Episode 38: The Media’s Bogus Generation Obsession

Citations Needed | May 23, 2018 | Transcript

Citations Needed
31 min readMay 23, 2018



Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Thank you so much for joining us, everyone, this week. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook: Citations Needed and help us out on Patreon at Citations Needed Podcast. All your support is much appreciated.

Adam: Yeah, so today’s show is a topic that we are, I know you and I are fascinated with because it’s so mindbogglingly stupid and yet is very, very ubiquitous and that’s the idea of “generations.” Time and again we hear, its become a cliché at this point: ‘Millennials are killing the housing markets,’ ‘Boomers are bloating the social safety net,’ ‘Gen-Xers are changing the nature of work.’

Nima: Whatever that means.

Adam: Yeah. We hear stories about one generation or another engaging in some collective act of consumption or moral failing that explicitly or implicitly sort of harms another generation. Right? It’s become a kind of wildly-mocked cliché at this point that there are actually several lists of things that Millennials have killed or ruined.

Nima: Right.

Adam: The diamond industry, the housing market, the fast food industry, the diamond industry, and I think one of the reasons this is because the first rule of drama I think and by application media is to create tension. But what if the actual tensions in our society, like say, for example, racism or class conflict were too unpleasant or dicey for corporate advertisers and for media owners, how would you create tension as a writer?

1964 Pepsi advertisement

Nima: Right. So what they wind up doing is actually like replacing real tensions, real class issues, race issues, etcetera, economic issues with this dubious and entirely sanitized notion of a conflict that exists. Right? So it’s now between generations. It’s between people born within this timeframe versus people born within this other timeframe. It’s never going to be the obscenely wealthy or the obscenely bigoted that are holding people back. It’s going to be, um, you know, old people are running up entitlement spending or lazy youth don’t want to work.

Adam: By using this hack-y marketing construct, our media delineate society not along long lines of privilege or class, but arbitrary dates of birth. In this episode we want to talk about why this media trope is so popular and why it isn’t just hack-y and stupid, but it’s also subtly racist and deeply reactionary.

Nima: So we will be joined later on the show by Adam Conover, host of Adam Ruins Everything on truTV.

[Begin Clip]

Adam Conover: If you are really looking at the divisions in society those matter a lot more, those such as race and class matter a lot more than birth year and really the mistake that’s being made here is not about, you know, the psychological research itself, but it’s like what emphasis are you placing on which data points and how are you labeling the people that you’re talking about and is that emphasis and labeling choices you’re making? Are those damaging?

[End Clip]

Nima: Lamenting “the youth today” became very popular in the 1960s for obvious reasons. This type of thing tends to happen when there are movements for justice that directly implicate existing power structures for being unjust, racist and oppressive.

Adam: Right.

Nima: The concept of “generations” and generation theory in general really took off at that time to somehow account for why the youth writ large were so antagonistic toward and rebellious against the status quo. But this was definitely not a new post-World War phenomenon. It actually had been around since pretty much the beginning of time. The ancient Greek poet, Homer, and this is where I get a little nerdy and reveal to you all that I actually have a degree in “The Classics,” the poet Homer wrote in Book Six of The Iliad of older generations making way for the new. Um, usually I’d throw out a quote here, something we do all the time on the show, but I actually don’t think my reading will do justice to the gravity of, of Greek epic poetry. So instead we have tapped into our resident Shakespearean theater group, The Citations Needed Players, for a properly dignified reading of Homer:

[Begin Clip]

As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.

The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber

Burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.

So one generation of men will grow while another dies.

[End Clip]

Nima: That was again from Homer’s Iliad, from roughly the 8th Century BC. Four hundred years later Greek philosopher, Aristotle, penned Rhetoric, his great treatise on the art of language, persuasion and civic discourse. In it, Aristotle writes of how the young and the old differ. In terms very familiar to the current talk of generations. Again, here’s a very compelling reading:

[Begin Clip]

Young men have strong passions and tend to gratify them indiscriminately… They have exalted notions, because they have not yet been humbled by life or learnt it’s necessary limitations; moreover, their hopeful disposition makes them think themselves equal to great things… They think they know everything and are always quite sure about it; this, in fact, is why they overdo everything.

