Pew quits the generation game

by John Q on June 6, 2023

Since the beginning of this millennium, I’ve been writing critiques of the “generation game”, the idea that people can be divided into well-defined groups (Boomers, Millennials and so on), with specific characteristics based on their year of birth. As I said in my first go at this issue, back in 2000 (reproduced here )

Much of what passes for discussion about the merits or otherwise of particular generations is little more than a repetition of unchanging formulas about different age groups Ð the moral degeneration of the young, the rigidity and hypocrisy of the old, and so on.

Demographers have a word (or rather two words) for this. They distinguish between age effects and cohort effects. The group of people born in a given period, say a year or a decade, is called a cohort. Members of a cohort have things in common because they have shared common experiences through their lives. But, at any given point in time, when members of the cohort are at some particular age, they share things in common with the experience of earlier and later generations when they were at the same age.

My most prominent contribution to the debate was this piece in the New York Times five years ago, prompted by the Pew Research Centre’s announcement that it would define people born between 1981 and 1996 as members of the millennial generation. After discussing the history of the “generation” idea, I made the central point

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.

Now, I’m pleased to say, Pew has changed its view, partly in response to a “growing chorus of criticism about generational research and generational labels in particular.”
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