Do you know your Baby Boomers from your Millenials? Are you familiar with Generation X, Y, and Z? What about the Silent Generation and Generation Alpha? Have you ever found yourself complaining about the fact that Millenials spend all their money on smashed avocado and lattes and appear to have a massive sense of entitlement when (like you did at their age) they should be working really hard and saving for a deposit on their first home?
For as long as I can remember I have thought of myself as a Baby Boomer. And I really liked the idea of belonging to a generation that came of age in the 1960s. Now I am not so sure that such labels are useful or accurate, so I want to challenge some of the myths about generational divides and also about us as a generation.
Baby Boomers were those born between 1946 and 1964, so I just squeak in, having emerged into the world in 1947. We Boomers were an amazingly lucky bunch, benefiting from free health care (remember that lovely NHS orange juice we all got?) and then to marry in the 1970s when average house prices were 3.89 times average salaries (it’s now nearly 9 times). We’re known as the generation that led campaigns for civil rights and female empowerment and we even got a man on the moon! We’re known to be focussed and competitive; maybe because there were so many of us, so we needed sharp elbows to get on in life. We value relationships and face-to-face communication and also tend to have an independent mind-set, self confidence and a capacity for hard work.
My granddaughter, Matilda
And what of the characteristics of some of the other generations which came after us? We Baby Boomers were followed by Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980. As such they straddle the pre-digital and digital worlds. This generation is described as resourceful, logical and good at problem solving. They are also seen as very engaged ‘helicopter’ parents to their protected offspring. They were followed by Generation Y or The Millennials, born between 1980 and 1995. These are the ‘digital natives’ because they have grown up with technology and are seen as confident, curious and questioning of authority and beloved of smashed avocado on toast! Who knows what characteristics Generation Z will have, although those of you with grandchildren born since 2000 will have your own ideas, particularly about their addiction to screens and their love of challenge to authority and rules! My youngest grand-child, Matilda, apparently belongs to Generation Alpha and, as she’s only five, her generational story is largely unwritten. However, a more determined, self confident, assertive and self reliant child I have yet to meet (but maybe she just takes after her Baby Boomer Granny!)
So, can it be true that being alive at the same time, or even being the same age at the same time mean that we will all experience that shared history uniformly? The idea behind the labels applied to generational groups is that a kind of ‘shared consciousness’ is created by our common exposure to formative events. However there is much stereotyping and very little empirical evidence that this is true. What shapes us most as human beings? Is it when we are born much more than to whom and where we are born and the circumstances of our lives thereafter? It is well nigh impossible to disentangle cultural influences from generational ones. On one level it seems to make sense to lump people together and call them ‘Boomers’ or ‘Gen X’ according to when they were born and then ascribe a certain set of behaviours and characteristics to each of them, but this is both simplistic and misleading. We are all individuals engaged from birth in a lifelong process of development affected by myriad influences and when we are born is just one of them. I have also come to realise that talking about generational differences is far from benign. It actually encourages and begets a form of ageism and allows for prejudice and antagonism between the different age groups.
Busting Some Baby Boomer Myths
1. We're Too Old to Understand Technology
Millennials and Generation Z (all those aged 40 and under) are the tech savvy generations. They have grown up with it and they use their phones as a kind of extra limb. For them it is a source of everything that they rely on including information and entertainment. We can disdain them for this, criticise their apparent addiction or we can stop being judgemental and accept that it’s not going to go away. You and I have known a world without the internet. But I never wish that I could go back there because, even for me, technology is a fabulous boon and I am very glad indeed that I now live in a digital world. Yes, it needs regulation and more people need to be more accountable for content on social media, but I have every confidence that the younger generation will find a way.
2. We Are Hoarding All the Wealth
This myth largely stems from property inflation. If you bought your house for £5000 and it’s now worth £500,000 you’re wealthy, right? Well no, because you always have to live somewhere and you can’t sell a door or a window if you need extra cash. And we all retired on final salary pension schemes and have our state pensions protected by the triple lock, isn’t that so? Again yes and no. WASPI women would beg to differ, having had their pensions effectively stolen from under their noses and the triple lock was originally designed to protect the older generation from the devastating effects of inflation on fixed incomes. And what about the Bank of Mum and Dad? Do we really hoard our so-called wealth, or are we actually very generous to our Generation Y children and Generation Z grandchildren if we have the means to do so?
3. We Are Socially Conservative
This myth accuses us Boomers of being prejudiced, narrow-minded and less accepting and tolerant of gender or racial difference. It also accuses us of voting predominantly for parties and policies which are neither progressive nor liberal. Yes, there is an age divide in how people vote, but voting intention is surely affected by a myriad of factors including geography, social class and educational level. Over the course of my life I have voted for each of the main political parties depending on what they stood for at the time and whether I thought they would do a good enough job. I am at heart a liberal (which has become a term of abuse in some circles), but I am not a libertarian. By which I mean that I believe in the freedom of the individual, but only as long as my freedom causes others no harm. So I am happy to wear a seat belt, and to not drink and drive, and at the moment I am still wearing a mask in crowded indoor spaces in case I might infect someone with a deadly virus. This has nothing to do with age; it’s how I have always lived my life.
I suppose there must be some wealthy, selfish, old, narrow-minded technophobic Baby Boomers who have pillaged the planet and are now intent on pulling the ladder up behind themselves, but I don’t know any! Just as there may well be some lazy, entitled, moaning young Millennials who think that the world owes them everything on a plate without having to work and save for it. But again, I haven’t met any. The people I meet are much more interesting, varied and complicated than these lazy stereotypes which are based on the myth that when you are born determines and predicts your thoughts, feelings, actions and values as you move through your life. Clearly there are some differences between people born at different times, but this is only one factor amongst very many. Yes, I am a Baby Boomer, but please don’t assume that this label tells you anything more about me than roughly when I was born.
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