[End Clip]

Nima: Aristotle then turns his attention to older folks.

[Begin Clip]

The character of elderly men, men who are past their prime, may be said to be formed for the most part of elements that are the contrary of all these… They are sure about nothing and under-do everything… They are not generous, because money is one of the things they must have, and at the same time their experience has taught them how hard it is to get and how easy to lose. They live by memory rather than by hope; for what is left to them of life is but little as compared with the long past; and hope is of the future, memory of the past.

[End Clip]

Nima: We could really go on forever with these. (Laughs) There’s tons of evidence of griping about young people and old people, but we’ll only do one more. On June 3, 1922, G.K. Chesterton, a renowned British wit, wrote in the Illustrated London News:

[Begin Clip]

I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid.

[End Clip]

Nima: That would not have sounded the same if we had read those. (Laughs)

Adam: Clearly not. We’re very humbled by that.

Nima: Yes. So that was, that was G.K. Chesterton from 1922. Not an actual recording of him, mind you, but the best we could get. So thanks again to The Citations Needed Players. That was amazing. Um, the very next year after Chesterton wrote that, in 1923, the first real exploration of generational theory was published. An essay by Karl Mannheim entitled The Problem of Generations. It basically explores how European philosophers, mostly German and French, were “anxious to find a general law to express the rhythm of historical development, based on the biological law of the limited lifetimes of man.” The essay concluded that, quote, “Youth experiencing the same concrete historical problems may be said to be part of the same actual generation.” End quote.

Adam: Right.

Nima: More recently the concept of generations was furthered popularized by historians-turned-marketing consultants, William Strauss and Neil Howe. Throughout the 1990s and afterwards they actually coined the term “Millennials” and made tons of money with their company called LifeCourse Associates. In a way, this mantle was then picked up by a psychologist, Jean Twenge. Ever since she’s written books like Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — And More Miserable Than Ever Before. And Twenge has actually become very, very successful talking about this kind of stuff, making like an excellent living for herself, giving very high price speeches, signing consultant contracts that basically consists of her bashing youngsters because of selfies or something. She’s actually even tried to coin a term herself for this now post-Millennial generation. Generations I think used to be like generally understood as 30 years. Now it’s like every three years there should be a new generation name. And so Twenge has actually tried to coin a new one called “iGen.” This lower case “i” as in, you know, iTunes, iPads, iPods, um, iGen, which I believe is also now the name of her own consulting group. So funny how that, how that works. Name a new generation after the business you run. That’s kind of how this idea has proliferated through our society and through our discourse.

Adam: Um, I would say the number one practitioner since then, and again this is something that’s been around for hundreds of years, is TIME magazine, which has effectively written the same article about generations for, gosh, going on 60 years?

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: So, um, there’s a TIME magazine cover specifically about sort of the idea of narcissism, there’s a TIME cover article in 1967 that says, “Twenty-Five and Under.” There’s one from 1982 that says, “The Computer Generation.” One from 1986 saying, “The Baby Boomers Turn 40.” One from 1988, “Through the Eyes of Children Growing Up in America Today.” In 1999, they have all these hip like turn of the century twenty somethings and it says, “Twenty Somethings Shaping Our Future.” Then they have in 1997, “Generation X.” In 2009 they have, “Generation Disappointment.” 2011, “The Generation Changing the World.” And then of course in 2013, “The Me Me Me Generation.” So TIME and Life magazine, which are sort of these hacky grocery store kind of fodder for sort of lower middle brow media consumers, are constantly vomiting out generation stories. They’re the most, they’re the most offensive violator of the generations hackery without question.

Nima: But not the only.

Adam: Certainly not the only. Certainly not the only.

Nima: In September 2015, The New York Times ran a story, “Move Over, Millennials, Here Comes Generation Z.”

Adam: Sure, why not?

Nima: Two years later, September 2017, Vanity Fair produced, “Why Generation X Might Be Our Last Best Hope.” And then you see this obviously in terms of CNBC business articles. Now they know where their audience is —

Adam: They love this.

Nima: And, um, the new middle-aged people are Gen-Xers, obviously. So in March of 2018, they ran a story, this is CNBC ran a story, the headline, “It’s High Time Gen X Takes Retirement Seriously,” and that was written by a managing director for Pershing Advisor Solutions an investment firm that specializes in quote “private banking, alternative investments and third party marketing expertise backed by exceptional financial strength.” And in it, it talks about that, um, according to Deloitte Consulting, Gen X “will experience the highest increase in share of national wealth through 2030, growing from under 14 percent of total” blah blah blah blah blah blah. You can see where this is going.

Adam: Yeah, generations will get older. It’s true. People do age.

Nima: And then a month later in April of this year, 2018, CNBC ran another story headlined, “Generation X — not millennials — is changing the nature of work.”

Adam: Yeah. And uh, there was a really funny trend in the until 2015 and 2016 about Millennials loving Bernie Sanders.

Nima: (Chuckles) These were amazing.

Adam: Because Bernie Sanders was getting a lot of votes from young people. People who maybe aren’t as weathered by the world or sort of grizzled and a little bit more idealistic. I think that would be the sort of division.

Nima: There was a lot of like, you know, fist shaking it at clouds about this.

Adam: The New Yorker said, “Should Millennials Get Over Bernie Sanders?” Time magazine the, “Reason Millennials Love Bernie Sanders,” New York Times, “Why Are So Many Young Voters Falling For Old Socialists?”

Nima: The New Republic said, “Why Are Millennial Women Gravitating to Bernie Sanders?” Bloomberg said, “What Millennials Like About Bernie Sanders.” The Hill did “Bernie Sanders and the millennial mindset.” And then CNN also ran one called “Millennials are Bernie Sanders’ biggest fans.” The horror, the horror of youth.

Adam: And then there’s times where this sort of instinct that gets super goofy and even dystopian. In 2014, the Obama White House released a report called “15 Economic Facts About Millennials,” which the premise of which was quote, “The Millennial generation will continue to be a sizable part of the population for many years.” Uh, which is sort of the rhetorical equivalent or political equivalent of John Madden’s the team with the most points at the end of the game is going to win.

Nima: Right, right. Time passes. Some people die. Others continue to live and age.

Adam: Yeah. Assuming that they’re not, um, cryogenically frozen or that character that Robin Williams played in the movie Jack, where he never —

Nima: Right or they just Benjamin Button themselves.

Adam: Yeah. So they had these different generations. They had Baby Boomers from 1946 to 1964 then they had Generation X from 1965 to 1980, and then they had Millennials, which is sort of the fattest one, which is 1980 to 2004. Then they defined anyone born after 2004 to the present as the Homeland Generation by Strauss and Howe. They defined it as, quote, “Homelanders will be tracked by mobile digital technology, screened by psychological software and surveilled by entertainment controls that limit their access to anything inappropriate.” This is sort of one of these lofty sort of silly things that they throw out that don’t really mean anything. What’s more disturbing is that presumably some professionals in the Obama White House thought labeling and entire group of people, “Homeland Generation.”

Nima: Yeah, as if it was not completely terrifying and bizarre.

Adam: Yeah, and if Trump were to, like, start his equivalent of Nazi Youth tomorrow, he would call it the “Homeland Generation.”

Nima: (Laughs) Right. That’s perfectly already articulated.

Adam: Super dystopian.

Nima: What’s actually funny is that that same year, 2014, a spokesperson for the US Census Bureau itself, so this is the government under Obama, whose White House published that weird millennial thing, told The Atlantic magazine that officially the US Government Census Bureau does not define the different generations, but quote, “The only generation we do define is Baby Boomers and that year bracket is from 1946 to 1964.” This has been actually explained because it has to do not so much with some arbitrary year begin and end dates, but because as Phillip N. Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland has pointed out, the baby boom was a demographic event. It’s like an actual thing that happened. So he’s written, quote, “In 1946 after the end of World War II, the crude birth rate — the number of births per 1000 population — jumped from 20.4 to 24.1, the biggest one year change recorded in US history. The birth rate didn’t fall back to its previous level until 1965. That’s why the baby boom went down in history as ’46 through ’64 because that’s literally when it happened.” It’s not so much a generation as a, as a cohort, a group of people sharing a common demographic experience, but that’s why that is thought to be an official generation rather than what has been termed generational since then, which winds up being far more arbitrary.

Adam: Yeah, and the reason it’s so popular as we mentioned earlier, is that it’s busy work, but when you write as a reporter, you have to write something that has tension or says something meaningful and the way you create tension without actually ruffling feathers or offending anyone is to create intergenerational tension. It’s completely arbitrary, so again, when you’re not, when you’re talking about generations, you’re not talking about class or class conflict. You’re not talking about white supremacy you’re not talking about bosses screwing over their workers. You’re not talking about the tension that exists between men and women and patriarchy. You’re not talking about the tensions between documented and undocumented Americans. You’re not talking about actual sort of systems of oppression. You’re kind of manufacturing one that is so sort of generic that it kind of falls across the lines neatly.

Nima: It’s basically designed to just flatten everything and articulate or manufacture really historical sort of rhythms, historical monolithic groups and to ascribe one certain set of ideals to a certain set of people who are born at a certain time, which obviously makes no sense.

Adam: Some arbitrary day.

Nima: I mean, if, you know, there were plenty of pro-Vietnam [War] Americans, while there were anti-war demonstrations. It wasn’t like, well, the young people were against it and the old people were for it. It’s, like, that’s not how the world works.

Adam: Prescriptively I think people really have to avoid that kind of language because old people are not your “problem.” Old people did not wreck the economy. Wall Street and a collection of corrupt politicians and billionaires wrecked the economy. Now that they happen to be disproportionately old is only by virtue of the fact that they’ve, that’s how you acquire money. It takes time, but it’s not because they’re old.

Nima: That’s why they have the jobs and the titles and the roles that they have in society.

Adam: Yeah, and it becomes a kind of socially acceptable I think ageism in a way and I think that’s really the wrong way to look at it because when you’re talking about Boomers or the old or the old people, you’re not really talking about what the real centers of power are.

Nima: Right, and I mean, of course this is seen not only in our media today, but in the sixties, in 1965, The Daily Utah Chronicle published a piece called “Generation Gaps Breed Rebellion.” In 1967, The Honolulu Star Bulletin produced a article called, “A Crack in the Structure of American Society,” and it lamented that there is, for example, the “explosion of black power on the one hand and the implosion of flower power on the other.” Four years later in The Shreveport Times 1971, there was an article headlined, “World War II Baby Boomers Now Young Adults Swelling Ranks of Area’s Population.” God forbid young people get old.

Adam: Yeah. Not Allowed to do that.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: The team with the most points is going to win the game.

Nima: To talk about this a little more, we are going to now be joined by Adam Conover, host of Adam Ruins Everything which you can catch on Tru TV. He’s going to join us in just a sec. Stick with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Adam Conover. Adam, it is so awesome to talk to you today on Citations Needed.

Adam Conover: Hey, thank you so much for having me.

Adam: We are infinitely fascinated on the show by the concept of “generations” because it is probably the thing that is the most popular, but it’s very stupid.

Adam Conover: (Laughs)

Adam: Um, it has the highest popular too stupid quotient that I think I’ve ever seen in terms of its media ubiquity and just how utterly useless it is intellectually. One of the things that we liked in your talk you gave at Deep Shift, Millennials Don’t Exist, which we came across in the research for this episode, was the idea that when you’re talking about generations and the differences between these so-called generations, you’re, you seem to meet a lot of the times to be overtly not talking about what really matters. And the problem has always been, not so much in what generations stories are, what generations conversations say, it’s of what they’re not saying. And to put it in lefty terms, they’re not really talking about racism or class. I guess I’m curious what you think to the extent to which that’s part of the reason why generation stories are as popular as they are because they kind of just fill up space and don’t really offend anyone.

