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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, leave a passive-aggressive note on language’s wonkily parked car.
Coming up in today’s show: generational labels. Who defined them, and how do they define you?
Let’s warm up with a little word history, sponsored by Poo-Pourri, the before-you-go bathroom spray. After last episode, a number of you asked if Poo-Pourri is a real product. Satirical products don’t pay the bills. Or use essential oils to trap the odour of your ordure when you spritz the water in the loo prior to dropping a load. Visit poopourri.com, peruse their many different scent combos, and for 20% off your next order, use the code WORDS.
And thanks to Poo-Pourri, here’s the etymology of ‘chaos’. Shout out to my fellow Brits.
In the beginning, chaos was a yawn. In its root Proto-Indo-European form ‘gheu’. Proto-Indo-European being the ancestor of languages from Punjabi to Portuguese. So from that ancient yawn or gape, it evolved into the ancient Greek ‘khaos’ χάος, an abyss, a chasm, which also comes from the same root. That sense of vast gaping emptiness is what the word still meant when it landed in English around the end of the 14th century. Then, in the Vulgate Bible version of the book of Genesis, ‘chaos’ described the void before creation, and it’s from there that from around 1600 the word seems to have assumed the additional sense of absolute turmoil - the chaos before God stepped in and spent seven days fixing it up.
On with the show.
MIRANDA SAWYER: I do believe we’re all unique, but we’re not that special.
HZ: That's Miranda Sawyer. She is quite special.
MS: You’re not that special, you are part of your generation, that affects your taste, it affects how you approach things.
HZ: So there’s a certain amount of identity forged by the time in which you are.
MS: Absolutely. And it’s to do with television shows, fashion, what happened to you when you’re a teenager, the general atmosphere around you - when you see programmes about the history of punk, they’re always talking about the three-day week and rubbish in the streets, and it was quite awful. You can’t help things like that shaping you. They just do.
HZ: So if, say, you were born between 1925 and 1942, you’d be part of the Silent Generation, as the McCarthy era taught you to lie low. Landed on this earth between 1843 and 1859? Progressive Generation - growing up during the American Civil War, you’d react against that when you came of age and prioritise progress and reform over the pursuit of power. According to the circumstances surrounding them, generations have been profiled all the way back to 1433, the Arthurian Generation.
Much of the identification of the generational cycles has been spearheaded over the past three decades by Neil Howe and his late collaborator William Strauss. They even have their names on a theory, Strauss-Howe generational theory. But generational theory itself goes back farther. Thomas Jefferson effectively espoused it in a letter to James Madison in 1789, contemplating how the United States could reboot its constitution every 19 years to allow for the changing requirements of each new generation. And then, in the nineteenth century, generational theory really took off amongst philosophers and sociologists. Here's Neil Howe.
NEIL HOWE: What I think what happened was that people began to think of history as directional and society really changing: socially, economically, politically over time. That history really was moving from and to somewhere. At the same time that happened, people became very aware of generational break balance and of where they were, you know, on that acceleration. So, did you come of age before the French Revolution? Were you a child of Napoleon, were you a child of the new democratic assemblies? Where were you when the railroads and the Industrial Revolution took off? Are you comfortable with the new middle class?
MS: I can remember Thatcherism, and people who are a few years younger than me can’t remember Thatcherism, and it actually does colour your approach to life.
HZ: And if you grew up outside of Britain, your approach would be coloured by something other than Thatcherism. The generations are not universal, geographically or socially.
NH: Break points are not the same across societies, and in fact the whole, if you take the look across very different societies, you may find a whole different type of generational dynamic going on. And then there’s the awareness, the collective consciousness which gets into the whole naming because as soon as you’re aware of it, you’re tempted to name it.
HZ: The idea of the generations solidifies when they have labels. But those labels are an odd collection. There’s no aesthetic or thematic connection between, say, 'Silent Generation' and 'Baby Boomer' and 'Generation X' and 'Millennials' - and the attempt to follow Generation X with Generation Y didn't really take off, instead 'Millennial' was the name that stuck, coined by Neil Howe.
NH: The actual names that we have that have become popular, that have become kind of the currency? They’re very accidental. The origins of them are very peculiar, kind of like shooting a bullet into a cave and having it just ricochet around; there seems to be no rhyme or reason.
HZ: The generations were named in piecemeal fashion. For instance, journalist Tom Brokaw came up with 'Greatest Generation', while 'Lost Generation' was coined by Gertrude Stein and popularised by Ernest Hemingway. 'Generation X' had a circuitous path to being applied to people born from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. The term had been around as a label for disaffected youth since a magazine photo spread in 1952; it was a punk band fronted by Billy Idol in the late 1970s, named after an early 1960s book he’d seen on his mother’s bookshelf; and then it was the name of Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel, the aimless characters of which came to epitomise the generation coming of age at the same time. But Generation X wasn’t the label Neil Howe and William Strauss would have opted for.
NH: We actually called them ‘Thirteenth Generation’. We called them ‘thirteeners’ in our first book, Generation, in that, literally the thirteenth generation in a row since the first US generation of Sam Adams and Benjamin Franklin. And also conjuring up and ill-timing of their life-cycle.
HZ: You were born at a bad time, Gen X, so your name could have been a lot more negative.
NH: The words often used at that time were ‘Baby Bust Generation’ because they were obviously products of a lower fertility rate.
HZ: Nice for that to be your identifying characteristic. And for your generation to be nothing more than a riff on the previous one, in this case the baby boomers.
NH: ‘The New Lost Generation’, a number of things like that. There was a general sense of a lot of despairing words about these kids: how badly they were going to do economically, how poorly they’d been educated and so on.
HZ: But, unusually, the latest ascendent generation was labelled before its people even came of age and showed themselves. Millennials.
HZ: Explain to grandma here: what is a millennial?
MEGAN TAN: A millennial is somebody who is born between the 1980s and the 2000s, and they’re coming of age during this period of time, during the 2000s. They’re becoming an adult. 18-32 is the range.
HZ: That’s Megan Tan; the host of the podcast Millennial, about coming of age in your 20s.
NH: The name ‘Millennial’ was pretty obvious: we figured their first birth year was around 1982, they would be the first high school students of 2000; we figured there’d be a lot of ABC and NBC news specials about, you know, the high school class of 2000, their initial coming of age year. So we said, well it’s the new millennium, right? Let’s call them ‘Millennials’.
HZ: Do you self-identify as one, or do you just feel that technically you were born in that bracket?
MEGAN TAN: Oh I am definitely a millennial! Ha ha!
HZ: How does it feel?
MT: It feels good. I feel like, when you claim it, you’re like, “Yeah! I’m a millennial!” It’s pretty funny.
HZ: Why is it pretty funny?
MT: Because… If we’re talking about the word ‘millennial’, everybody has these funny connotations with it, and I think if you are a millennial, it’s almost like you’re in a zoo, and you don’t know you’re in a zoo, and people are watching you, and you’re like, “Why are you watching us?” And then you realise you’re in a zoo. That’s how it feels! You forget that you’re in a zoo.
HZ: So you came of age peak Generation X.
MIRANDA SAWYER: Yeah. [laughs]
HZ: If you’re in it, are you actually aware of it at the time?
MS: You’re aware of something. What you’re aware of - and this does affect you when you’re older - is that you think you’re winning. Suddenly the culture that you thought was just you and your mates bubbles over into the mainstream and becomes the mainstream culture, and you think, “Oh my god, we were right! All the stuff we thought was really brilliant - turns out we were right!” That’s an incredibly heady feeling. It’s not like you think you stormed the barricades, but all that time you spent with your nose pressed up to the window and how would you ever get in, and suddenly the people say, “It’s alright, come in!” And you’re like, “Really? OK! That sounds quite fun.” And then, of course, what you understand is that by letting you in, the mainstream always gobbles up the alternative then offers a weird version of it.
