“Generation” – Hidden Power of Words Series, #33

“Generation” (in the context of “social generations,” such as baby boomers or Get Y) might well be another candidate for my “banned words” list! As with “traditional,” “generation” focuses on the experiences and values of those privileged in a given time and place by those same experiences and values. As a concept, it tells us nothing. 

Society at large imagines a generation of “digital natives” or millennials. As anyone who teaches or even helps customers with technology can tell you, such a characterization for people born in the 1980s and 1990 is far from accurate. (And what about those born on December 31, 1979, at 11:59 PM? Dates are a funny thing.)  

“Generations” ignores all aspects of intersectionality and positionality. “Generations” falsely homogenize–quite specifically–everyone born in a given timeframe. “Generations” are–literally–what enable historical memories that envision “utopian pasts.”

Thinking about millennials and the myth of the digital natives, such ignores differences in class. People with the prerequisite money (and power and interest) had knowledge or and access to technology far before it began reaching affordability for larger numbers of people in the 1980s and especially in 1990s. People without access to money, those who live at or below the poverty level, still cannot always afford a computer or spare the time to use the public library’s computer. Geography matters, too, as access to the Internet is far from even across the United States. Some people never had the opportunity to be a “digital native.” 

Race and gender matter, too. Because of historical baggage and historical realities, these forces matter and their interaction with each other matter, too. Black “baby boomers,” by definition, grew up in a very different world than non-Black individuals. Any attempt to talk about “baby boomers” (as a singular group) will only lead to historical erasure.

People sometimes talk about how “baby boomers are retiring en masse.” This is true…for baby boomers with the appropriate resources to retire. Discussed less often are the baby boomers–the poor White women, the disabled Black trans man, the Asian woman who immigrated from Japan and has medical bills to pay, the White man who lost his pension to no fault of his own–who are forced to die at work.

The only productive use of “generation” that comes to mind is conversations about families, such as a photo showing a baby, her mother, her grandmother, and her great grandmother.

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda