September 4, 2014

Are generations the strongest form of an in-group?

All this talk about the Boomers being responsible for so much that's gone wrong economically and politically over the past 30-odd years got me thinking: why don't they moralistically preen about how oppressive their generation has been over other generations? Both the older ones who they threw overboard, like the Greatest Gen, and those they have tried to block from advancement, like Gen X?

After all, Boomers pioneered the art of publicly complaining about how one's in-group was responsible for keeping down some out-group, to whom it owed some kind of reparations. This is a stronger form of disloyalty than mere cultural defection. If some small chunk of the in-group feels like they don't identify with their culture, and want to join or at least affiliate with a more distant culture, what's the big loss to their in-group? Let 'em go. But when that small group of discontents wants to take something big away from their in-group and give it to the out-group, to correct what they see as unjust domination, now they plan on dealing a much larger wallop to Us in favor of Them.

What areas of life are subject to this thinking and action about correcting injustices between the in-group and the out-group? Whites and blacks, men and women, heteros and homos, those born into wealth and those who were not, and so on. These are all demographic groups whose membership is not a matter of choice, unlike a political party, church denomination, marital status, number of children, place of residence, etc. They have a sense of guilt from having been born into a dominant demographic group (whites, males), whose dominance is unjust and whose oppression of subordinate groups requires atonement.

In their minds, there's just something unnatural about one group being dominant, when its members were accidentally born into it, rather than admitted or elected on the basis of merit. The state of nature, they believe, is egalitarian, so that if whites come out ahead of blacks in economic life, it is a grossly artificial state of affairs, and could only have come about through concerted and sustained manipulation by the dominant group. With this new awareness — after a little "consciousness-raising" — they feel compelled to atone for the historical sins of the dominant group that they were accidentally born into.

But in all those cases, there is a natural inequality across groups that is biological rather than historical: whites have higher IQ on average than blacks, men produce tons more testosterone than women, heterosexuals are more capable of deferring gratification.

Whether this natural inequality ought to be allowed to show up in status inequality is a matter of debate, which is not important here. The point is: Boomers don't even realize, indeed they emphatically deny that these inequalities have a natural basis. They want so much social engineering to minimize these inequalities precisely because they believe that they have no natural basis, but are rather the outcome of so much social engineering by the current dominant groups in the opposite direction.

Thus, in their view, their sweeping plans are not introducing social engineering into an unregulated state of nature, but correcting an existing set of plans for social engineering (drafted and enforced by the dominant group for its own benefit) with a different set of plans in the opposite direction, in order to restore society back to the egalitarian state of nature.

You'll have to forgive this exploration of the Boomer mind, but it is crucial to understand the psychology behind their characteristic damning of the dominant in-groups that they belong to.

Why then don't they feel the same way toward dominant, manipulative, and greedy generations, when they belong to just such a group? Why do they indeed appear blind to the very facts of their dominance and destructiveness? Why do they go so far as to celebrate their generational in-group as a never-ending underdog victory for the causes of fairness and equality, and indulge any chance they get to insult the generational out-groups? It is so entirely opposite to their mindset and behavior in the cases of being born into a race, a sex, and a sexual orientation, where they are only too happy to show public disloyalty to the in-group.

They can't be so clueless as to not realize that your generation is another one of those groups you're born into. But unlike races and sexes, which have a history extending far back into the past, a generation is a one-of-a-kind collective entity. There were no Boomers before there were Boomers, so they have no historical sins to atone for. Any current high status they enjoy must therefore be an achievement based on merit, not an inheritance of privilege based on good luck at birth. And they feel no remorse over slandering generational out-groups because they, too, have no history — and hence no "legacy of oppression" that has contributed to their current marginal status. If your generation isn't doing as well as ours, that's your own fault for being too lazy, ignorant, and complacent. *

We could throw in the Silents with the Boomers, since they are co-conquerers within the Me Generation. But they aren't as strident as the Boomers, so they're more difficult to study. Overall the pattern is similar, though. Their one-of-a-kind generation was born into the Depression, then through hard work and merit — rather than Midcentury liberal policies and an older generation willing to vacate spaces in the economy — they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps into lasting prosperity. If you young 'uns can't do the same, you just don't got the grit that us old-timers do.

We don't need to look into Gen X or the Millennials because they are not dominant generations, and so could neither pass nor fail the test of loyalty detailed for the Boomers. It's not that X-ers and Millennials are genetically superior, or free from sin — if the historical forces had lined them up to be the ones who took over society, they would've been just as devoutly loyal to their generation as the Boomers have been to theirs.

People who think about generations have emphasized how one-of-a-kind they are, and how new ones are constantly being created, unlike other demographic groups that you're born into like race, sex, and class. But as far as I'm aware, they haven't followed that observation to see where leads. For one thing, it makes generations perhaps the most resistant to disloyalty among major groups. You'd have to go to blood relations to find a group that is equally unwilling to claim that their in-group has oppressed an out-group and needs to atone for it.

Thus in societies with weakening kinship ties, ties of generation will become primary. Kinship bonds are impossible to scale up to the level of a nation, but it is automatic for generations: everyone born in that nation at that time, growing up in those formative years, will feel like members of a great big family which, however dysfunctional, still needs to hold together to defend itself against hostile other generations. From kin group vs. kin group to generation vs. generation.

