How Generational Mythology Misleads Social Movements

By Peter Hart-Brinson

Everyone intuitively knows it, but few will say it—either because they don’t want to be a grump, or because they haven’t connected the theoretical dots. But I am willing to be that grump, and I have connected the dots, so I’ll say it: there’s no such thing as a Millennial.

The earlier responses to this essay prompt on generations and social movements are full of insights on activism today so I will focus on the generation angle: What would it mean if new youth activism were truly a generational phenomenon? The answer to this question requires that we drop the Millennial label and the theoretical baggage that comes with it because the very idea of a Millennial falls squarely on the wrong side of a paradigmatic divide in generational theory. Smuggling that discredited generational mythology into our activism and research distracts us from the reality of generational change.

In an important paper, historian Hans Jaeger shows that there are two broad paradigms in generational theory: the pulse-rate paradigm and the imprint paradigm. These paradigms are united by two shared propositions, which I have elsewhere rendered in formulaic terms: [generational change = (impressionable years hypothesis + persistence hypothesis) x cohort replacement]. In essence, both paradigms agree that the historical events and trends that a person experiences while coming of age causes them to develop a unique worldview, which then persists relatively unchanged across the life course; as old people die off and are replaced by young people in the population, the society as a whole slowly evolves in accord with the new generational tendencies. Generational change in social movements, then, means that new issues, tactics, organizational forms, etc. emerge from the Zeitgeist among the youth and become increasingly prevalent over time as youth influence grows in the population.

However, the paradigms differ in their fundamental assumption about what causes generations to emerge. According to the imprint paradigm, generations emerge only in response to specific stimuli—like the Great Depression, World War II, or the Trump Presidency. Following the imprint paradigm, we should seek to identify generations inductively: if we see some possible evidence of generational change or witness some notable event that could cause it, then we should investigate its causes, its effects, and the boundaries of the cohorts that are affected. Practically speaking, not everyone is part of a generation. All credible research on generations in the social sciences follows the imprint paradigm (especially Mannheim’s “The Problem of Generations”).

By contrast, the pulse-rate paradigm assumes that the emergence of generations is a process that is indexed to phases of the life-course, and that the beginning and end of the life course also set beginning and end points to a repeating generational cycle. Following the pulse-rate paradigm, the entire population is divided into a series of non-overlapping cohorts, and we identify generations deductively: based on your birth year, you are classified in one generation or another, and we look for ways that those groupings differ from one another.

Unfortunately, the assumption of the pulse-rate paradigm is highly implausible. Life expectancies change, phases of the life course (like adolescence and young adulthood) are socially constructed, and efforts to standardize the length of life stages and pick the boundaries of historical periods lead to essentially arbitrary choices. Jaeger appropriately characterizes one of the foundational statements of this paradigm as “grotesque[ly] inept,” yet this is exactly the paradigm that animates the discourse about Millennials, Gen X, and Gen Z (see Strauss and Howe’s master treatise, Generations). The Baby Boom cohort is real, but Gen X and Millennials were merely concocted as their pulse-rate successors. The temporal boundaries of these supposed generations have no meaningful historical referent, and any time we ask how Millennials differ from other cohorts, we tacitly endorse the existence of a fictitious social group that was defined only in terms of a discredited view of generations that rides roughshod over careful historical analysis.

The Pew Research Center unwittingly perpetuates this generational mythology with every new report on Millennials it produces. Certainly there are cohort differences among the American public, but simply adopting the Millennial label closes off inquiry rather than opening it up. Not only does it risk mischaracterizing who is part of the distinctive generation and why it actively steers our thinking away from important questions about what causes a particular social change and who the agents of change actually are. Millennials may be more supportive of same-sex marriage, but my research shows that people born after 1974 are the true gay marriage generation. It has nothing to do with Millennials.

Ruth Milkman’s 2016 ASA Presidential Address falls into the same trap: an otherwise valuable appraisal of the character of activism among contemporary youth is marred by an ahistoricized jumbling of numerous distinct phenomena—the rise of social media, the changing racial and ethnic makeup of the population, the Great Recession, and the evolving culture of the New Left—that is ultimately projected onto a mythical cohort. Instead of opening up questions about how each one of these historical events could produce its own dynamic of generational change that reshapes activism in interactive ways, the complex socio-historical dynamic is personified and converted into a Millennial stereotype.

What accounts for the widespread influence of the pulse-rate paradigm? Money and social psychology. Financially, marketing consultants make fortunes convincing organizations that they don’t understand young people, and popular media outlets find an endless appetite for stories that purport to document the strange new tendencies of young people. Psychologically, the labeling appeals to us. For older people, it’s gratifying to be able to project your fears and anxieties onto a grotesque caricature of a young person, and for young people, it’s gratifying to buy into such a stereotype because it assures you that you are better than your peers.

We social scientists and activists can do better. If our assumptions about generations are flawed from their opening premise, everything that follows is suspect. For scholars, no matter how good our data may be, our interpretation will be flawed. For reformers, if our diagnosis of a social problem is wrong, our remedy will be ineffective. For activists, if our understanding of social movements is wrong, strategic miscalculations, tactical missteps, dissonant framings, and astroturf mobilization is the likely result.

Weber characterized politics as “a strong and slow boring of hard boards,” and I think that applies to science and activism, too. It is easy to simply adopt the labels of the pulse-rate paradigm to talk about young people and jump straight to “what’s new.” It is hard to do the painstaking historical, demographic, and cultural analysis that the imprint paradigm of generational change requires of us. But if we take the time to ask careful questions—about how historical events are (and are not) shaping the activism of young cohorts and how young cohorts are more internally divided and varied than a single label suggests—then we will be better able to distinguish how activism is really changing (and how it will evolve in the future) from the pop-culture hyperbole. Let’s do the work and get it right.


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