Adam Conover: Well, you know, people, I think first of all, I have to take it back to sort of the natural human propensity to divide things up into categories, right? That’s like just a natural thing that humans do. Uh, in reality, there are not really categories of things other than like atoms, you know what I mean? Um, but uh, which, you know, certainly there’s a difference between carbon and hydrogen and that’s pretty clear. But when we look at anything else at a more macro level, you know, when you get right down to it, you see fine gradients everywhere, right? Um like, you know, but we divide the natural world up into species, right? Or we divide history into geological epochs, things like that. Um, and you know, when you look close at the, uh, at the differences between those categories and at sort of the edges, you see that the distinction falls apart and there really isn’t one, but we naturally chunk things up that way, right? Um, and, uh, so there’s that natural human propensity and then there’s a natural human propensity to work in stereotypes and archetypes, right? And to say that, okay, you know, in this category, uh, you know, there’s this sort of general observation I’ve made very superficially and a cultural belief about that category and therefore that’s the thing that’s true about that category, right? Um, so, uh, as a result that ends up, people end up naturally creating narratives about different generations, you know, um, it’s, the other part of it is the, there is this sort of superficial sense in which generation is true within a family, right? Like, I was born in a certain year, 18 years later, I have a, or, you know, at a minimum, hopefully, I have kids, right? Eighteen to forty years later and so there are generations in that sense and so we sort of imagine that’s how everyone else is all the time, right? But in reality, like, you know, the ages of people are continuous. People don’t really come in waves, you know, but all those things together cause us to sort of create this imaginary edifice under which people come in sort of tranches, you know, in these sort of like groups, uh, that are like separated, like yeah that they come along in these big waves, you know, and that, those waves have characteristics that are distinctive them. Um, the, the last thing that I think creates this is that, uh, you know, there are differences between older people and young people, you know?

Nima: (Laughs) Right.

Adam Conover: Just in the way that they behave, right? And of course old people complain about young people, young people complain about old people, but old people tend to have a lot more power so their stereotypes tend to have a lot more cultural currency. Right? Um, so that’s the explanation for why you have old people saying, ‘All right, young people are lazy,’ right? Um, because, uh, you know, it’s, uh, because of all those factors going together. The reason the media takes control of it in my view is just because whenever you can tell a story that appeals to people’s natural biases, it will always take off. A story like that always benefits from people’s willingness to believe it. Right? Really started from first principles there. But that’s sort of how I think it works.

Nima: (Laughs) No, I think that that makes perfect sense. I mean, if you need to look at storytelling on this mass level in terms of, like, a Hero’s Journey, who’s going to be the hero and who’s the villain is always going to wind up coming back around. And if young people are telling the story, it’s usually going to be old people that are the villain and vice versa. What is the harm that this does to society as a whole? Like, you know, we see elderly people as takers and young people in general as this monolith of, like, gadabout losers.

Adam Conover: Well, I think it’s, I think it’s enormously damaging because it causes people to follow terrible policies, you know, to uh, not actually see the reality of what their fellow citizens are struggling with, Millennials, the truth is in so far as we’re going to use that label is, are enormously, you know, economically disadvantaged if you look at the economic realities of their lives and what’s happened, you know, the economy that they grew up in versus the economy that their parents did. Um, but the, you know, the simple myths of Millennials are lazy, right? Which, as you correctly pointed out, is exactly the same thing that the quote “greatest generation” said about Boomers. It’s the same thing that was said about Gen-Xers. In fact, if you just think about like, you know, what people said about flappers, right? You can pick basically any quote “generation” and that was said about them. When we sort of cleave to the power of that overall cultural myth, we end up, you know, ignoring the actual, uh, difficulties that our fellow citizens face. And we also end up insulting them quite a lot as well.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Yeah, it’s, it’s, to me, it’s, it’s always funny because people say “Millennials,” even if you take that as a useful conceit, like without addressing the issues of class and race, I mean obviously, you know, I have a lot more in common with someone who’s 55 and comes from my class and race and I do say, I don’t know Mark Zuckerberg or you know, someone who’s very poor from a different side of the town and maybe African American, like the idea that even the idea that like Millennials, insofar that it goes is a useful taxonomy just glosses over so much, so many other factors, specifically socioeconomic status, which obviously has tremendous impact on our lives.

