Collective Generational Consciousness – Overstated?

Newsweek yesterday did another blah-blah-blah piece on "Generation Y" titled Narcissists in Neverland. It’s full of gloom, a little sun, and concludes with this whopper: "So will Gen Y be able to deal with the realities of kids-and-a-mortgage adulthood? The answer is that they probably won’t do any better–or worse–than their parents did."

I hate articles like this. Generational analysis, labels, predictions, etc. get far too much attention in the mainstream media. Neil Howe, who’s written extensively about generations and termed the label "Millenials" for my generation, spoke at Pomona College a few weeks ago. He was an impressive speaker, and made some interesting observations about how young people today relate to the world in ways similar and different from our parents, but by the end I couldn’t help but ask, "So what?"

What’s the big deal? Why do people assume such intense collective generational consciousness? Where on the list of identity inputs (race, gender, location, interests, the like) does generation lie in importance? Why do people try to draw such clear distinctions between different generations, particularly hyperventilation on the part of marketers, as if a whole new rulebook is needed to understand young people today? Why resort to broad sweeping assumptions about age groups instead of labeling more discrete pockets of the population who share certain traits above and beyond the year they were born?

Summation: Collective consciousness is overstated, particularly in the context of "generations." Your thoughts?

(thanks to my friend Anastasia for the pointer.)

19 comments on “Collective Generational Consciousness – Overstated?
  • well, I saw your post, just wanted to throw in my 2cents.

    first cent: i don’t know you, so i’m making assumptions. but…. i think you took that article too personally. i think you hate being stereotyped. honestly, i don’t blame you for hating it. i do blame you for letting it get to you. but again, all that is based on major assumptions. so if i’m incorrect, sorry.

    second cent: i think you’re right in the so what. i think the reason this article is even written is because it was based on an older understanding of.. behavior? i’m referring to the long tail. i’m not sure if you are familiar with it, so i’ll do a quick gloss over (and this is by no means justice to it). basically, stores used to sell best-selling items only. then you had itunes/amazon come along which offers everything. what people have discovered is that the non-hits together are just as good as the hits. the long tails of a distribution. i think this article was written, thinking of the hits only. and while that is a considerable segment, i think it misses out on the long tails. and honestly, i think that part is more crucial because the hits… that’s just mass marketing. average products for average people. the long tails? the fringe buyers/people? they are the black swans. they are the ones that will probably do something crazy and change the world.

  • Collective consciousness may be over-stated but so is individual intelligence/ rationality/ smarts.

    As that great sage of all things wise, Homer Simpson said: “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large numbers”.

    That is why collective generalisations are made. As warnings. Not about those who are outliers but about those who populate the big bulge in the middle…

  • Hey, Ben.
    As someone who makes generalizations about generations on my blog nearly every day, I thought I’d pipe in…

    I was a history major in college, and one of the most exciting things to me was when I realized that as information became more accessible and more real-time, we could do more talking about history as it happens, instead of waiting for grand-scale hindsight.

    Studying history is an amazing way to understand ourselves. And making generalizations about current generations is a way to understand our own history as it’s happening.

    Like studying history in school, studying generations is not a way to understand your personal history but it’s a way to understand where your personal history fits.

    I think each of us — no matter how uniques –also wants to know that we are part of something larger than ourselves. And that, I think, is history.


  • Ben,

    I think it has to do with a very important concept called Dunbar’s Number ('s_number).

    Since our brains are only physically capable of handling the identities and social connections of approximately 150 people, we tend to stereotype – a mental shortcut that groups a bunch of people under a single “identity” based on certain observationally-obvious identifiers (age, location, hair color, etc.)

    This inelegant mental hack increases our capacity to store information about a wider set of people, but the resolution of the information goes down tremendously. But since it increases our capacity, most people unconsciously use it, and generate fuzzy personas for “Millenials”, “Baby Boomers”, “VCs”, “Americans”, and “Blondes”. It takes mindfulness and effort to avoid doing it yourself.

