The only valid thing to say about generations is that we share the same soil and oxygenated atmosphere of culture, events, and time.
As humans with complex brains, we’re born with the instinctive ability to find or create meanings for everything we experience. A huge part of this ability is the tendency to categorize things, mainly because naming something or putting it in a particular box allows us to feel a sense of security, stability, and control over it.
Obviously, people are not things. We’re far more diverse and complex and tend to defy any labels that others want to assign to us. However, it’s as if we can’t help categorizing one another –– by race, gender, ability, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, socioeconomic level, political affiliation, etc. –– including age. And that last trait involves defining each of us according to our generation.
Those needs for security, stability, and control often intersect with our fear and dread of getting older, making us reluctant to mingle with younger or older cohorts and envious or suspicious of what we assume to be their greater ambition or their greater wealth at the expense of our own. When we give into those zero-sum assumptions, the convenience of embracing generational definitions takes on a darker purpose as corporations in the billion-dollar industries of age-restricted retirement villages, high technology, and anti-aging products/services play on our views and promote generational warfare.
When, if at all, is it accurate and therefore acceptable to generalize about generations? Are attributing stereotypes to their experiences, preferences, and behavior valid, or does this instead promote misunderstanding, polarization, and ageism?
I’ve been wrestling with these questions for a long time, and I think I’ve arrived at an analogy that provides some good answers.
We –– all of us of any age –– are like trees growing in the same forest. Old trees, midlife trees, saplings, seedlings, evergreen, deciduous, tall, short, wide-trunked, narrow-trunked, of many different species. Some trees needing more sunlight or water than others. Some trees pushing their roots deep into the soil and others spreading their roots wider and closer to the surface. You get the picture.
Now consider two other scenes. Instead of a huge, diverse forest, picture a Christmas tree farm and an apple orchard. Both are comprised of trees of the same variety and roughly the same age and tendencies coexisting together with no other arboreal species around.
The farm and orchard surely have their limited purposes and advantages. They yield high amounts of a specific crop and are easy to manage. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t exist. But such plantings aren’t natural. Their lack of diversity erodes the soil and depletes it of nutrients that must be deliberately and continually supplemented. They are less able to fight off diseases and pests. For these reasons, such artificially constructed monocultures shouldn’t be the norm but rather the exception.
We have likewise created a society of monocultures that experience very little intergenerational interaction. The retirement village of residents ages 50 and older that discourages young families may meet the needs of some older adults, but how socially fertile, really, is that environment? The same can be said for high-tech workplaces that discourage the hiring and retention of older adults. In such companies, how nutrient-rich is the soil of much-needed, innovative ideas and processes? And those businesses that push plastic surgery, Botox, and other anti-aging remedies provide the fuel that keeps the engines of those other industries chugging away.
We can’t see the forest for the trees.
It seems to me that the only valid thing to say about generations (keeping in mind that the age ranges assigned to them are arbitrary and vary depending on who’s doing the defining) is that we are existing together, sharing the same soil and the same oxygenated atmosphere of culture, events, and time, yet are enduring and reacting in our own ways to natural and human-made catastrophes that impact us all.
Just like individual trees of the same ages or species, we are nevertheless individuals who are affected differently by those events, based on other factors. Some, such as our gender, race, ethnicity, and geographic location are more widely socially determined. Others, such as our personal history, preferences, level of education, economic status, and family dynamics, are not. All of these differences make it problematic to speak of ourselves in broad generational terms.
So maybe we should stop placing such great importance on identifying ourselves according to generational categories. Instead, let’s value, protect, and enrich the ecosystem we inhabit together.
How well we care for our shared environment will determine the extent to which we all survive and thrive in it –– in the many growing seasons to come.