Bruce Tulgan's disclaimer to us today was that “yes,” he “makes broad generalizations about millions of people.” It's hard not to when you're in the business of studying and analyzing trends. And as many of our listeners pointed out, this isn't a new instinct—this effort to try and characterize a generation as different from those that came before. One message we got on Twitter said the conversation sounded like “'kids today' griping,” an age-old form of generational banter.
The New York Times' Kate Zernike wrote a great piece (“Generation OMG") in this week's Week in Review. Her first two paragraphs are below:
“In 1951, Time magazine set out to paint a portrait of the nation’s youth, those born into the Great Depression. It doomed them as the Silent Generation, and a generally drab lot: cautious and resigned, uninterested in striking out in new directions or shaping the great issues of the day — the outwardly efficient types whose inner agonies the novel “Revolutionary Road” would dissect a decade later.
“Youth’s ambitions have shrunk,” the magazine declared. “Few youngsters today want to mine diamonds in South Africa, ranch in Paraguay, climb Mount Everest, find a cure for cancer, sail around the world or build an industrial empire. Some would like to own a small, independent business, but most want a good job with a big firm, and with it, a kind of suburban idyll.” The young soldier “lacks flame,” students were “docile notetakers.” And the young writer’s flair “sometimes turns out to be nothing more than a byproduct of his neuroses.” (This even before Philip Roth, born 1933, had published a novel.)
In a certain way, this piece might lead one to ask how meaningful it is to make generational distinctions at all—if in fifty years we'll look back on the broad strokes we're making now and wonder what we were thinking. But Zernike is also asking some of the same questions we had for Bruce today. What is it that shapes a generation? Or, as one twitter question asked, “How do we differentiate between generational differences and differences in life experience?” Bruce points to something that all generations have in common— the “accidents of history' that fundamentally shape how young people of any given age will come to view the world.
Kate Zernike wonders what will happen to the youth of today—those coming of age during what some are already calling "The Great Recession?" Will they, like the children of the Great Depression, grow up trusting in a protective system that will rise around them in response to tough times? Will they be unlikely to take risks and satisfied with a different sort of job?
Or, maybe people are basically always just people—and the only real trend is the instinct to gripe about “kids today?”