    Outside of stereotyping, there are a lot of deep implications of Dunbar’s Number, not the least of which is that it’s extraordinarily difficult to empathize completely with someone you have no direct contact to or knowledge of – in a sense, our brains don’t quite perceive them as human individuals, so it’s much easier to justify atrocities like war and injust laws that don’t affect “our” people. It’s a concept well worth studying.


  • What would news magazine journalists do without the social trend piece?

    That’s why I never read Time or Newsweek, except at the dentist’s waiting room.

    The ultimate example of the genre was the book The Greening of America, by Charles A. Reich, which was partly excerpted in the New Yorker before its publication in 1970.

    He made sweeping generalizations about the baby boomer ‘generation’ and its impact on societal organization in the western industrialized nations.

    Even during the social upheaval of the sixties in this country, when it seemed possible (at least to us) that young people might really change the world and usher in a new age of ‘higher consciousness’, there were dark undercurrents.

    When the Black Panthers started carrying machine guns and the Weathermen faction of the Students for a Democratic Society began bombing buildings, the Beatles’ mantra “All You Need Is Love” lost its resonance.

    I knew too many peace-sign flashing, pot-smoking longhairs who had no ideological commitment to any political philosophy, and regarded a protest march as an opportunity for violence.

    History has proven Charles A. Reich gloriously wrong.

    Frankly, he was simply full of shit.

  • Hey, Ben.
    Interesting point. The reason I tend to generalize about generations is similar to what Penelope points out – it’s because I can talk about it as it’s happening.

    The creation of our Millennial identity is happening self-consciously. We’re not only aware of the process as it’s going on – many of us are talking about it as it’s going on. And that gives us power to perhaps fix things before they become systemic definitions. Or at least think about them in the present.

    I think that’s pretty profound. So, though I agree with you about generalizations, it’s important to realize that sometimes, having things pointed out in generalizations can help us become better in our own lives.

  • Well, I’ll admit to being annoyed by all the “Generation Y is so lazy and entitled” articles too.

    I also agree that it’s more meaningful to group people by some identity characteristic like race or class or interests than it is to group them by year of birth.

    However, articles about “generation y” or “millenials” tend to do both. They’re typically written about white, middle class, suburban kids who’ve always expected that they’ll go on to get a college education and become white collar professionals. Being part of this cohort makes it hard to see it as an identity grouping because it feels like the default from which others diverge. However, it’s just as much of an identity as being poor, inner city, and black, without any expectation of getting to college. If you can generalize about one of those groups, I think you can generalize about either of them.

  • Ben, I couldn’t agree with you more. I think that for the most part talking about “Generation-Y” or “Millennials” by generalities is a joke. What bothers me isn’t that there are generalizations about our generation, but that most articles make it sound like there are innate similarities between us because we were born during the same decade or whatever. We do have similarities because we grew up under somewhat similar circumstances, but that does not mean that our individual personality traits can be generalized. I think some people make the mistake of thinking that you can reach Gen-Y by talking about Gen-Y, but the reality is that these articles mostly serve older people who are trying to understand “kids these days.” Reading about it won’t help you figure us out, take a young person out to lunch and chat with them, or get a Facebook account (although that’s kind of creepy to many of us). These articles act as a cheat sheet for understanding all of a generation, and I think its obvious that you just can’t do that. You need to get to know individuals in the generation and then maybe you can start to make some of your own generalizations.

    On the other hand, from a business standpoint, the Gen-Y/Millennial crowd is my target audience, so I do need to try to understand them as a group. I catch myself using the generational terminology, but sometimes I can’t find a better alternative despite the fact that I hate myself for saying Gen-Y this, Millennial that.

