Not My Generation

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People are fond of broadly characterizing entire generations of people, and Paul Staley isn’t having any of it.

The concept of generations may be useful for demographers, but I’m not sure that the rest of us apply the idea that well. We can be too quick to assign credit or blame when no generation inherits a blank canvas. The Greatest Generation may have fought valiantly in World War II, but they were led by people older than themselves and armed by an industrial complex built up over a century.

In the same vein, Boomers—the generation now charged with failing to address climate change—did not invent the fossil fuel industry and the aforementioned Greatest Generation, a.k.a the Boomers’ parents, were the enthusiastic adopters of a lifestyle built around the internal combustion engine. We are all born into a world made by others.

The very way that we talk about generations is telling. People who would never use the broad brush of generalization and stereotype to describe groups defined by race or sexual preference have no problem making pronouncements about what Boomers are like or how Millennials behave. When it comes to talking about people older or younger than ourselves we say things that in other contexts would sound like the basest form of prejudice. And we do so knowing that a generation is no more than a group of people who got on the bus at the same time.

Perhaps—like so many things—this begins in our families. We are born into a world ruled by our parents. As we grow up we band together with people our own age, and then many of us go on to raise our own children and bear witness to their foibles and follies. From the intimacy of this perspective and the certainty of our own experience, we feel that we can make the big extrapolation about what a whole cohort of people is like.


Or, it could be that in a world that is increasingly fragmented and partisan, generations are another form of tribe. There are my people, with our common set of memories and rituals, and there are your people. We may share the world but we do not share a common experience, and from across that divide we tell stories about each other.

With a Perspective, this is Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco.