Gen X overlooked again

This article on MicroPersuasion.com triggered a reaction on the whole Generational thing, only this time as it ties into how Gen Y is going to be a major push for the continuance of the Information Tech Revolution currently picking up where the Industrial Revolution left off. To borrow a term used by the show Real Time with Bill Maher, “Blogga, please.”

Look, I’m Gen X. I’ve read the book 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Fail as aging Boomer social scientists Howe, Strauss, Matson, and Williams tried to ‘explain’ our generation back in the mid 90’s. I laughed at the book mostly, because the Boomers were trying to slap a generalization on a group of folks who hates being generalized. There were some nice pithy comments, and 13th Gen took a unique approach because it was initially posted online for commentary by the emerging internet community, represented in sidebar format in various places in the book. There was also a single political cartoon on the inside of it which summed up in pictorial format the entire undying and still growing resentment between the Boomers and GenX. It showed a coffee shop full of business-suited Boomers talking loudly about how hard it was to refinance the yacht in such an unfriendly economic climate as the mid 90’s, and wondering why the service seemed a bit chilly… all of the wait staff were Gen Xers wearing black T-shirts and black jeans, hard at work and looking harried. The T-shirts all read “Die, Yuppie Scum”. Pretty much sums it up.

Why I’m not buying it

I can’t buy into this message that it’s Gen Y who is going to force the issue of this new Information Age. In the blog article, the emphasis is put on the fact that Gen Y “grew up with the internet, they demand it”. Well, see, that demonstrates two points borne out by general Boomer behavior patterns which I reject categorically. The first has to do with parenting… y’know, maybe Gen Y would be easier to work with if they had actually been -parented-, and introduced to the concept that temper tantrums don’t get you what you want. As a recruiter I can’t tell you how many bubbles I had to burst with brand new kids of the edge of the Gen Y generation who wanted to demand lots of perks without any experience, and seemed actually upset that they would have to “pay dues” the same as everyone else, in one form or another.

As to the second point… the fact that Gen Y “grew up with the internet” should indicate and indicate CLEARLY that the internet was around before they were. In fact, there were folks who actually did buy into the internet and helped to make it so ubiquitous that -children- had access to it, and that demand was not due to any one generation or another, but instead was a social phenomenon caused by trickle down effect… government saw the use of digital networks in productivity, corporations saw the benefits of using computers, and then finally individuals saw those benefits, and slowly computers and the internet saturated society, finally taking hold at a time when, coincidentally, the Gen Y were growing up.

Applying lessons from the field of Anthropology here

I’ll believe social research which glorifies either the Baby Boom or their kids, Gen Y, when it isn’t authored by or built upon theories authored by the Boomers. They’re hardly objective… and while I give props to scientists and journalists alike who try to reach the holy grail of objectivity, the subjective nature of any study lies first in the decision to study it. Just like the entire science of Anthropology which taught me in undergrad to trust no written source in anthropology which was published prior to 1970, 1980 would be best.

My professors said that until the GI Bill of WWII opened higher education to the blue collar economic class in the US, the only anthropologists were from the luxury classes of society. As such, they relied on the pioneering anthropologists and the idea of a homogenous view of culture… examine only a single slice of the culture and you can extrapolate out the rest of culture. As such, they focused on the top 1%, the kings and high priests and ruling classes. And then tried to say that the poor classes lived the exact same way, just scaled according to their means. If that theory held up, we should all have a tiny boat to use in our bathtub which we could call our yachts.

After the blue collar folks got into Anthro, so the reasoning goes, they started looking at more than just the romanticized past of the princely classes of noble savages… they started examining how different levels of society lived,and their findings prompted a foundational shift in Anthropological method, leading to the ‘systems’ view of culture which is espoused today… that is, within any given culture there are smaller sub-systems or sub-cultural systems adopted by different groups based on different identities and physical means. Studying the life of an Irish Catholic priest from Boston in 1950 will yield a very different view of culture and lifestyle than studying the life of a pig farmer in Nebraska at the same time period. Yet both can arguably be said to belong to the same culture.

Bringing it back to Gen Y

So I don’t doubt that there’s a whole host of well trained, well educated, and well intentioned sociologists from the Baby Boom who have developed these wonderful generational theories. I respectfully have to wonder whether they are getting the results that they are getting based on the kinds of subjects and kinds of questions that their own biases are presenting, and I have to seriously wonder whether this data might not be myopic through the influence of the culture of the Boom (and the Boom parenting culture for their kids). I don’t question the hard data of the census or quantitative methodology… just the extrapolations and interpretations which are being wrangled out of it.

This line of questioning ties in directly with a topic that Yochoi Benkler addresses in his Wealth of Networks, when he looks at the role that ‘culture’ plays as a force previously ignored or dismissed, yet extremely impactful and one needing to be taken into account but hard to assess. Benkler was addressing the arena of Liberal Political Theory and approaching the role of culture there, but the argument can be easily made that if culture is a presence needing to be accounted for in one social science, then it should extend similar types of problems into other social sciences as well.

I am inclined to disagree with the notion that any single generation of the US is somehow more or less relevant to the ongoing development of the internet and the continued role that the information revolution is playing in society. After all, we are on the one hand preaching a networked society (Castells), and the Long Tail effect of niche marketing is getting extracted out into the idea of customizable culture and niche network clusters, finding community based on intrinsic characteristics and preferences as opposed to the closest thing available from mass media consumption patterns of the late 20th century. So what if Gen Y grew up with computers? So will all of the children from this point forward.

A rather different prediction, here

And if we are right about the social restructuring effect of the internet in general, the scientifically we should expect to see that “Gen Y” exists as a label on a population curve and little more. We should expect to see Internet-familiar children instinctively forming their own networks based on their own preferences and personal experiences, and thereby defying generalizations of classification and behavior prediction on the scale that marketers and sociologists -used- to rely on.

Isn’t that why we should really be paying attention to them? Because, in the end, they -shouldn’t- conform to our expectations. Or else we’ve been wrong about the social effects of the Internet on a grand scale. And if we were wrong about that, then how do we trust our predictions about Gen Y even if they do fall into predictable late-industrial mass-media consumption and cultural organization patterns?

It certainly would seem so. In fact, it would seem then that we should expect Gen Y to demonstrate a marked resistance to simplified generalizations and classification, a marked reliance on finding and building networks of friends and business contacts who tend to like the same things (philology, love of the same), a respect for the rights of others to self-select their own networks or a philosophical basis of tolerance of differences in others, and a continued reliance on cyberspace as opposed to physical space as the place to affect social change.

The last laugh, literally

In short, if the Internet continues to influence social patterns the way that it has been since before Gen Y, we’ll know because Gen Y will come to resemble Gen X more than the Baby Boomers, albeit with their own identity, but more X than Boom. And that, my friends, will be what makes me laugh all the way to the grave.

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