Then when everything becomes mainstream, it isn’t what you liked. It becomes a cartoon. All the bits you liked, all the corners get knocked off. It becomes completely neutralised. That’s what the mainstream does. It’s just, at the time, you didn’t realise it.
HZ: Something for millennials to look forward to in 20-30 years time.
MS: The hardest thing for a generation that felt like they had changed something - I’d imagine this is the same for baby boomers or punks - is after a while you’re not changing anything. You’re the establishment. So get used to it.
HZ: Almost like the generational labels themselves. Entry into pop culture turned them from sociological terms into marketing tools and media buzzwords.
MT: It’s really just that the name has been… It’s just been used so often in headlines; it has become this buzzword where the trigger is for people to roll their eyes.
HZ: The term 'Millennial' conjures a number of stereotypes: Millennials are entitled. Millennials are selfie-taking narcissists. Millennials live with their parents and never grow up.
MT: When we had the name ‘Millennial’, we knew about the negative connotations, but we didn’t know how impactful they would be. You’re in it, so you don’t understand what everybody else’s issue is with the word, and you are the word. So you’re like, “Why does everybody have an issue with people like me?” But I think... sticking it to the man and thinking, “I am a millennial, and what I’m going through is very millennial.”
HZ: Once the description and the label have been decided, how much does it matter what the people are actually like, and how much will their characteristics be edited and distorted to fit a pre-existing narrative?
MS: I’m a massive believer in confirmation bias. Because everybody says, “Oh, this is terrible.” But you only see what you only see. I understand that. But it doesn’t make it any less genuine. Those emotions that surround an era - sometimes a story is made around an era, and it tends to be a white boy’s story, for instance. So the story that we hear through music, pop music, begins with the Beatles and the Stones, then it goes through and it’s just white boys. So I’m very aware of that confirmation bias. But generally, I think confirmation bias is kind of fine, because it shows you lots of people felt the same way. Confirmation bias is just as true as anything else.
NH: There is a reality of social generations er that transcends you know what we bother to call them, know what I mean? So it’s sort of like even if we don’t have a word for gravity, there would be gravity.
HZ: Bit different, because gravity is a force to which objects are subject indiscriminately, whereas the generational labels ought to be subject to the individuals to whom they are applied but may be misrepresenting.
MS: The problem with labels is they put everything in aspic. They’ve got the butterfly and pinned it.
HZ: I was born in 1980 - too early to be a Millennial, too young really to catch the Generation X wave, so I don’t get a generational label. I guess I’m lucky not to be pinned, or covered in aspic. On the other hand, I can’t attribute my behaviour to anything but than my own terribleness.
HZ: I wonder what the next label will be.
MT: The 18-year-olds are still coming up. I guess 16-year-olds will be part of a new generation. That generation - everyone’s going to pick on the new generation. Can you imagine being 13 and growing up with Twitter? That is what’s happening. People are teenagers, and they already understand they are creating a brand for themselves personally. We can’t look at them and wag our finger.
HZ: There are already some labels on the table for the post-Millennial Generation of people born after 2005. Homeland Generation, Generation Z, iGeneration, Neo-Digital Natives - or maybe the term is yet to be invented that will be annoying you in New York Times think pieces some twenty years hence.
This episode was sponsored by Bombas, makers of assiduously engineered socks. No slipping down into your shoes. No seams to chafe your feed. There’s a honeycomb design knitted into the foot that is not just to do with Bombas’s bee logo - it gives your feet extra support, and I really notice it helping after hiking for a few miles. Plus, for every pair of socks you buy, Bombas donates a pair to a homeless shelter. At time of recording, they’ve donated more than 990,000 pairs - take it to over one million, visit bombas.com/allusionist; and to save 20% on your purchase, enter the code Allusionist at checkout.
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This episode was produced by Devon Taylor, Cheeka Eyers and me, Helen Zaltzman, with music by Martin Austwick.
I’m taking the rest of July off, the show will be back on 5th August. In the meantime, stay in touch - facebook.com/allusionistshow and twitter.com/allusionistshow - and you can find all episodes of the show at theallusionist.org.