Of all the hate that Americans direct at one another these days, the silliest of all has to be inter-generational hate.
Yet we see it all the time.
Baby Boomers, we're told, are self-important and self-righteous egotists who have bankrupted the country, morally as much as economically. But that's nothing compared with the lazy, entitled narcissists who make up the millennial generation. And really, what have Gen Xers ever accomplished?
I don't mean to denounce and dismiss negative demographic generalizations entirely. Talking in broad critical strokes about differences in outlook between "the young" and "the old" can have some limited value, depending on the issue. I'm talking instead about negative generalizations tied to specific demographic cohorts. These invariably boil down to an assertion like this: "Millennials — those born between roughly 1981 and 1996, but not five years earlier or five years later — have the following bad traits because of some ineffable quality rooted in the experience of being born then rather than some other time in history."
Such generalizations are nearly always nonsense — motivated by a desire to score points in a present-day ideological dispute by assigning all of the people born between certain years to one side of a fractured political debate.
Take the things so many of us say about Baby Boomers — the roughly 77 million people born in the immediate aftermath of the Depression and World War II, between 1946 and 1964. It was this generation that led a rebellion against the moral norms of the 1950s during the second half of the 1960s and through much of the 1970s. That has inspired countless conservatives to rail against the Boomers. But of course, many of those conservatives are Boomers, too — including Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Donald Trump — as well as many of the center-left political figures who have tried (with only partial success) to bridge the divide to reach political and cultural conciliation: Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and Barack Obama. And of course the 2020 presidential candidate who arguably falls furthest to the left — Elizabeth Warren — is a Baby Boomer, too.
What can we possibly say about this mélange of people and range of politicians — let alone the approximately 76,999,992 other Boomers? What do they have in common? Little besides a cluster of shared experiences: the JFK assassination, Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War, and Watergate relatively early in life; the election of Ronald Reagan, the end of the Cold War, the September 11 attacks, and the financial crisis in middle and old age. That's certainly something — but it's not something that implies a ready-made response to these events. Some became radicalized against Cold War liberalism by the Vietnam debacle, but others doubled down on anti-communism and joined the nascent conservative movement partially in reaction to the anti-war protests, while still others just complacently went along with the consensus of the moment without giving any of the underlying issues or implications much thought at all.
Something similar applies to the 73 million or so members of the generational cohort that comes in for maximal abuse today — with even presidential front-runners joining in the fun — the millennials. The most formative youthful experiences for millennials were the September 11 attacks, the Iraq War, and the financial crisis of 2008 and “lost decade” of economic stagnation that followed. People currently in their 20s and 30s have come of age in a very different world than the one the Boomers inherited. While those who grew up in the postwar era lived through a time of rapid economic growth and unprecedented prosperity, abundance, and relative egalitarianism, younger people today know only an America marked by wage stagnation, soaring costs for health care and education, debt burdens, and severe economic stratification and insecurity.
That's the generational experience. But what about the generational response? An unusually large number of millennials, at least by American standards, appear to be open to socialism. That makes Bhaskar Sunkara, the founding editor and publisher of far-left Jacobin magazine, an exemplary intellectual of his generation. But so, of course, is Ben Shapiro, the conservative firebrand who has nearly 50 times as many Twitter followers as Sunkara, as well as multiple popular media platforms and a substantial following among the young. Whereas Sunkara would like to overthrow capitalism and see a thoroughgoing redistribution of wealth and power, Shapiro thinks the solution to our economic problems is a return to moral and religious norms rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition and the passionate embrace of libertarian ideology.
Which man is the true millennial — representing and exemplifying the generation's distinctive virtues and vices? Or is the true millennial actually a woman fighting for abortion rights and against the male privilege behind sexual abuse and harassment? Or a different woman organizing a pro-life march in defense of the unborn and hoping to see her support for Donald Trump vindicated by the reversal of abortion rights by the Supreme Court? Or is the true millennial an apolitical tech entrepreneur hoping to make his first billion before he turns 40? Or a nameless service worker who commutes two hours on decrepit public transit to a job without health insurance that barely pays her enough to cover her bills but who is nonetheless eager to vote for Joe Biden in 2020 because she admires that he worked side by side with Barack Obama for eight years?
The millennial generation is somehow all of these people and many millions more. As individuals, each them deserves whatever praise and blame they may have earned in the first decade or so of adulthood. But the generation as a whole deserves neither. It is an abstraction, a mental construct, a convenient stand-in and whipping post for whatever political enemy or trend the critic dislikes and longs to denounce in the broadest possible terms.
Our debates will generate considerably more illumination and somewhat less pointless heat once we stop foolishly painting entire generations with the broadest and most disparaging of brushes.