The Generation Game is over (at least for me)

by John Quiggin on March 7, 2018

For more than a generation, I have been railing against the Generation Game, that is, the insistence on dividing society into groups based on birth year and imputing different characteristics to each group. Today, I’m following the classic advice for those involved in an endless war: declare victory and get out. The basis for my claim is that I’ve managed to publish my latest critique in the New York Times, under the headline ‘Millennial’ Means Nothing (paywalled*). I expect this will reach more people than anything I could do with blog posts, so I will leave this topic and move on.

  • It’s fairly easy to get around, I believe.



J-D 03.07.18 at 8:45 am


Equalitus 03.07.18 at 9:42 am

Not sure if this response is really a theory about the “generation game” but as an empiricist I disagree entirely about future assumptions based on mythological narrative and arbitrary attributions to a cohort that is defined as a “generation”.
Must only look at statistical data on financial structure and socio cultural difference.


philip 03.07.18 at 11:54 am

of course it is a load of rubbish and always has been. I was born in 1981 and my eldest niece in 2002, so by a lot of definitions we are millenials but I’m not in the same generation as my sisters who are 2 and 4 years older than me and my niece could be in a different generation to her siblings who are 3 and 5 years younger.


Anarcissie 03.07.18 at 12:45 pm

Well, now they have ‘Generation Z’, which ought to mean the end.


Shirley0401 03.07.18 at 12:57 pm

When, for example, baby boomers are blamed for “ruining America,” the argument lumps together Donald Trump and a 60-year-old black woman who works for minimum wage cleaning one of his hotels.

This captures my feelings perfectly. I’m not much of a stats person, but while I think it can be useful to look at what groups of people of a certain age did or did not tend to do at a certain time to get a sense of what direction things were headed or are heading, presuming that tells one anything about the traits of individuals in that cohort just strikes me as lazy. I mean, Boomers as a generation have utterly failed to do anything resembling enough to address the causes of climate change, but that doesn’t mean a ton of individual Boomers weren’t trying to do what they could for most of their lives.


JDHE 03.07.18 at 2:09 pm

@1 my first thought also.


James 03.07.18 at 3:08 pm

I find a generation as a unit of historical time is appealing, as in ‘the Roman Empire was ~80 generations ago’.

Also, generations may be used as targets of government policy. Here in Singapore the ‘Pioneer Generation’ associated with the 1960’s independence of the country has been afforded various social benefits in recent years.


Omega Centauri 03.07.18 at 3:28 pm

If there is any meaning to generational characteristics, it is only in some average sense. If accurate, it usually means group X has a few percent greater preference for theme Y, than group Z has. It *might* explain changes in the prospects of say political parties, but doesn’t say much about the individuals.


Kiwanda 03.07.18 at 3:39 pm

Oh, for Pete’s sake, that html. Please disregard prior transmission.

From the Times article:

….the insistence on dividing society into groups based on [predicate] and imputing different characteristics to each group.

Yes, limited insights can be gleaned from thinking of humans in terms of [predicate], but this ultimately does more harm than good by obscuring the individual factors that actually shape our attitudes, politics and opportunities.

Absolutely. While it’s possible to make limited kinds of general statements about people with [predicate], ultimately, our life histories are unique and distinct, and each person’s struggles, aspirations, character, and much else, belong to themselves alone, as individuals.


BruceJ 03.07.18 at 4:22 pm

I did notice one typo in your piece: apparently your autocorrect substituted ‘book’ for ‘load of meaningless hogwash’ to describe the word salad that Strauss and Howe committed.


MR Bill 03.07.18 at 4:27 pm

The complete article: “The Pew Research Center announced last week that it will define people born between 1981 and 1996 as members of the millennial generation, embracing a slightly narrower range of years than the ones used by the United States Census Bureau. It would have been better, though, if it had announced the end of what I call the “generation game” — the insistence on dividing society into groups based on birth year and imputing different characteristics to each group.

Yes, limited insights can be gleaned from thinking of humans in terms of generations, but this ultimately does more harm than good by obscuring the individual factors that actually shape our attitudes, politics and opportunities.

