Generation Y, The Millennials, The 9/11 Generation (according to William Kristol, the 55-year-old conservative New York Times columnist who surely has his finger on the pulse of young people), Generation Debt (according to author Anya Kamenetz), Reagan Babies, The MyPod Generation, YouTube generation, The MySpace Generation, Dot.com Generation, iGeneration, Generation Q (according to Thomas Friedman, the 54-year-old liberal New York Times columnist who “spent the last week visiting colleges”), Spoiled Generation, Generation whY, Echo Boomers, Google Generation, Net Generation, Generation Obama (according to the Obama campaign).
That’s an incomplete list of the names that members of other generations have given our generation, which is arguably defined as those born between 1980 and 2000. Some of these labels are dumb, some of them are lame and some of them are contrived – the rest are worse. A few of them may stick (let’s hope one of those is not the MyPod Generation).
But none of them are accurate.
The idea that a single event or concept could define an entire generation in this increasingly complicated world is asinine. Take, for instance, the Internet Generation and its derivatives. The Internet has played a large role in our lives, and it has changed the way we interact. We like to watch YouTube; we even sometimes make YouTube videos of ourselves reacting to YouTube videos. And if you make it through this entire column without checking Facebook or changing the song on your iPod, you’ve just defied a stereotype. So what? Most of those stereotypes are also true for our parents, many of them Baby Boomers. The Internet has changed everybody, not just us.
Or take Generation 9/11, which is perhaps the most perilous proposed name. Our parents have certainly let themselves be defined by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but will we? Probably not. It was a tragic event that we will remember forever, but we’re not going to let the ensuing fear dictate our lives like the Bush Generation has. We’ve moved past that, which is evidenced by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s nearly ubiquitous popularity among young voters.
That takes us to the Obama Generation. His campaign uses this on its website, and its fairly exploitative. We like Obama (again, look at the exit polls), and we’ll rally around him, but there’s so much more to our culture than this one politician, however transcendent he may be.
To be fair, generation names are somewhat valuable. It’s convenient to be able to say the Lost Generation, the Great Generation or the Baby Boomers and everyone knows what you’re talking about. Generation names also make good titles for books and columns.
But wouldn’t it be telling of this generation’s diversity to refuse to be named?
First of all, this generation isn’t only composed of isolated Americans, because our society is increasingly globalized. Our friends aren’t just the people we hung out with in high school but the people we met studying abroad in Chile. By the time we’re 45 years old we’ll be doing business with people in India just as often as we do business with the people in Texas.
Diversity doesn’t just apply to race and ethnicity. For example, entertainment is less homogenized. In 1968, for example, our parents were all listening to the same songs and watching the same television shows. In 2008, we’re culturally diverse.
In that same way, we can’t be defined by our religious or political views. Some of us support the war in Iraq, some of us don’t and some of us don’t care either way. Some of us are Christians. Some of us are Muslims. Maybe Newsweek writes a cover story citing poll data that says we’re becoming increasingly religious, but the next poll says we’re not. We can accept that our peers are different from us in a way that our parents too often can’t. We’re becoming comfortable with that, and some of us can even talk about it.
Generation X tried a similar tactic: That generation’s name refers to the fact that it doesn’t have an identity. The problem is that having a name leads to an identity. For one, it makes it easier for journalists to write sentences like “Generation X tried a similar tactic,” as if an entire generation could do or think or feel a single thing.
So what if we said: This is a different kind of generation. You can’t name us. Maybe we’ll name ourselves decades from now.
But hopefully we won’t.
Karl Stampfl was the Daily’s fall/winter editor in chief in 2007. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.