Anti-colonial philosopher Frantz Fanon observed that “a community will evolve only when a people control their own communication.” Fanon’s quote is especially pertinent in 2019, when stories about the lives and experiences of millions of people are filtered through a small number of media conglomerates and their vetted politicians, media executives, commentators, and other top-down “culture makers.”
When it comes to public perception about generations, most of what we see and hear in the mainstream media — in the form of products, articles, videos, speeches, book tours, and so on—exemplifies how framing alienates those whose experiences don’t make the cut.
Similarly to stories which simplify the experiences of immigrants, the working class, the LGBTQ community, people of color, and other marginalized groups, our collective generational knowledge is often diffused, filtered, and absorbed into “official” culture. This mechanism turns our “on the ground” experiences into a media spectacle in which authentic, inter-generational knowledge is replaced by a market-approved caricatures of who we are.
The problem isn’t about the lack of credible data — it’s that credible research and bottom-up narratives don’t get as much attention in the information business industry.
Even though organizations like Pew Research Center have spent decades “measuring public attitudes on key issues and documenting differences in attitudes between demographic and political groups,” it’s not their research that normally makes the headlines, but the musings of the political establishment and their media friends who spin the data in favor of their agenda. This is why the issue of misleading content about generations is inseparable from the problem of greed and corruption in the news industry at large.
To move beyond inauthentic generational narratives about our lives we have to ask: How can we reclaim, democratize, and share generational knowledge in a way that embraces the primacy and complexity of our collective experiences, rather than the agenda of the information business industry? To answer this question, we need to trace the issue back to a time when content on generations wasn’t about “historical prophecies,” financial speculations, and avocado toast.
The (Persistent) Problem of Generations
Karl Mannhaim’s “Das Problem der Generationen,” or the “The Problem of Generations,” published in 1928, is described as “the seminal theoretical treatment of generations as a sociological phenomenon.” The text reveals a much more complex understanding of generations than the self-serving, voyeuristic drivel that has defined today’s Generation Industry.
For example, Mannheim found it imperative to differentiate between “generational location” and “generation in actuality.” In “The Problem of Generations,” he stressed that “mere chronological contemporaneity is not enough to produce a common generational consciousness” — an insight which discredits the bulk of today’s content on generations. Mannheim theorized that in addition to reaching maturity in a particular time and place (what he called “generational location”), members of a generation have to be actively involved in “realizing the potentialities inherent in their generational location.”
Understandably, such ideas are not embraced by the multi-billion dollar industries which depend on the “Generations Are Different” spiel to assure the continuous demand of their services. Today’s preemptive generational branding efforts would’ve probably terrified Karl Mannheim, who claimed that generations might not even develop their own distinctive character.
While corporate propagandists use parts of Mannheim’s work to enhance their credibility, other aspects of his Theory of Generations — notably those which warn against creating fictitious generational divisions — are omitted, as they don’t fit into the well-packaged presentations that are meant to sell generational “know how” to corporations and other institutions.
Here’s what Mannheim wrote about thinking of generations in purely biological terms:
If we speak simply of ‘generations’ without any further differentiation, we risk jumbling together purely biological phenomena and others which are the product of social and cultural forces: thus we arrive at a sort of sociology of chronological tables (Geschichtstabellensoziologie), which uses its bird’s-eye perspective to ‘discover’ fictitious generation movements to correspond to the crucial turning-points in historical chronology.
Mannheim’s solution was to think of generations in terms of commonality, rather than differentiation:
Generation as an actuality, however, involves even more than mere co-presence in such a historical and social region. A further concrete nexus is needed to constitute generation as an actuality. This additional nexus may be described as participating in the common destiny of this historical and social unit.
Mannheim, who was in part inspired by German romanticism, described how the qualitative character of time can account for different possibilities of experiences within generations:
Every moment of time is therefore in reality more than a pointlike event — it is a temporal volume having more than one dimension, because it is always experienced by several generations at various stages of development…the thinking of each epoch is polyphonous. At any given point in time we must always sort out the individual voices of the various generations, each attaining that point in time in its own way.
These ideas disrupt the prevailing image of generations as homogenous entities and open up the possibility to address and investigate actual issues experienced by cohorts. That’s precisely why such insights never make it inside the Generation Industry, where complexity and diversity are sacrificed in favor of more profitable and clear-cut narratives.
The richness of our inter and intragenerational experiences — one of Mannheim’s most useful and liberating insights — is largely ignored in mainstream discussions regarding generational identities today. Instead, selective, subjectively interpreted data continues to be widely used to manipulate public perception about The Next Generation.
To be clear, Mannheim’s research shouldn’t be considered be-all and end-all of generation research. Nevertheless, it’s telling that the ideas he expressed almost 100 years ago so accurately describe how public perception of generations is manipulated today — precisely through “jumbling together purely biological phenomena and others which are the product of social and cultural forces.“
Applying Mannheim’s Work to Grassroots Movements
Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, it’s clear that the 2011 Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement highlighted issues that were never before discussed on U.S. mainstream media, such as economic inequality and the influence of corporations on our government. Despite the movement’s failure to translate popular discontent into political change, OWS illustrated how an organized effort can lift the veil off the media-driven political theater projected on the mainstream news.
Yet, neither Party seized the historic moment which culminated into thousands of Occupy protests all across the U.S. — not because they lacked the tools to authentically engage citizens and translate enthusiasm into actual policies, but because the movement’s demands pose a direct threat to the parties’ corporate donors.