    I need to make some generalizations to make my business effective, but I also need to narrow my niche down to a certain segment of the Gen-Y audience that I know well. If I’m selling advertising or consulting to a company, I need to tell them how well I can help them target to Gen-Y. They’ll eat that stuff up. If that’s what they want to hear, then great, but I’m really focusing on targeting my business to a much smaller segment of the population that has a lot more in common with each other than being born in the 80’s and growing up watching Saved By the Bell and Full House.

    Gen-Y, Gen-X, and Baby Boomers may have some generalities that differ between them, but on the individual level you will find any set of personality traits in any generation. To think otherwise is ignorant.

  • I find it somewhat ironic that broad generalizations are being made about the nature of Generation Y when we’re widely touted as being a bunch of balkanized individualists.

    The Internet has affected our generation unlike any of the ones preceding us, and one of its major effects has been to allow people to find whatever they want, when they want to. It’s allowed each of us to individualize ourselves in the music we listen to and the blogs we look at. I would argue it’s not so much an inherent trait of members of Generation Y that we’re narcissists, but rather that the changing technological landscape has facilitated our becoming narcissistic.

  • I think articles like this are just a staple of mainstream journalism: “Let’s talk about something, makes some sweeping generalizations, and not really come to any conclusions.”

    You see the same sort of reporting in the annual “Is this the year for the Linux Desktop?” sort of article, which every year brings up the same sort of notions, and the same vague conclusions.

    Specific to the generational pigeonholing, I’d agree that it seems to be mostly marketing driven. If a group doesn’t share characteristics, they can’t be a collective target market, and it seems that marketers in general really would like to make age groups into target markets (which, of course, they do).

    So, yes: from where I sit, it’s overstated. But it’s overstated by folks with a vested interest in that POV, so I imagine it will continue in the same way for the foreseeable future.

  • “Why do people try to draw such clear distinctions between different generations, particularly hyperventilation on the part of marketers, as if a whole new rulebook is needed to understand young people today?”

    You hit it on the head Ben, it’s a marketing ploy. Marketers strive to create consumer groups around their products and build up a froth that becomes a fad. `Advertorials’ like this NW report bring up the `X’ and `Y’ broad brushes that make it easier for them to divvy up a large population into diverse consumer groups, target them and sell to. Previously the common denominators for this segmentation have been income based (upper/middle/lower) or age (Seniors/Middle/Yuppie/Adolescent/pups) that has now percolated down to new attributes such as decade of birth. While the fad builds up the `cool factor’, the segmentation offers a target practice.

    This report categorizes Gen Y taking it easy early on and sticking around with parents while attending college. Obviously this is a `cool’ generation to which say an `iPhone’ at a cost of $399 apiece can be easily sold to as long as it remains a fad. That means the media planner gets a target segment – white/rich/college going/living with parents/ample pocket money bunch– to spend his client’s ad budget on, with a measurable ROI.

    The utility of such models can be substantial, depending on the type and range of products on offer – not discounting the incremental revenues from the later versions and upgrades that follow, besides the gouge from the iTunes long tail in this example.

    We have no idea who’s getting cut but apparently it’s a lot of you.

  • Look at the generational consciousness in the comments of this video on YouTube:

    The only recent negative comments seem to come from myself and my gf. I guess young people love to laugh about infants being kicked in the face. Was the infant killed? Does anyone really care?

  • Ben,
    I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, both as a reader who is growing weary of all the GenY generalizations, and as a member of the media who happens to like writing social trend stories.

    I do think there is some truth to the generalizations, just as there is often some truth to many stereotypes. It is impossible that a generation that has grown up with the ability to make their opinions known via blogging, for example, will not be shaped by that — and somehow different than the generation that preceeded it. But then again, I’m not GenY and my life/career has been completely transformed by the existence of blogging as well. So there you have it — no tidy conclusions!

    Thanks for the post. I will continue to ponder this. I had fallen behind on your blog, but I like that I can always stop by and be nudged to some new thinking about something I’m usually already noodling.
    — Marci

  • My favorite name for our generation was “Generation Kill,” its the title of a book by Evan Wright. There really is a different between us and our grandparents.

