Generation nothing

When I am at work, my staff know that there is one thing that is guaranteed to make me go an kick a filing cabinet – the reduction of complex issues about the changing nature of the workforce, technology and pretty much anything else to a “Gen X/Gen Y” headline. A very over-used trope in the media, the whole Generation Y thing is particularly abused in discussions whihc focus on jobs and training and management. Unsurprisingly, definition of the generation are constantly mutable, generally fitting whatever point the author is trying to make. And massive, sweeping generalisations abound. My general irritation with the abuse of this notion means I feel I must refute, or at least discuss, a number of aspects of the manner in which this terminology is used.

The most high profile reference to Gen Y ers and their work ethic has been Senator Arbib’s speech last week which has been widely reported as having him refer to them as job snobs. While he notes in The Punch that he did not really say specifically that he does make a number of generalisations about Gen Y. The fact that the media also took the whole Gen Y job-snob label and ran with it also shows how happpily these kinds of concepts get grabbed. Of course, they aren’t new, and this, like so many other “young people today” type admonishments is hardly new. As Dr Verity Archer’s work has showed, this idea about dole bludgers has been alive and well since the mid 1970s. While the focus of the dole bludger label has not always specifically been young people, they have always been strongly associated with labelling in this way. All generations, it would seem, have their own job snobs.

But beyond the “young people today” issues we seen in the generalising about generations, there are some other aspects of the way this labelling gets used that disturb me. For example, it doesn’t seem to occur to people how discriminatory its indiscriminate use is. Try this: find any article about Gen Yers or Xers and substitute the generation label for a term like, say, “black people”, “Asians”, “women”, “Jews” or “the disabled.” The article is probably still about as true, but it will certainly seem a great deal more offensive. Discrimination occurs when individuals are treated as part of a category, for no reason other than they fit some arbitrary aspect that is the same: eg gender, religion, race or date of birth. If you substituted “all Aries people” for Gen Y people, it would seem ludicrous, but lets remember that there is pretty much the same level of arbitrariness going on.

Karl Mannheim in Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge notes that  a generation can be consider a constituted group “where a concrete bond is created between members of a generation by their being exposed to the social and intellectual symptoms of a process of dynamic de-stabilization.” By this Mannheim is arguing that being born at the same time is not necessarily enough to constitute a “generation as an actuality”; for example Mannheim would point out that there is little in common between Chinese peasants born into any generation and an American of the same birthdate. As he writes, “mere contemporaneity becomes sociologically significant only when it involves participation in the same historical and social circumstances.” What Mannheim is noting here is that there is indeed a connection between people of a generation because, like women and black people, they are influenced by facing the same social circumstances from the same point of view. It is not that they are inherently the same, but that, because they have shared a range of the same social attitudes and treated, they have in common a range of socially constructed experiences.

However, and this is as always an important however, Mannheim crucially notes that  generations are not monolithic entities and that “within any generation there can exist a number of differentiated, antagonistic generation-units.” Just think back, for example, to the generation to end all generations, the Baby Boomers. Any cursory examination of that generation and the directions in which it has gone can clearly spell out the fact that a generation is not homogeneous. Paul Lyons, for example, in New Left, New Right and the Legacy of the Sixties, identifies at least four significant (American) generation groupings who were active during the Sixties: the left including protesters and political radicals; those who served in Vietnam, mostly American “proletariat and sub-proletariat”; the large “silent majority” who avoided political activism and Vietnam service; and the New Right, a “powerful conservative movement” that emerged in the Sixties.  Going back to Mannheim, he notes that  the “generation-unit tends to impose a much more concrete and binding tie on its members because of the parallelism of responses it involves.”  Thus any individual is will reflect the ideas of the particular sub-set of the generation he or she is a part of to a much greater extent than the characteristics of the generation as a whole. Even Strauss and Howe, the ra-ra agents for the notion of generational identity, implicitly note the problematic nature of generalisations about generations when writing “you and your peers share the same “age location” in history, and your generation’s collective mind-set cannot help but influence you—whether you agree with it or spend your lifetime battling against it.”  And lots of people do spend a lifetime fighting against it.

So when people talk about the fact that “Gen Ys demand more from their jobs” I point out the fact that the modern workplace has changed, consciousness of entitlements and ideas of fairness are current throughout the working environment, so of course young people who have only experienced this will have different expectations. But guess what, all the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have exactly the same expectations nowadays. Similarly, I have seen as many older people in my workplace flit from job to job as I have seen young people – guess what, this is the era of labour mobility – it isn’t an aspect of age or generation! I loved it when at a conference nearly two years ago now, one of the speakers dismissed the generation discourse and said “I’m pretty sure I wasn’t a sage, experienced, quiet, hard worker either when I was 20 – that’s about being young, it isn’t about being in any sort of generation.” Similarly when older people say “it is so hard to communicate with Gen Y” it is not a function of the generation, it is a function of the difference in ages and experience and the subsequently different points of reference in the world – and any cursory glance at literature through the ages will show that isn’t confined to people born since 1980s.

So please journalists and guest speakers everywhere, for the sake of my filing cabinets, could you just stop with this whole Generation Y crapola. It is wrong, it is discriminatory and, bascially, it is lazy!