Born in 1970, raised on Punk, New Wave, 80s Rock, & Grunge, weaned on sitcoms and John Hughes movies, and having written my master's thesis on the novels of Douglas Coupland, I certainly consider myself to be a member of Generation X. And, of course, that means that I believe Gen X is actually a thing which means more than a book by Coupland, a cover story on Time Magazine, or the first band of Billy Idol. However, Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, disagrees with me, and in a piece for the WashPost, he argues "Generational titles mean nothing. It's time to retire them."The practice of naming “generations” based on birth year goes back at least to the supposed “Lost Generation” of the late 19th Century. But as the tradition devolved into a never-ending competition to be the first to propose the next name that sticks, it has produced steadily diminishing returns to social science and the public understanding.
The supposed boundaries between generations are no more meaningful than the names they’ve been given. There is no research identifying the appropriate boundaries between generations, and there is no empirical basis for imposing the sweeping character traits that are believed to define them. Generation descriptors are either embarrassing stereotypes or caricatures with astrology-level vagueness. In one article you might read that Millennials are “liberal lions,” “downwardly mobile,” “upbeat,” “pre-Copernican,” “unaffiliated, anti-hierarchical, [and] distrustful” — even though they also “get along well with their parents, respect their elders and work well with colleagues.”
Ridiculous, clearly. But what's the harm? Aren’t these tags just a bit of fun for writers? A convenient hook for readers and a way of communicating generational change, which no one would deny is a real phenomenon? We in academic social science study and teach social change, but we don’t study and teach these categories because they simply aren’t real. And in social science, reality still matters.
While I can acknowledge and even support many claims Cohen makes, I'll still argue that designations like Generation X, Millennial, Boomer, and even Gen Z mean something. At the most basic level, I think generations have a lot to do with whatever cultural and historical references seem familiar to a reasonably large age-based demographic. Generations have common allusions that, despite our varied experiences, seem to resonate and evoke common feelings. That cohesiveness can be comforting to our sense of self, placing us a certain time in a general community of people who might just get us, so to speak.
Of course, the divisiveness and blame-gaming that goes along with generational labels is something we can do without. And the associated problems of labeling people that Cohen criticizes are reasonable criticisms. Still, I think there's a place for such identifications.