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Caravan Readers Split on Generation Labels

In a survey conducted in August 2021, readers of the Reframing Aging Initiative’s Caravan newsletter split right down the middle on whether they personally identify as members of a particular generation, such as the baby boomers or millennials.

However, when asked if they feel the generation labels have value in helping better define and understand people born in those categories, readers participating voted “No” by a 3-2 margin.

The thoughtful and often nuanced comments we received from about 70 of the 115 readers participating in the survey shine some light on the differences between the way some answered the two questions.

The survey was prompted by an opinion piece titled Generation labels mean nothing. It’s time to retire them., written by Philip N. Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, that was published in the Washington Post. In Cohen’s view, the time has come to stop using all generation labels—the Silent Generation, baby boomers, Generation X, millennials, and Generation Z.

We found ourselves wondering what our fellow travelers in the reframing aging Caravan would think about the use of generation labels. So we decided to ask. We set up an online survey, sent out the link to Caravan subscribers, and asked them just two questions: 

The research conducted for the Reframing Aging Initiative found that it is not uncommon for the public to view older people as a monolith, or homogeneous group, when in fact, it would be difficult for a group to be any more diverse, or heterogeneous.

Highlights from Reader Comments

Participating readers who chose to comment on the topic spanned a wide range of opinions on the usefulness and value of generation labels. Below is just a small sampling of the comments we received.

To read all of the comments, see Caravan Readers Tell Us What They Think About Generation Labels.

“I believe, for research or program development purposes, it is helpful to understand characteristics of individuals born within a certain period. That being said, we could (with just a little more effort) say something like "those born between the ’50s and ’70s” or something. In fact, that allows for a customization that the generation levels do not. In my personal life, I have no need to refer to or belong to the generation labels. I believe that they have become divisive terms- not just for Boomers but also for younger folks that are often dismissed or unfairly portrayed. As I think about it, these labels are more often than not causing the perpetuation of stereotypes rather than allowing for true understanding of the generation factors that people faced.”

*****

“Although no single individual is accurately represented by a generational label, generations DO have similar cultural references that define them (movies, music, political events, sporting events, etc.)--again, those references don't define the individuals, they define what is generally relevant and memorable for those groups of individuals known as a generation. Generation labels provide insight to trends, but not individuals.”

*****

“Generational labels have become arbitrary, and marketers and opinion-shapers have begun to misappropriate them to foster generational discord or stereotype an age group. As a result, labels get used as an exclusionary strategy.”

*****

“Under question #2: I would have selected sometimes. I believe the Generation labels have some value for training in the workplace. I do believe that when the training is done well and not using stereotypes, it is helpful for different generations to understand the traits and experiences of people born within those categories.”

*****

“I think the labels have salience at a very broad level, but they imply homogeneity where there really is none. I relate to aspects of "Generation X" but think that referring to me as a child of the ’70s would be about as meaningful. (And a child born in 1970 vs 1979 really is different, too.) I strongly support a more nuanced way of referring to population dynamics and trends.”

*****

“More often than not, these labels lead to stereotyping, greater division, and bullying. There is much that we have in common across generations that is lost by using these labels. Honestly the only thing these labels are "good" for are indicating when someone was born (although not everyone can tell you this either). Generational labels tell me nothing about who someone is as an individual.”

*****

“Although I tend not to generalize that "all" people in a certain age group/category are all exactly the same, there are some general characteristics that are different between the generations.”

*****

“Generation tags may seem easier in terms of grouping and naming. But most of the time, we assume homogeneous groups using these labels. However, there is a heterogeneous situation. Nowadays, it has become very easy to criticize a group by generalizing using generation labels. It has become inevitable to think about this issue in more detail and to find a solution.”

*****

“I believe the author of the article we were asked to read confuses defining the various time periods in which we were born and suggesting that the characteristics that become associated with the various cadre completely define that group. We are from different times and we process the information and influences on our lives in a variety of ways. There are distinct ages, but the outcome of the impact on the individuals can be as varied as the people. That said, it is reasonable to infer certain patterns to various cohorts that enable conversation and analysis without striking each member of each cohort as clones of those definitions.”

*****

“I think generational labels, although totally imperfect, do help us fulfill our human need to categorize. If we don't use this nomenclature - we will no doubt create an alternative taxonomy.”

About Us

The Reframing Aging Initiative is a long-term social change endeavor designed to improve the public’s understanding of what aging means and the many ways that older people contribute to our society. This greater understanding will counter ageism and guide our nation’s approach to ensuring supportive policies and programs for us all as we move through the life course.

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Contact Us: reframingaging@geron.org

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