While We’re Young, A24 Films, 2014
It’s easy, of course, to make fun of generational analysis. For many years generations have been the favored category of social pseudoscientists, not to mention marketing gurus and breathless lifestyle journalists. But much of the oxymoronic character of millennial-speak derives from its pairing claims to statistical rigor with an utterly unscientific fondness for making wild predictions. Behind this is a confusion of logic, according to which the present desires of humans create the future: once you know what young people want, you know what tomorrow will be like (and how to make a buck off it). Institutions, classes, and environments play hardly any role in this view. One influential example is Richard Florida’s theory of the “creative class,” which imagined the salvation of postindustrial cities resulting from young people choosing to live in them. If millennials like cities, the thinking went, then cities will be rejuvenated. In 2012, Florida sheepishly qualified some points of this theory in a new introduction to 2002’s The Rise of the Creative Class, but his original thesis was so persuasive that it’s still regarded as common knowledge. Meanwhile, the cities that banked on this kind of thinking, like St. Louis or Baltimore, have foundered spectacularly.
The abundance of such lazy analysis may seem reason enough to dismiss “generations” as a meaningful tool for understanding history. What are generations, one might say, but an ingenious marketing rubric we have come to treat as natural? But the fact remains that generations capture everyday divides that everyone recognizes intuitively. People are born into spans of time, into worlds that precede them and survive them. If it makes sense to segment history into periods, it follows that those periods have something to do with the people growing up and dying within them. Edmund Wilson plausibly referred to the “generation” that made the Russian Revolution in To the Finland Station, and it was broadly true, in 1961, that a “new generation of Americans” — “tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace” — were more vocal than the “silent” group that preceded them. The Chinese born into the waning years of the disastrous Cultural Revolution shared an urge to question their government, and today’s millennials, innocent of cold war–era hysterics, find fewer toxic clouds trailing the word socialism. Though one can’t predict the future from these data, it does make sense to consider generations when thinking of how social change takes place. Generations seem to do something, but it’s not clear what or how.
How useful is generational analysis, then? Traces of its utility were first identified in 1927 by the sociologist Karl Mannheim, whose essay “The Problem of Generations” remains the best account of its virtues. For Mannheim, a generation was something like a social class: an objective, structuring social fact. If the objective aspects of class were economic, those of generations were biological. But it would be a mistake, Mannheim argued, to attempt to deduce from the cyclical facts of birth and death the very “secret of history,” as many positivist thinkers of his time did (and as business types do today). The subjective experience of a generation would also be important, as well as variable and unpredictable. Instead of thinking in terms of generational cycles as naturally important, Mannheim imagined how a particular generation could come to be important.