the prejudice nobody seems to mind

This is a little off-topic so I’ll keep this short. Has anyone else noticed that writing reflecting generational prejudice seems to be everywhere these days? Twenty years ago, I would come across occasional snide references to Boomers and roll my eyes and move on. Nowadays, however, it seems that every other article I read on social, political, and cultural issues snipes at one age cohort or another in a completely stereotyped way. I’m not talking about those demographic characteristics that are actually supported by research, but rather about a set of  value judgments that pretend to interpret the statistics and very often substitute entirely for any consideration of facts. Boomers: entitled and selfish. Millennials: lazy and dependent. Sound familiar? Exactly. It’s a peculiar form of agism that can be aimed at any age range of choice (as opposed to just those who rank as ‘old’ in the eyes of the writer).

Given all the ongoing conversations aimed at eliminating other forms of prejudice—homophobia, racism, sexism—when and how did it become ok to tag large groups of people as defective according to when they were born? There is a good deal of really quite silly discussion about whether specific labels apply (Millennials: just dependent or also lazy?), but practically none that I’ve read suggesting that this kind of labeling is odious on the face of it. I find myself wondering what larger function this outburst of generational prejudice is serving. Could it be a way of bleeding off energy that could otherwise be applied to discussing the economics of class in America? Generational warfare instead of ‘class warfare’?

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4 Responses
  1. Zinc says:

    I like the point on which you end – because I see this as part of a tendency to want to individualize the stereotyping (even though it seems like a vast generalizations, it’s about individuals rather than about the structures that make subjects) rather than talking about history.
    Others have pointed this out – eg the animated discourse about narcicism is always trafficking in generational prejudice; but many point out that of course, this is about larger historical and social shifts: “according to Davenport, the accusation that Generation Y, or—my least favorite term—Millennials, is the most narcissistic generation yet has been backed up by data, he wonders if it’s less a generational problem than just a general shift in our society.” (http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/01/how-to-spot-a-narcissist-online/283099/)
    But then it’s harder to to empirical and theoretical work in excavating those histories and social structures than to toss off another stereotype that works well at parties. I agree with you on both the eye-roll and the call for analysis.

  2. Lilly says:

    Yeah, agreed. I think you nailed it with the point of personalizing history and structure so ire can be directed at individuals. Sherry Ortner, in her book New Jersey Dreaming: Capital, Culture, and the Class of 58, talks a bit about these generational stereotypes as well. I remember her pointing out that the generation X/Y stereotypes are pretty much exclusively stereotypes of white Americans. She also points out that a lot of the benefits of the middle classing of America during the Cold War, as a vaccine against communism, was about middle classing *white* america. These generational stereotypes you cite seem to me to be a repeat of some of the same Gen X/Y stuff, along with the erasure of non-white experience from even being in question. Tiger Mom Amy Chua stirs up the anxieties with her assertions that white America lacks the qualities that make power immigrant generations strong.

    So with the individualization, we can toss in a little divide and conquer.

  3. Komnene says:

    Zinc: I agree with Lilly that your point about individualizing stereotypy is an important one, and so very American a tendency — people, not structures, are always seen as the problem.

    Lilly: Good point about the underlying whiteness that emerges in the way so many of these categories are framed and deployed.

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