Generational Theory is Bunk

The above is the trailer for "Reality Bites," the supposedly emblematic film of Generation X.

I'm considered Generation X. Do I identify with "Reality Bites?"

Sure, sort of. But I don't identify with "Reality Bites" any more than I do any other film about a group of disaffected college grads encountering the disappointments of the real world. I was there once; I remember. And I doubt I identify with it more than my parents likely identified with "Rebel without A Cause," a film from their era that featured kids frustrated with their parents and society.

Today, there's an entire industry—consultants, speakers, classes, books—dedicated to teaching generational theory. Generational theory is the idea that Baby Boomers are fundamentally different from Generation X, and Generation X is different from Y, and Y is different from Z.


I agree that the cultural ethos of society changes over time—helped by technology and international dynamics—and with it changes our dominant modes of thinking about things like the environment, our country's place in the world, and so on.

And I'll argue that significant changes in the cultural ethos take a lot longer than a handful of years.

The idea that there are distinct generations and that they are different enough in modes of interaction, approach, and understanding to necessitate specialized coaches for successful coexistence is ridiculous.

Much of what we credit to generational stereotypes is simply the process of growing up. James Dean in the '50s and Winona Ryder in the '90s? They're stand-ins for every kid coming of age.

The change from the freedom of youth to the responsibilities of adulthood doesn't exactly feel good. Suddenly we must support ourselves, we must begin climbing the corporate ladder, long summer vacations will never come again, and our ideals of immediately revolutionizing the world with our advent begin to crumble.

I was thrown by it, kids today are thrown by it, and youth of the future will be thrown by it.

For better or worse, we bend to the yoke, we get used to it, we even start to enjoy it. Adulthood has its rewards and virtues, which it takes time for us to appreciate. Once we do appreciate it, we look back at the young'uns and complain that they're dreamers, or irreverent, or easily distracted, or unwilling to work hard. In our complaints, we forget that we too were just like them, once upon a time. Every older generation has complained about "these kids today."

Get over it.