* In fairness, that charge is not wide of the mark for Millennials, but the Boomers had the same condescending view of Gen X, and of the much older pre-Boomer folks who they viewed as an entire generation of undeservedly rich layabouts ("Boo unions").

Even with the Millennials, generations are shaped as much by what's going on in the older generations as by what's going on in their own. Millennial childhoods were shaped by Boomer parenting practices such as everybody gets a trophy for being the best just the way they are, and nobody can criticize my awesome special little snowflake or there'll be hell to pay. And in the broader society, Boomers are squatting on all the jobs, now including low-level entry jobs such as supermarket cashiers as they come to realize that they'll need to keep working well into their senior years due to never saving and always racking up more debt.

If there are so few paths to make a living from honest hard work, why bother learning how to do it in the first place? Might as well follow the path of "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" — whine and hope that your parents or substitute parents in the economy and government will kick enough your way to shut you up for awhile. It's no different from the way that a negligent parent parks their bored child in front of a kaleidoscopic glowing screen and hands them some chips and soda, so that mommy can get back to being busy, rather than give them some chores to do around the house to encourage responsibility.

I don't claim this is the sole or even the primary cause behind the brattiness of the Millennials — only to point out these unseen ways by which the incumbent generations can stunt the entrant generations.


  1. I would guess off the top of my head that Boomers & Silents are LESS in favor of affirmative action than Gen X/Millenials. You seem to be using Boomer almost as a synonym for social liberal.

    As far as generations feeling guilty, didn't Boomer students start taking over campuses in part because the administrations felt bad holding down the youth?

  2. Do you mean this in the abstract "Gen A versus Gen B versus Gen C" way or a more tangible "those older/younger guys are all wrong and have messed up; our parents are uncool and embarrassing; etc." way?
    The former seems to be mostly a modern phenomenon (the depth and breadth of the differences amongst the generations) that would exclude those with IQs of 90, certainly 85, and lower who would be hard pressed to tell you which generation they're members of.

  3. "I would guess off the top of my head that Boomers & Silents are LESS in favor of affirmative action than Gen X/Millenials."

    Where in the post does it argue that Boomers are MORE in favor of affirmative action than X-ers? You're responding to a point that was never made.

    It's not a comparison of Silents / Boomers with X-ers / Millennials on some set of attitudes. It's a case study of dominant generations (Silents / Boomers only), and asking why they don't show their characteristic form of disloyalty in the domain of generations, when they were pioneers and still practitioners of doing so in the domains of race, sex, and class.

    Read to the end, where it says that X-ers and Millennials wouldn't have behaved differently if the there had been a 40-year delay in the historical conditions for two generations to take over society and squat as incumbents.

    "didn't Boomer students start taking over campuses in part because the administrations felt bad holding down the youth?"

    That was more in terms of age groups (young/old), where membership is in constant flux, than generations, which are fixed at birth. They didn't have the sense that their generation had assumed an unfairly long tenure, and that it was time to cede the right of way to the next in line (who would've been Silents anyway, not Boomers in college).

  4. "Do you mean this in the abstract "Gen A versus Gen B versus Gen C" way"

    Yes, in this way, where a generation has a certain typical mindset, moral code, pattern of behavior, and so on, as it moves in and out of successive age groups.

    "The former seems to be mostly a modern phenomenon (the depth and breadth of the differences amongst the generations)"

    It takes a large, modern society to have kinship ties diluted to the point where generations become the (necessarily larger) social units that wage feuds and enter into alliances with each other.

    "those with IQs of 90, certainly 85, and lower who would be hard pressed to tell you which generation they're members of."

    You don't have to be able to articulate it with labels, just to know that the folks who are 15-20 years older than you are different and seem to always have been, and ditto for those much younger than you.

    That does make demands on memory, which goes against the dull, but it also requires having exposure to a variety of generations over your life, and that goes in favor of the dull and against insulated brainiacs. Hard to say what the net effect is at a sub-conscious level, even if the bright ones will be more conscious of it.

    It is a difference from kinship ties, though, where you known consciously from a young age who you're related to, by what means (blood or marriage), what the clan's name is, and so on. Generations are slapdash families that don't even cohere until you're around 20 or later, and the borders are harder to figure out, unlike if you're related by blood to someone.

  5. I agree it was a matter of old vs young rather than generational identity. I don't think people thought in terms of generational identity before the Boomers came along.

    Richard Nixon pioneered affirmative action, but he's too old to be a Silent.

  6. c'mon, even Aristophanes was writing about how cruddy the younger generation was.

  7. "enerations are slapdash families that don't even cohere until you're around 20 or later, and the borders are harder to figure out, unlike if you're related by blood to someone."

    Something I've been thinking about is that cocooning prevents generation formation. So the Millenials don't feel connected to their generation, and I'd expect to some extent the Gen Xers have suffered from this too having been in their teens and 20s during the crime decline; afterall, they got lumped in with the Disco Generation/Late wave Baby Boomers. They haven't been able to assert their own identity, and ended up getting labeled as a bunch of slackers and criminals.