To see what’s wrong with the idea, take a look at American millennials. In seemingly endless essays in recent years, they’ve been derided as lazy and narcissistic or defended as creative and committed to social change. But these all sound like characteristics that the old have ascribed to the young since the dawn of time. Similar terms were applied to the “slacker” Generation X and before that, the baby boomers.

It’s true that the current cohort (the demographic term for a group of people born around the same time) of young people is different in important ways from earlier cohorts. It’s more ethnically diverse, with a smaller proportion of whites and more of most other racial and ethnic groups. But diversity is a characteristic of a population, not, in most cases, of individuals. A relatively small proportion of millennials personally embody ethnic diversity in the sense of identifying with more than one race or ethnicity.

Much of the apparent distinctiveness of the millennial generation disappears when we look at individuals rather than aggregates. Black millennials, like their parents, overwhelmingly vote Democratic. By contrast, 41 percent of white millennials voted for Donald Trump in 2016. That’s lower than the 58 percent of all white voters who went for Mr. Trump, but it makes more sense to attribute the difference to individual characteristics and experiences rather than a generational attitude.

Compared to the population as a whole, a larger proportion of millennials are college-educated, and a smaller proportion live in rural areas. Like other urban and educated voters, urban and educated millennials tend to vote Democratic. Rural millennials, meanwhile, share many of the attitudes of older rural voters who voted for Mr. Trump.

Activism by high school students in response to the Parkland, Fla., shooting has inspired interest in the generation younger than millennials, known as “Gen Z” or “iGen.” A recent Washington Post essay declared: “Millennials disrupted the system. Gen Z is here to fix the mess.” It argued that members of this cohort “value compromise” as “a byproduct of their diversity and comfort with working with peers from different backgrounds.
But given that public schools have been resegregating for decades, to assume that the demographic makeup of a generation would have a meaningful impact on most individual Gen Z members’ experiences with diversity seems misguided.

Although much of its current popularity can be traced to the influential 1991 book “Generations” by Neil Howe and William Strauss, generational thinking dates back to the second half of the 19th century. Sarah Laskow of The Atlantic explained in 2014 that philosophers at this time were, in the words of the sociologist Karl Mannheim, “anxious to find a general law to express the rhythm of historical development, based on the biological law of the limited lifetimes of man.” /But understanding societal phenomena through the lens of groups of people born around the same time has always had its limits.

For example, it’s true that for young men coming-of-age during the Vietnam War, being born in a particular year (and, thanks to the draft lottery, on a particular day) could be life-shaping. But even here, an individual’s class was a factor in whether he actually went to war — men from privileged backgrounds had many options to avoid the draft, the burden of which fell mainly on the working class.

Like war service, entering the labor market at a time of recession, as most millennials did, can be difficult. But race and class are more important in affecting how this experience plays out for individuals.

Take white millennial college graduates: Yes, they’re part of an age cohort that has experienced worse economic conditions than graduates of the preceding generation — but that doesn’t give us a particularly meaningful understanding of their plight, given that they are still better off when it comes to income than the average non-college-educated worker of any age.

Some may argue that the generation game, if intellectually vacuous, is basically harmless. But dividing society by generation obscures the real and enduring lines of race, class and gender. When, for example, baby boomers are blamed for “ruining America,” the argument lumps together Donald Trump and a 60-year-old black woman who works for minimum wage cleaning one of his hotels.
The pattern of inherited privilege points to yet another reality that the generation game ignores: the decline of social mobility between generations and the rise of what the French economist Thomas Piketty has called a “patrimonial society.” When it comes to wealth and its accompanying privileges, the wealth of the previous generation of one’s own family matter more than whether your birth year falls on one or other side of some arbitrary boundary.

Today’s young people may choose political action aimed at reversing these trends or to let them continue and accelerate. But their choices will be determined by their political judgments and personal commitments, not by a number on a birth certificate.”


Ed 03.07.18 at 6:05 pm

The generational stuff has to be understood to be about the baby boomers, and the older and younger people they had some effect on, and that is it. This will be better comprehended after 2040 or so.


mary s 03.07.18 at 6:14 pm

Yes, I agree! The generation game is often played by those who want to cut social security and other safety net programs. More generally, it helps obscure the class war that is being waged (and won) by the super rich.


