My mom just sent me a link to an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The one link, for non-subscribers, expires in five days, so it won’t be much use to anyone who reads this after that time (and since no one is reading now, I figure that’s pretty much my entire audience). 

[EDIT: See the comments for a permanent free link.  (also: the comment is by Siva Vaidhyanathan himself!  Which takes the audience of this blog up to three: mom, dad, and Siva).]

This other link, for Chronicle subscribers, should be permanent:

The article, entitled “Generational Myth,” written by Siva Vaidhyanathan, argues against the idea of a “digital generation;” Vaidhyanathan’s argument pretty much boils down to claiming “generation claims are overgeneralizations that don’t get us anything and don’t accurately describe the people they refer to.”

I can’t really argue with him.  Beyond the fact that the people he is rebutting are pretty obviously profitting from making such overgeneralizations, the idea that a certain set of characteristics could accurately describe any group of people as large as a “generation” is supposed to be…well that’s just dumb.  I’m completely in agreement: generations don’t really exist, they are only a way for our confused little brains to make sense of the vast and chaotic spectrum of people we encounter in our lives.

But I don’t find that point very interesting.

So generations don’t really exist.  I know this.  Anyone who is even remotely inclined toward a “social constructionist” viewpoint would look at that comment and say “duh.”  But what get’s me is the part where Vaidhyanathan says “…and they’re useless, too.”

Now, I fully acknowledge that taking a Pragmatist stance can be something of a cop-out.  Here there are a bunch of people arguing over whether or not something really exists, and a Pragmatist comes along and says “arguing about Truth is pointless.  We need to talk about what we can use these things for.  That information is much more worthwhile.”  Still, it was Vaidhyanathan who mentioned use in the first place, so I’m not really copping out so much as following up on a thread he started.

So: what use are generations as a trope, as a descriptive device, as a concept in the public mind?

Vaidhyanathan says: no use at all.

Specifically, he says that the concept of generations, and especially a digital generation, is “unenlightening at best and harmful at worst.”  Moreover, “Invoking “generations” demands an exclusive focus on people of wealth and means,” which “tends to exclude immigrants and non-English-speaking Americans, not to mention those who live beyond the borders of the United States. And it excludes anyone on the margins of mainstream consumer or cultural behavior.”  The only positive value Vaidhyanathan ascribes to generations?  A kind of sentamentality or nostalgia, a feeling of belonging that is, perhaps, “the same satisfaction that one gets out of other tribal identities.”

Again, it’s hard to argue.  We like to feel like we are all the same, and if we have to exclude people to feel that way, then so be it.  But that oversimplified version of generational description is not the only type out there, and I don’t think Vaidhyanathan does much justice to the actual uses of generational description.

The idea that people of a certain age, growing up during a certain time period, will experience the same things is obviously false.  But aren’t there some phenomena that are, if not universal, at least so widely influential that they might as well be?  Cell phones are a great example.  Sure, I know teenagers and young twenty-somethings who have never owned a cell phone and have swore they never will.  But those same people have never known a world that did not have cell phones, or some form of the Internet, in it.  They may not be tech-saavy geniuses, but they will be coming to their anti-technology stance from a different path than those who remember what it was like in the “good old days.”

I suppose the best example that I can give of why I think the term “generation” is sometimes useful comes from Vaidhyanathan’s article itself: he describes the work of Karl Mannheim, a sociologist from the early 20th-century, who suggested that “Generation is a fluid and messy social category, not unlike class.”  The concept of class is similar, in many ways, to that of generation: it seems to describe a unified experience for a diverse group of people, and ultimately it is used as a hopeless overgeneralization.  Yet we continue to talk about class in contemporary society: political debates, scholarly conversations, and water-cooler gossip all draw on the concept of class regularly, seriously, and with remarkable effect.  Do I think people’s understanding of class should be more nuanced?  Sure.  Do I think it is useful, or even really possible, to deny that class exists?  No.  The concept of class refers to something that people construct their lives around, and because of that I don’t think we can dismiss it.  I think the same, although obviously to a lesser extent, goes for the concept of generations.