    So if it is true that generational affinity determines most loyalty, and different generations compete with each other, we see that cocooning is very hard on the young. The Boomers and Silents, having experienced a 30-year outgoing period; had solidified strong connections with each other, were able to outcompete the younger generations. Ultimately, Gen X and Millenials don't stand a chance until crime starts to rise.

  8. Its not just about connections between peers and social cohesion. Its also about self-awareness. Not only self-awareness of their demarcation as a separate generation, but also awareness of what they are actually like.

    Gen Xers, to me, come across more idealistic and civic-minded than wild, which applies more to the Disco cohort. Compared to Millenialls, Gen Xers seem much more interested in politics and more politically opinionated. Millenials are more politically apathetic, viewing the entire system cynically, instead wanting to focus on spiritual values. I could be wrong about that, though.

  9. OT,
    At Steve's blog the other day, it hit me that the Millennials are all virtually adults!
    And thinking about my own children as part of this abstract entity, a "generation" is a new experience as I realized it is just beginning to debut.
    All of my children (0-14) are part of this new generation and now I'm a bit curious about how their generation will be (and become).

    I googled some on whether anyone was saying much about them and found a few things, of course remembering how the Millenials turned out so differently from what was predicted.

    This one personally caught my attention the most as I am a home schooler and increased those feelings of being a part of something bigger than myself:

    While Plurals may share some similarities with the Millennials, one area in which we see a very precise and interesting difference is in education or, to be more specific, how to become educated. Plurals have the largest percentage of kids ever to be home schooled, and unlike in the past, this is now due to a myriad of reasons, not just religious. In addition, education comes from more sources than just a teacher in a classroom or from a parent.

    This one is very interesting from a liberal marketing group
    that compares and contrasts Millenials and the new generation.

    Finally, this one mostly just lays out the data. Interestingly, page eight on social circles has been misreported by most in the media who have included diverse sexual orientation in a social circle being more common when its the opposite. Magid themselves specifically mentioned having more blacks and evangelical Christians in social circle were biggest changes, btw.

    Magid also focused on Gen X parenting vs Boomer and how that has influenced Millenials and now the new ones.

  10. Here's the file from Gracie on Pluralists (Plurals, edge, etc.)
    that didn't get much write-up, but is a unique look at them:

  11. I'm pretty sure family is the strongest ingroup of all.

  12. Generations look to be up there near family, far above race, sex, class, and other sociological groups that one is born into.

    And certainly the strongest form of an in-group of a large size. We don't know, let alone have fellow feeling for our cousins of the 4th, 5th or whatever degree they'd need to be to form as large of an in-group as a generation.

  13. TGGP:I would guess off the top of my head that Boomers & Silents are LESS in favor of affirmative action than Gen X/Millenials. You seem to be using Boomer almost as a synonym for social liberal.

    You might have to look at more than just the generation to see if this is a "characteristic disloyalty", at who is actually asking for it and why.
    I would think that in the X and Millennial Generations we might see more self interested individuals from protected classes arguing for themselves and relatives to have reserved spots, due to the current increasingly unequal economic climate, with big gains to subverting fair competition. This seems similar to what agnostic has described as the distorting effect of how post-1990s radical liberals view The Movement of the 1960s, due to social fracturing.

    You also might see more disaffected, bitter, betrayed feeling and knowingly disloyal individuals in X and the Millennials, individuals who are hacked off by what they feel is the the unfairness of the political system and argue for AA on that basis, as a spoiler / apathetic gesture. I think you can see a fair number of these types in the Vice magazine crowd, individuals who feel disaffected and so will argue for anything that damages the status quo.

    While naive disloyalty (and naive loyalty), where the person isn't even thinking about weakening or protecting or betraying or being betrayed by their ingroup (its not really salient in their mind), might come more from Silents and Boomers, who under the framework of this blog seem to be argued to be are more political-economic naive.

  14. "who under the framework of this blog seem to be argued to be are more political-economic naive."

    They seem to have been pretty good at looking out for their own interests.

  15. "who under the framework of this blog seem to be argued to be are more political-economic naive."

    They seem to have been pretty good at looking out for their own interests.

    Naive, like naive about what needs to happen to be in place to advance collective welfare, and ultimately their own, on average. I don't think you're correct about them being good at looking out for their own interests - I'm pretty sure even Silents and Boomers are affected by rising inequality, which mostly isn't an intergenerational divide. The fraction of Silents and Boomers who've done well out of rising inequality is bigger than lower generations, but on average I think they've probably lost out (its winner takes all, and even though they're a majority of the winners, the winners aren't a majority of their generations).

  16. Since a couple people commented on the affirmative action thing, I checked into it on the GSS using AFFRMACT and surprisingly, there's not much difference between any of the generations - mostly just statistical noise. (It's kind of difficult to track since the age cohort of a generation changes in the survey from year to year.)

    Personally, I've seen a lot of Boomer self-flagellation for the sins resulting from being born when they were, but it tends to be of the narcissistic Oprah-like kind where a cathartic forgiveness moment is expected after which nothing really changes.


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