I recently came across an article in Aeon called “Against Generations“, which is one of the harshest, yet most eloquent critiques of generational research I have read. Author Rebecca Onion disagrees with the epistemological justification for segmenting people based on age cohort, and (rightly) contends that much of the research is arbitrary and the categories skewed and insufficient. Generational research is divisive and more often than not, opinion holders seem to either uncritically embrace generational categories or blow it all off as pseudo-science. This particular article was interesting because the author actually takes the time to mention some of the more prominent thinkers of the field. Despite the shortcomings she addresses I believe she is flushing out the baby with the bath water. It is possible to do good generational analysis. But to do so, we should aware of the limitations of our analysis as well as our methods.
I wrote a comment to her article which I have copied below.
“Social change is a continual process which influences, and is influenced by, people interacting in complex adaptive social systems. It’s almost impossible to assign absolute cause and effect, but this does not mean generational differences aren’t part of this dynamic. Neither does it mean that one cannot glean anything meaningful by discovering generational peer dynamics where they exist.
To deny that generational variance exists is to deny cohort effects. It’s to argue by default that all differences between age group reflect period effect (changes that affect generations uniformly) or life cycle effect (changes are due to aging and life phases). With longitudinal, representative data, controlling for internal variation (always done in serious studies), and solid statistical tools, generational effects can be tested and measured. And generational differences are proven statistically significant again and again. These generationally dependent differences often transcend countries and regional cultures coalescing age peers into common age-based cultures, with their own unique fads, hangups, worries, idiosyncrasies etc. But of course we’re talking about several shades of grey here – at least fifty! Generational effects exist, but no serious social scientist would argue that it is either completely determinant or completely absent. This is why we should aim to test the strength of these relationships.
The author’s anti-generalizing stance on social groups might as well be directed against other social thinkers of stature like Abraham Maslow, Ronald Inglehart or any social theory brushed by the era of logical positivism and grand theories. So why not do away with social science all together then? Alternatively, we can reasonably assume (in spite of what the author implies) that social scientists are not motivated by the idea of pigeonholing people just for fun. Rather, the quest is to derive meaningful insights that on the contrary solicits better understanding between people of different age groups.
Any subject of study can be used or abused, and there is no doubt the internet is overpopulated with vacuous thought pieces and myopic ideas on generational categories. The topic makes for good click-bait after all. But please look at this with the same nuance afforded other areas of social science. Don’t flush out the baby yet. Millennials aren’t reproducing fast enough that we can afford that.”
Adherence to social science methods is the cornerstone of all generational research. And there is no doubt that our field needs to build consensus on methods as well as defining the boundaries of generational analysis. This is why at After the Millennials we combine social science, data analysis and strategic foresight as three independent schools of thought behind our research. Finding true generational trends is a sifting process. You can learn more on how to sift for good generational research, by visiting my deck on Slideshare.