Why is This Stereotyping of People Acceptable?

Sorting Hat

Last week, the Pew Research Center decided to alter the definition of a Millennial. The all-powerful Pew declared that hence forth people born between 1981 and 1996 would now be called members of the millennial generation. Instead of whatever the period was one day earlier.

An economist and college professor calls this the “‘generation game’ — the insistence on dividing society into groups based on birth year and imputing different characteristics to each group”.

To see what’s wrong with the idea, take a look at American millennials. In seemingly endless essays in recent years, they’ve been derided as lazy and narcissistic or defended as creative and committed to social change. But these all sound like characteristics that the old have ascribed to the young since the dawn of time. Similar terms were applied to the “slacker” Generation X and before that, the baby boomers.

Yep. When I was in high school, the news media called us lazy and spoiled many, many times. When I was teaching high school, they called my Gen X students the exact same thing. I wouldn’t be at all surprised newspapers in 17th century London assigned the same faults to kids of that era.

So why do we accept and spread classification schemes that try to stuff millions of people into the same box? We are often reminded that it’s not fair to stereotype a whole group of people based on arbitrary characteristics. But what could be more arbitrary than the date of your birth?

As the writer reminds us, the practice is not only lazy, it also diverts attention from some real and damaging divisions.

Some may argue that the generation game, if intellectually vacuous, is basically harmless. But dividing society by generation obscures the real and enduring lines of race, class and gender. When, for example, baby boomers are blamed for “ruining America,” the argument lumps together Donald Trump and a 60-year-old black woman who works for minimum wage cleaning one of his hotels.

I certainly hope that the high school students from Parkland, Florida and other areas of the country – who carry the label “Gen Z” or “iGen” – can use their activism to draw attention to aspects of American society that are horribly wrong.

However, declaring that millions of kids who happen to have been born during one arbitrary period of history will “fix” our current mess, and blaming that mess on yet another group of people who happen to have been born during an earlier arbitrary period of history (those newly reclassified Millennials), is just dumb.

The sorting hat was far more discriminating in the classification of Hogwarts students than Pew is with generations. I know, that’s a stretch but I needed an image for this post that was at least tenuously related. :-)

No, We Aren’t Losing a Generation to Smartphones

Betteridge’s law of headlines says “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”

Which certainly applies to the very provocative title of a recent article in The Atlantic: Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

The author tries very hard to convince the reader that teenagers (the group she calls iGen) who “spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy”, more prone to depression, and at greater risk for suicide.

There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.

But at the generational level, when teens spend more time on smartphones and less time on in-person social interactions, loneliness is more common.

So is depression. Once again, the effect of screen activities is unmistakable: The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression.

After reading the article, I’m not at all convinced of definitive claims like this.Evil iphone pack

Certainly smartphones have “radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives”, at least the lives of those kids who are financially able to own them. On the other hand, I could also say the same about myself and many other adults.

However, is the technology entirely to blame for any psychological problem she sees in the teenagers she has been studying? Where are the adults, especially parents, in all this? And the fundamental question that always needs to be asked in any human research, is behavior A the direct cause of behavior B?

I don’t think the author is entirely sure either.

Of course, these analyses don’t unequivocally prove that screen time causes unhappiness; it’s possible that unhappy teens spend more time online. But recent research suggests that screen time, in particular social-media use, does indeed cause unhappiness.

What’s the connection between smartphones and the apparent psychological distress this generation is experiencing? For all their power to link kids day and night, social media also exacerbate the age-old teen concern about being left out.

Ok, I’m not an expert in this area. I haven’t read the research and don’t have any countervailing evidence to present.

But I always have many doubts when someone definitively attributes great harm, or benefits, to a particular technology. 

In this case, I’m extremely hesitant to accept the author’s conjecture that we are losing an entire generation (which I understood to encompass thirty years) to a technology that has only really been widespread in society for less than a decade.