Lastuniversalcommonancestor 03.07.18 at 8:00 pm

Mmm… isn’t this true with any statistical stratification? Groups like “African Americans”, “Republicans”, or “rural voters” are also broad generalizations that are obviously heterogeneous, but also share some common characteristics based on shared experiences. Being the first group of people to grow up with television as the key form of medium, or in the internet age, or more recently to be embedded in social media, clearly can make a difference in the way one perceives and interacts with the world. With proper consideration to individuality of course.


nastywoman 03.07.18 at 11:31 pm

In the ”linguistically” terms of playing games with names people like to give new generations in some ”Generation Game” the game might be over – but NOT in the way the ”younger (American) generation” sees one of the most admired laws of ”the Wild West”.

Or better said:
There is hope that the current ”youngest US generation” might finally be able to cure the older US generations sick love for guns.


Essayist 03.08.18 at 5:27 pm


It’s a spectrum, with “Generations” being on the rather more specious, less useful end.

Political groupings (Democratic, conservative, etc.) often have more explanatory power in certain domains because they are self-ascribed, so the person is, generally, buying in to a whole raft of beliefs by claiming a political label. In contrast, you can’t control what year you were born in, so Generations are much weaker in this respect.

Other groupings have explanatory power because the externally perceived dividing lines lead to different treatment by society. So if you “look white” or “look female” or “look Muslim” (to many/most people) you may have experiences that are similar to those of others “looked at” the same way. “Generations” have some strength here, because the average Boomer looks different to me than the average Gen Zer, and there is some sense in which all the articles bemoaning (or celebrating, but mostly bemoaning) Millenials actually help create the group identity.

Finally, my bet would be that “Generations” is among the most weakly validated constructs, e.g. both for the characteristics of supposed Millenials and for the age boundaries between Gen Z/Millenial/Gen X. I’d expect more generalizations about rural voters or African Americans or Democrats to be backed by survey data. So John’s quick asides re how it’s more helpful to know whether someone is black, white, rural, or college-educated than whether they are Millenial to predict their presidential choice is telling.


maidhc 03.08.18 at 8:26 pm

I remember hearing that Gen X was supposed to be the tenth generation since the American revolution. Would that make it 1956-1976? Perhaps it was supposed to be 1963-1983. Wikipedia doesn’t mention this derivation, but I remember hearing it. So by that we should have gone on to Gen XI.

When we get past Gen Z we could emulate a spreadsheet and go on to Gen AA.


Trader Joe 03.08.18 at 9:57 pm

I see what you’re saying and agree in general, but I still think there are generational differences that can be grouped and particularly if considered along political lines.

I would assert that a person who became a liberal in the 1960s opposing racism and the Vietnam war would embrace somewhat different political values than a Reagan Era liberal or a Bush Era liberal.

Its not that that, say a Bush Era liberal doesn’t care about racism or peace – its more that they don’t have the shared experience. One encounters any number of “60s liberals” (now in their 60s) who recount different marches or protests they participated in – sit ins, maybe even riots. They will inevitably know someone who did something to get out of serving in Vietnam. There would have been little notion of seeking sexual identity rights and environmentalism was more about not littering than any notion of global warming or climate change.

By contrast a Reagan era liberal will have had essentially no experience of marches or protests. Their activism would likely have slanted more towards Women’s rights and been early movers on the environment (post three mile island)….again they’d have still cared about race and peace – but “war” and conscription wasn’t a front line concern. Race relations – though not actually improved, were quieter. Southern Democrats like Carter and Clinton would have been their standard bearers and accordingly quite distinct from the Kennedy democrats of the immediately preceeding years.

Bush Era liberals had yet different causes. LBGTQ rights and the environment took greater prominence, and wealth disparity (Occupy) emerged as a “thing” (not that it didn’t exist, but that it wasn’t as focused upon). Again it wasn’t that feminism or peace or race didn’t matter – they totally did…but if your first march or rally related to Occupy its likely that will hold a different place in your heart and priorities than if your first march was against the Vietnam war.

