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Have we fallen prey to pseudo-science?
I remember reading the book Generations by Strauss and Howe many years ago. It was the Clinton era that made it popular. Bill Clinton supposedly used it to form his campaign message to become President. Since then, the terminology of generations has entered our language and is ubiquitous. Each year, hundreds of books, blogs, news reports, and conferences use these new words to describe who we are. Boomers, Xers, Millennials, and Zoomers, not to mention Gen-Z, Gen-A, Gen-Y, ABCDEFG…. With each new generation pundits spar over the next term that we should all adopt and tweet about.
Ministry leaders are fully on board and have been for, well, a generation or so. Pretty much everybody talks in terms of generations. Even the ministry I lead does it. At the Missio Nexus conference, we almost always have a session on two related to the topic of generational issues (by the way, have you signed up yet for the 2023 event, SHIFT? - all the cool kids will be there). (EMBED LINK)
The original paradigm described a cycle of generations that repeated every four generations (what they called a saeculum). It both described and predicted the generational changes we can expect about every 20 years. As a framework, it does provide some common language.
As a theory, it is sorely lacking in scientific rigor.
For my part, I was born in 1962. That makes me a boomer, but I have never felt much like a boomer. Two media pieces have made me feel generationally homeless. When I watched Forrest Gump (a movie considered to be the “boomer standard”) I felt little to no identification with its boomer themes. In fact, I found the entire movie narcissistic in its celebration of the boomer experience. Nauseating, really.
“Well,” I am told by the generational prophets, “you might be a late boomer/early Xer.” In other words, when the theory does not quite fit, it can be easily adjusted a few years. Like many “uber theories,” things are flexible enough to account for all objections.
Yes, Xers are probably closer to home for me, but even there, the affinity is not strong. The other film which makes me feel like a generational foreigner is The Breakfast Club. Are these kids idiots or what?
I am generationally lost.
Strauss and Howe should be viewed as cultural critics, not scientifically rigorous sociologists. The data set they used in validating the theory is… well, there is no data set. It is two dudes speculating on history and culture. To be fair, since its inception, there have been attempts to create some type of validation, but they are few and far between. As I have tried to research this, I have been reminded of the overwhelming influence of generational theory because search results about validation are lost in a sea of practical applications for the theory.
Generational theory is also self-fulfilling. As we tell each new demographic cohort what they are going to be like they become that very thing.
Yes, age is an important factor in understanding culture. People, regardless of generation, come of age, form families, grow into middle age, retire, and die. Those sorts of life events should garner at least as much attention as a sociological theory developed in the 1980s. I doubt that it is healthy for us to see these generational cohorts as so homogenous that we can base all marketing, ministry, public policy, and education through the lens of Strauss and Howe.
Ageism is a prejudice that leads to discrimination. It might be a prejudice against younger leaders. It might be a prejudice that denies an opportunity to an older person. Just as race has created abstract sociological categories into which we can place our assumptions and prejudices, so too does generational theory.
Unfortunately, since it is so embedded in our psyche, I doubt this will change. But, what do I know?
I am just a dumb boomer/Xer.