As Naomi Wolf pointed out in 2012, documents revealed that the crackdown of Occupy was not only coordinated at the level of the “FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and local police,” but also the big banks. In an article published in The Guardian, Wolf called the Occupy crackdown a “totally integrated corporate-state repression of dissent”:
The documents, released after long delay in the week between Christmas and New Year, show a nationwide meta-plot unfolding in city after city in an Orwellian world: six American universities are sites where campus police funneled information about students involved with Occupy Wall Street (OWS) to the FBI, with the administrations’ knowledge (p51); banks sat down with FBI officials to pool information about OWS protesters harvested by private security; plans to crush Occupy events, planned for a month down the road, were made by the FBI — and offered to the representatives of the same organizations that the protests would target; and even threats of the assassination of OWS leaders by sniper fire — by whom? Where? — now remain redacted and undisclosed to those American citizens in danger, contrary to standard FBI practice to inform the person concerned when there is a threat against a political leader (p61).
The Occupy movement illustrated how the duopoly feels about millennials and other generations when it comes to issues beyond eating habits and credit card choices. As expected, Occupy’s demands were systematically ignored and demonized in the corporate media, which portrayed the movement as a “hotbed for violent crime and danger.”
This treatment toward progressive movements and demands continues to this day. Nowadays, liberal and right-wing media outlets use similar sentiments to describe supporters of Bernie Sanders, while continuing to avoid the rot inside our political system that goes well beyond Trump. Clearly, bottom-up applications of generation theory are of no interest to today’s corporate stakeholders, whose de facto allegiance is not to millennials, but to the corporations that are selling and marketing to millennials. This makes sense from the perspective of America’s ruling class — in an oligarchical society, the establishment is right to fear and defend against the prospect of “cohorts participating in their common destiny.”
What if “they” want to change the healthcare system? Corporate tax laws? Campaign finance laws? Immigration laws? A lot can happen when a generation becomes aware of its collective power, which is precisely why there is so much confusion, noise, and disinformation when it comes to mainstream content about generations — especially when it comes to the youngest generations.
Even though there’s no official end date for Generation Z, Forbes and other esteemed places are already branding the next generation: Generation — drum roll please — Alpha!
“Though so many analysts have quantified the importance of the millennial generation, few have examined the effect of their diverse offspring, generation Alpha,” writes Christine Michel Carter, contributor at Forbes:
Born since the year 2010 (and until the year 2025), generation Alpha are the children of millennials. This new generation hasn’t even established credit, and yet they’re impacting the spending behaviors of their millennial parents (who also happen to be entering their prime spending years)…Coincidentally because they’re more likely to be only children, members of Generation Alpha have a greater chance of growing up selfish and expecting instant gratification. This should sound familiar, as millennials are often categorized as having the same characteristics.
Create Your Own Roadshow
How can we effectively challenge for-profit generational narratives? One way to escape the trap of top-down generational talking points is to look beyond the opportunistic uses of generation theory, and focus on how it can be used by the public. Instead of using such theories to package people into categories and chronological tables, we can use generational research and labels to understand the complexities of generational identities from the inside out. This realization would challenge propagandist attempts to manipulate our needs and desires, and place generational narratives where they belong — in the grassroots.
What does this mean for those who are not interested in the reductive image of their generation? They can either 1) continue to believe in dominant generational narratives perpetuated through corporate media, 2) ignore or negate what is said about them, or 3) define what it means to be a millennial or Generation Z’er through organizations that embrace the complexity of our experience and truly support representative democracy.
While I advocate for the third point mentioned above, it is useful to analyze the dangers millennials face when they ignore or negate what is said about our generation. Recently, there have been a number of “I am not a millennial” articles, allegedly written by those who fall within one of many millennial age brackets. While those type of articles highlight the inherent contradictions and bias when it comes to the mainstream millennial label, merely coming up with a new label, such as “xennials” or “old millennials,” and calling it a “micro-generation” is a far cry from challenging generational stereotypes at their core.
Phil Zimbardo, an expert in mind control tactics who is known for his 1971 Stanford prison experiment, suggests that it is not enough to dissent vocally when defending against propaganda — one must be willing “to disobey, to defy, to challenge, and to suffer any ensuing consequences of these actions.” Zimbardo urges readers to “be aware of the general perspective that others use to frame the problem or issue at hand, because accepting their frame on their terms gives them a powerful advantage.”
To move beyond exploitative and profit-driven attempts to control our narratives, we must be wary of those who speak on behalf of millions of people. Often, such efforts are nothing more than a clever propaganda technique that uses our generational identity to manipulate our perception about other issues. A way forward is to co-create models of information sharing that are not beholden to mysterious algorithms and profit motives. Simply put, we have to create our own culture.
“We have to create culture, don’t watch TV, don’t read magazines, don’t even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow,” prophetically recommended Terence McKenna in his 1994 lecture, “Eros and the Eschaton”:
The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe, and if you’re worrying about Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you’re giving it all away to icons, icons which are maintained by an electronic media so that you want to dress like X or have lips like Y. This is shit-brained, this kind of thinking. That is all cultural diversion, and what is real is you and your friends and your associations, your highs, your orgasms, your hopes, your plans, your fears. And we are told ‘no’, we’re unimportant, we’re peripheral. ‘Get a degree, get a job, get a this, get a that.’ And then you’re a player, you don’t want to even play in that game. You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.
Nowadays, it is hard for many of us to find the “nexus of space and time” where we are. Many would much rather watch YouTube videos about “space” and “time,” than to actually experience those things in the present moment. We can blame addiction, social media, depression, our parents and institutions for our predicament, but in the end of the day only we can re-calibrate our collective attention to more productive endeavors and co-create generational narratives that don’t pit us against each other.
We know that the old model of sharing generational knowledge is not only obsolete, but morally bankrupt. Therefore, it is up to us to reject closed systems of explanation about who we are, and use the ties that bind us to build a better future, rather than cut ourselves off from the human experience and retreat to our silos in the marketplace.