In all these cases, all these generations there are differences in how they set their priors, what they take as “given” and what they still want to fight for. None is better or worse in my book, but I’m hard pressed to not see some differences in attitude and emphasis even if I’d embrace any of the aforementioned stereotypes as liberal kin.


philip 03.09.18 at 10:22 am

Trader Joe, that makes sense except you are already looking at a group (liberals) within a generation rather than a generation as a whole, conservative or people who do not identify with one side would experience those events very differently. What really doesn’t make sense to me is lumping generations into arbitrary blocks of about 20 years. As I said I was born in 1981 in the UK so my first memory of major political events was 1989 the the first Gulf War and end of Thatcher being prime minister. After that mainstream opinion was that communism had totally failed, Fukuyama’s end of history, Blair being popular and the main political question being what flavour of neoliberalism there should be. When I did a degree in economics alternatives to neoclassical economics were mainly discredited except for adding some critique but not enough to undermine the whole thing. More left wing ideas came into micro.

For someone born ten years later the big political event would be the attack on the WTC and the war on terror and increased anger towards Blair and Bush. Then ten years after that it would be the global financial crisis and now Brexit and Trump with people questioning neoliberalism but few alternatives being offered. In some ways young people today will have more in common with people 10-20 years older than me who will have lived through the rise of Thatcherism, and the protests against it, an entered the job market in a recession. But that would depend on what part of the country you were in as well as what other social group you belonged to. Lumping everyone from the early eighties to the late nineties or early 2000’s under the term millennial just seems obviously ridiculous to me.


Andrew Hamilton 03.11.18 at 4:11 am

I’d like to point out, for the record, that this whole Baby Boom referenced above is wrong from start to finish. The real baby boom happened in 1946, the year I was born. It boomed that one year and then it was over. What you people call the Baby Boom was really a Baby Drawn-Out Fizzle. For many years, maybe the whole 50’s, the baby boom was the the actual 1946 post-war baby boom. And then some slick sociologist jumped in with sociological English and corrupted it, made it into a “generation,” made it into a weird hallucination named after the actual boom.

As an example, a real boomer did kindergarten and first grade on double sessions, one class in the morning and one in the afternoon, because there weren’t enough classrooms. They had to car-pool to school because there weren’t enough buses. That’s why it was a boom. Kids born in 1947 didn’t have double sessions or suffer car-pooling because new classrooms had been built and buses bought. Kids born in 1947 had it easy, they were faux-boomers. Not to mention kids born all the way until, what, 1961?

True boomers recited the Pledge of Allegiance innocently without metaphysics, and were suddenly slapped in the face with “under God” in about the second grade. Pre-boomers were old enough to deal with that idiocy in their sullen Silent Generation manner, yeah, under God, whatever you say, boss. Faux-boomers on the other hand never knew the difference. They bought it the same way they bought everything else.

Faux-boomers, as far as I can tell, really did feel a nuclear threat. Actual 1946 boomers still thought the enemy was Germans and got to be the guys who demonstrated duck-and-cover during all-school drills as 8th-graders in 1960 by thundering out on the playground and flopping on the turf with one arm over the back of the neck while the Russian-fearing youngsters looked on in awe.

A real baby-boomer called a pistol a pistol. The cumbersome and illogical word “hand-gun” had not been invented yet. Another gift of post-boom sociology.

True boomers got their first real jobs, if they were lucky, after the trials of war or draft-avoidance, when President Ford was trying to Whip Inflation Now. It was tough times, mon. Boomering wasn’t easy.

Real boomers may have worn onions on their belts, but they knew that a podium is something you stand on, not behind.

Most true boomers probably at one time or another talked to people at dope parties who said they worshiped Barbara Walters.

True boomers knew that Ronald Reagan was the guy with shaved armpits from GE Theater and not someone to take seriously. Their idea of what a President looks like was not corrupted by that silly goober. They didn’t have to normalize Trump because they’d seen it all happen before.

Hoping this clears things up some. Biologically, a cohort is everything born in the same year. At least that’s the way it is with cohorts of fish. So maybe we go with cohort as someone up there is hinting?


Ogden Wernstrom 03.11.18 at 6:42 pm

A yellow onion was all we could get.

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