    When asked why he calls us “Generation Kill” he says, quote:

    Evan Wright: There were a couple of reasons. The first reason had to do with a book called On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, which showed that in past generations only 15 to 20% of combat infantry were willing to fire their weapons. After the first ambush we were in, Lt. Fick and I were discussing this book and how today’s guys have no problem firing their weapons. For instance, Fick remarked after a firefight, “Did you see what they did to that town, they fucking destroyed it.” Cpl. Trombley, the machine gunner who was next to me in that ambush, he’d even been sort of ecstatic, comparing it to Grand Theft Auto, the video game.

    The other reason was more important to me. For the past decade we’ve been steeped in the lore of The Greatest Generation, the title of Tom Brokaw’s book about the men who fought in World War II, and a lot of people have developed this romanticism about that war. They tend to remember it from the Life magazine images of the sailor coming home and kissing his fiancé. They’ve forgotten that war is about killing. I really think it’s important as a society to be reminded of this, because you now have a generation of baby boomers, a lot of whom didn’t serve in Viet Nam. Many of them protested it. But now they’re grown up, and as they’ve gotten older I think many of them have grown tired of the ambiguities and the lack of moral clarity of Viet Nam, and they’ve started to cling to this myth of World War II, the good war.

    Just something to think about.

    The interview was at:

  • I work for a research company and focus 100% of my professional life studying generations. If you find any of the information in the wider world about generations frustrating, it is for one simple reason. Most of it is not based upon scientific research. It is based upon people’s opinions and personal observations.

    In my line of work we have discovered that unlike many “target demographics” generational breaks do actually prove to be an intelligent way to segment any given audience. Marketers, politicians, and product companies should (and do) all take note. Generations shift, and ideally, an organization can shift as the generation ages. Frankly, Millennials matter from a purely mathematical perspective.

    The US Census projects the cohort will be 86 million strong by roughly 2016. This group is distinct in many ways from their Gen Xer and Baby Boom elders. If an organization is interested in maintaining its position (or improving) in the long term, then understanding the mores of 86 million of the consuming population is important. Remember, as individuals age they age into specific things and they age out of specific things. Boomers are aging out of the target media advertising demographic, they are aging out of the primary consumer spending demographic. However, Millennials are all aging into these specific demographics. The trade you get with a Boomer out of the door and a Millennial into the door is not a fair one. The groups are extremely different from one another.

    The poster who mentioned the long tail also has a good point to make. Another way to consider this is who inhabits the long tail versus those who do not. Boomers do not and Millennials do. If you haven’t read about the theory, I would recommend it.

    And, don’t knock Neil Howe, his Generations book is quite good. They do not do any primary research, but their secondary is very solid. You should pick it up sometimes.

  • the fact is that the most significant difference between the various generations is AGE… people behave and think differently at different life stages

  • I do realize how incredibly odd it is that we got an offer so quickly. The market isn’t great here either, but we do have the benefit of living close to a military base and living in the best school district in the area. The irony of all this, of course, is that we have never used said school district and our potential buyers are self employed. They own a bakery. I am sad we are moving away from them. Tank Boy is regressing. With all the manic cleaning and vacating the house so that other people can wander…

  • Hi Ben,

    I believe (and someday will spend the time to research and test it) that each generation is defined by the threat it was raised under. For example, as a tween in the late 70s I grew up in the shadow of thermonuclear annihilation. Children of the late 80s grew up in the shadow of AIDS. My children are growing up in the shadow of global warming and climate change. Each shadow informs our sensitivities as adults. As adults, our decisions impact the elderly and the young.

    While I’ll agree that perhaps too much emphasis is put on generational differences instead of “sames,” I am hesitant to say that each generation is the same and that categorizing generations serves no value.

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