Every year at this time we are shown sash-wearing cartoon babies who represent the new year: pink-cheeked, plump, and full of promise. Within 12 months, however, the baby has aged past adulthood and into old age: He’s now an ancient, long-bearded man eager to hand over his time-keeping duties to a new cherubic infant. The year has taken its toll, transforming Baby New Year into Father Time, who probably is eager to slip away and start collecting his celestial Social Security checks.
In the real world, generational change – whether within families or in society at large – isn’t nearly so swift or worry-free. The reins of power and influence aren’t easily passed from one cohort to the next. The reluctance of older folks to step out of the way is understandable: As a parent, I’m not savoring the idea of handing over the car keys when potty training is still a fresh memory. Granted, my oldest child has yet to turn 10 and is still more than half a decade removed from taking his driver’s test, but considering that it seems my fumbling hands were securing his tiny body into a car seat for the first time just a couple of months ago, you can understand my preemptive anxiety. My daughter, for her part, will turn 5 this spring and is careening toward kindergarten, which means that any moment now I’ll be watching her fill out college applications. Maybe Father Time can spare a few Advil for my spinning head.
Yet time marches on, and like it or not, each new generation comes into its own – or doesn’t. The generation gap has been on my mind lately because of the much-publicized rift between baby boomers and millennials, which came to a head around the dismissive “OK boomer” meme on social media. From the perspective of boomers (generally defined as folks born between 1946 and 1964, meaning they range in age from 74 to 55), millennials are entitled brats who were coddled with participation trophies and now whine into their iPhones if they aren’t automatically given six-figure incomes when they graduate with liberal arts degrees. From the perspective of millennials (born roughly between 1981 and 1996, meaning the oldest are pushing 40 and the youngest are about 23), boomers are old fogies who had economic security handed to them on a silver platter and moved directly from high school to high-paying jobs back when houses sold for roughly the cost of an iPhone. Boomers, in this view, have benefited from income inequality and short-sighted environmental decisions and now look down their noses at younger generations who suffer because of these problems.
But, of course, I exaggerate. Such stereotypes are just that – stereotypes – blowing certain facts out of proportionate and ignoring others. Boomers were generalized by their parents (and now their children or even grandchildren) as a self-obsessed “Me Generation” who dominated the culture for decades and now refuse to fade gracefully. Millennials, like every generation before them, are slandered as lacking work ethic and common sense. The same boomers who were derided as “lazy, pot-smoking hippies” by their elders now wag their fingers at “lazy, vape-smoking millennials.”
As a member of Generation X – the cohort occupying the no-man’s land between the warring camps – I can look on the millennial vs. boomer squabble with bemusement. From an early age, the media told me by generation was one of cynical slackers, so I’m tempted to shake my head and mutter, “Whatever, dudes.” But, on behalf of my generation, and that of my children – who currently fall under the mysterious “Generation Z” label – let me make a peace offering.
Boomers, contrary to public perception, haven’t always had it easy. In their early years, they encountered levels of racism and sexism that would be hard to conceive of today. They were drafted by the millions to fight in Vietnam. They lived through Kent State, Watergate, stagflation, Reaganomics, and the world before cellphones. (Imagine!) Millennials, for their part, came of age in the shadows of 9/11 and the Great Recession, entering a workforce defined by the benefits-free “gig economy.” Nonetheless, millennials are now the largest generation in the U.S. workforce. (So much for being “lazy.”)
Generational conflicts are nothing new in families, and what is American society but a big, dysfunctional family? From the dawn of time, older generations have always thought younger folks were disrespectful, and the young have always seen their elders as out of touch. The difference in the 21st century is that we have convenient, media-friendly generational labels to slap on each other. These stereotypes imply that tens of millions of people are destined to a rigid set of opinions and behaviors just because they were born during a certain 15- or 20-year span. If there are any lessons I’m trying to teach my children, it’s that stereotypes are often wrong and that they shouldn’t make assumptions based on factors like gender, race, ability .... or age.
I imagine that boomers and millennials alike heard similar lessons from their parents. Hopefully, when they look at each other, they’ll take them to heart – at least before Baby New Year turns into Father Time once again.