveniently vague characteristics and there are 12-year cycles for these characteristics—the whole thing pretty much comes down to “it’s all good.”

I myself don’t believe in the horoscopes, neither Eastern nor Western versions, though like a lot of people I find them mildly amusing to read. Let’s face it, it’s human nature to seek simple definitions for ourselves and others. So much of life is out of our control, and what we understand seems so piddling compared to what we don’t, it’s hugely enticing to think that figuring out who we are and how we are distinct from others is as simple as the month or year of our birth—or as quick as taking a Buzzfeed quiz. (My favorites are the aggressively positive ones that tell you your greatest weakness is that you’re too generous and your worst quality is you work too hard. OMG, that’s totally me!) But I’m even skeptical of less dubious forms of definition, ones that are supposedly based on solid research yet still find it necessary to create some cute and catchy name for each cohort. Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials—oh how we love generational generalizations.

I read an article the other day written by a college professor talking about the way the so-called Millennials are being characterized as entitled brats who want everything handed to them. This particular professor defended the Millennials against these charges, though he didn’t go so far as to say that the depiction was inaccurate—and he certainly didn’t suggest that any such gross generalization can’t help but be inaccurate. I commented that the article was interesting but the behaviors the professor described didn’t seem any different from any other group of college students of any era. I technically fall under the “Generation X” banner, and it seems to me back when I was of college age my peers and I were depicted as unmotivated slackers. (The novel that gave us our name is about three people in their 20s who sit around telling stories in between working at unambitious jobs. Funny thing, it probably describes my life now a lot better than it did when I was their age.)

Interestingly, the friend who had posted this article responded to my comment by pointing out that while this certainly might be true of my generation, her generation—the Boomers—still believed in the value of hard work. I picture her smiling as she wrote this; it made me smile too, though not for the same reasons. It likely pleased her to think of her “generation” this way, and yet I could easily have pointed out that my father’s generation—they who were born in the Great Depression and lived through World War II—would have seen hers as, well, entitled brats who wanted everything handed to them. What did they ever have to suffer? The Cold War? Bah! Cold wars are nothing compared to hot ones, where people are actively dying every day—yet dying for an important, significant, meaningful cause. But listen: people of my grandparents’ era, the few still around, would almost certainly scoff at my father. You were a baby in the Great Depression, they’d have reminded him, and too young to fight in the War. What do you know of hard work?

And on and on.

I’m not suggesting that people around same age have nothing in common so as to be statistically insignificant. It always tickles me when I’m talking to someone close to my age and one of us makes a certain pop cultural reference that everyone else is too old or (more likely these days) too young to understand and we both grin, even though that person and I probably have almost nothing else in common. The fiancé grew up in the greater St. Louis area and I grew up in Hawaii but we both remember the words to the “George of the Jungle” theme song. On the other hand, the fiancé never watched Sesame Street when he was a kid even though he was the right age to have done so. When you live in a family of twelve kids, all but two of them older than you, you watch what the big kids watch, and it’s almost certainly not going to involve learning the alphabet with Big Bird and Grover. There are clearly aspects of his upbringing, and of mine, that define us in wholly unique ways, and I tend to believe that these aspects often override any sort of “generational” ones. To be more precise, I think any given person likely has more in common with their parents than with any random person their own age. It’s dismaying for me to admit this, but I have to admit it, given that I find myself these days taking on more and more of my parents’ traits (and, of course, those specific traits that so aggravate me about them).

I’m not dismissing the idea of generational similarities. I didn’t grow up texting—hell, I didn’t grow up with computers—and it’s impossible to dismiss the effect social media must be having on kids now. And yet, according to the most recent U.S. Census data, a quarter of all households in this country don’t have Internet access. Not everyone is online. I know people older than I am who spend a lot more time on social media than I do, and a surprising number of people younger than I am who spend almost no time on it at all. Yes, this is hardly solid empirical evidence, but I’d also suggest that those “generational” definitions are suspect for similar reasons in that they only describe a certain segment of any given age group—namely, the mainstream, relatively affluent and educated portion. So college students these days strive to get “A” grades without having to work for them. What about the 60% of college-age people who aren’t in college? Maybe instead of characterizing a generation, we’re really just characterizing a class system.

“Oh there you go, bringing class into it again.” Did you recognize that line and laugh? The fiancé probably would—and, interestingly, his kids probably would too. The last time we all got together the five of us spent a good 20 minutes quoting lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and screaming with laughter. Our ages span over three decades, but some things—like men banging coconuts together and hiding in giant wooden rabbits—bridge any perceived gap. It’s OK if you didn’t recognize the line, though—it’s even OK if you rolled your eyes at it. As my mother the monkey might suggest, it’s all good.

No comments:

Post a Comment