Generationalism is bad science

Essay by Cort W Rudolph: “Millennials – the much-maligned generation of people who, according to the Pew Research Center, were born between 1981 and 1996 – started turning 40 this year. This by itself is not very remarkable, but a couple of related facts bear consideration. In the United States, legislation that protects ‘older workers’ from discrimination applies to those aged 40 and over. There is a noteworthy irony here: a group of people who have long been branded negatively by their elders and accused of ‘killing’ cultural institutions ranging from marriage to baseball to marmalade are now considered ‘older’ in the eyes of the government. Inevitably, the latest round of youngsters grows up, complicating the stereotypes attached to them in youth. More importantly, though, the concept of a discrete generation of ‘millennials’ – like that of the ‘Generation X’ that preceded these people, the ‘Generation Z’ that will soon follow them into middle adulthood, and indeed the entire notion of ‘generations’ – is completely made up….

The lack of evidence stems primarily from the fact that there is no research methodology that would allow us to unambiguously identify generations, let alone study whether there are differences between them. We must fall back on theory and logic to parse whether what we see is due to generations or some other phenomenon related to age or the passing of time. In our research, my colleagues and I have suggested that, owing to these limitations, there has never actually been a genuine study of generations.

Generations create a lens through which we interact with others, shaping various forms of social behaviour

Generally, when researchers seek to identify generations, they consider the year in which people were born (their ‘cohort’) as a proxy for their generation. This practice has become well established and is usually not questioned. To form generations using this approach, people are rather arbitrarily grouped together into a band of birth years (for example, members of one generation are born between 19XX and 20YY, whereas members of the next generation are born between 20YY and 20XX, etc). The problem with doing this, especially when people are studied only at a single point in time, is that it is impossible to separate the apparent influence of one’s birth year (being part of a certain ‘generation’) from how old one is at the time of the study. This means that studies that purport to offer evidence for generational differences could just as easily be showing the effects of being a particular age – a 25-year-old is likely to think and act differently than a 45-year-old does, regardless of the ‘generation’ they belong to.

Alternatively, some studies adopt a ‘cross-temporal’ approach to studying generations and attempt to hold the effect of age constant (for example, comparing 18-year-olds surveyed in 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010, etc). The issue with this approach is that any effects of living at a particular time (eg, 2010) – on political attitudes, for example – are now easily misconstrued as effects of having been born in a certain year. As such, we again cannot unambiguously attribute the findings to generational membership. This is a well-known issue. Indeed, nearly every study that has ever tried to investigate generations falls into some form of this trap.

Recently, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in the US published the results of a consensus study on the idea of generations and generational differences at work. The conclusions of this study were clear and direct: there is little credible scientific evidence to back up the idea of generations and generational differences, and the (mis)application of these ideas has the potential to detrimentally affect people regardless of their age.

Where does this leave us? Absent evidence, or a valid way of disentangling the complexities of generations through research, what do we do with the concept of generations? Recognising these challenges, we can shift the focus from understanding the supposed natures of generations to understanding the existence and persistence of generational concepts and beliefs. My colleagues and I have advanced the argument that generations exist because they are willed into being. In other words, generations are socially constructed through discourse on ageing in society; they exist because we establish them, label them, ascribe traits to them, and then promote and legitimise them through various media channels (eg, books, magazines, and even film and television), general discourse and through more formalised policy guidance….(More)”