Adam Conover: Right? So in my talk that’s on YouTube, um, you know, I poke fun at a researcher named Jean Twenge who is really one of the ones who, she’s a researcher really promoted the idea that Millennials were narcissists. That’s what her research found and that’s controversial research right? But you know, she believes in it very strongly. We actually had her on our show, on Adam Ruins Everything, later for a different reason. She was telling us about the myth that women’s fertility plummets after 35 and she had done some great research on that. And so of course we had to address our difference of opinion about Millennials. And I ended up having her on my podcast and, uh, we had a really great conversation where, you know, I mean, we had, you know, in our talk, uh, you know, there were things that she took issue with about how we represented the statistics, which I wouldn’t dispute her on because she knows them better than I do. Um, but, you know, whereas my, my concerns are basically about the framing that Millennials are narcissistic, right? And the, uh, you know, the emphasis on that stereotype, um, uh, and what she points out is basically, look, when you look at age cohorts, right? And you track, you know, a certain variable about their individuality, for instance, was a, was it a variable she tracked. And if you look at people from the same socioeconomic status over time, um, you know, the individuality of younger people is like a trait that they value more highly or that they exhibit more highly, right? But it’s like a continuous upswing, you know, it’s not like there’s a difference between like there’s a bright line between one generation or another. Um, and that’s also a lot different than saying that Millennials are narcissistic. So I asked her like, so why come up with these categories at all? Why do we, where, where does this label come from?

Adam: Right.

Adam Conover: When what you’re really seeing is a continuous rate of change in, you know, cohorts that were born in different years. I’m not surprised that you see continuous change like that when I’m surprised is, is why, you know, uh, uh, you know, people publish books that have Millennial in the title. And she said, ‘well, you just got to draw a line somewhere if you want to talk about the things, you know?’ Um, uh, which, which is true, right? Like if you want to just have a discussion about these categories at all, like alright, we need to label these points on the Y-axis something.

Adam: But it’s just an assertion.

Adam Conover: Exactly. It’s just like it’s a completely arbitrary circle.

Adam: Right.

Adam Conover: And so the real question is, you know, uh, I think you’re, you’re absolutely right, that if you are really looking at the divisions in society, those matter a lot more, those such as race and class matter a lot more than birth year. And really the mistake that’s being made here is not about, you know, the psychological research itself, but it’s like what emphasis are you placing on which data points and how are you labeling the people that you’re talking about? And is that emphasis and labeling choices you’re making, are those damaging?

Adam: Yeah my main beef is that I think when people talk about Millennials, I would say 95 times out of 100 what they mean and what the image people have in their head is a middle class white person. And I think that they’re like using that as a kind of place holder to make a broader critique about basically being angry at their kids and their friends.

Adam Conover: Yeah.

Adam: And coming up with this kind of arbitrary taxonomy and try to pass it off as insight.

Adam Conover: And it’s funny that you say that because, uh, one of the, you know, as I say in the talk, one of the few things we can say about young people if you want to, if you want to divide them into generations and you say, what is really the most salient thing about, about them? The biggest difference about Millennials is that they’re the most diverse generation ever. They’re the least white generation ever.

Adam: Right. That is true, yeah.

Adam Conover: But people mostly picture a white person, I would agree with you. And they often picture a young woman. A lot of the language about Millennials is extremely gendered.

Nima: Yeah. So how does this actually lead into using this breaking down of demographics? Like how is this then leveraged by, I think a lot of the people pushing this stuff like William Strauss and Neil Howe and then later Jean Twenge herself, labeling certain generations, creating new names for generations, but then leveraging that into marketing and into their own consultancies, which then says, ‘Okay, so we know how generations breakdown and how these generations think as these monolithic communities and so we can help your products travel faster. We can, we can sell your toothpaste, we can pitch your candidate.’ How does marketing fit into all of this and the kind of creation and then maintenance of generations in the media?

Adam Conover: I mean it’s entirely the story of it is marketing. Yeah. These, these people, as you discussed, you know, Strauss and Howe, yeah, created an empire consultancy based on their generational theories and some of their generational theories by the way, we’re super, super weird. Like they actually predicted at first that Millennials, like they basically put out a new generations book every couple of years and every time they did they would come up with new theories about what the generations were going to be. And so like they initially predicted that Millennials would be, uh, would return to being super religious, that they’d be a really religious, a generation, which we now know isn’t true, but that’s what these guys were saying in like 1990 or something like that. And they also, their theories are really, really weird because they had this sort of like theory of a cycle of history that would always recur. And so each of the generations have this like specific historical role that would come around again. That was sort of like a cycle of creation and destruction and that theory, and this is a real Google rabbit hole if you want to go down it, ended up profoundly influencing Steve Bannon and Steve Bannon ended up making a movie, a documentary when he was in that sort of phase of his career about Strauss and Howe’s book. I think it’s called The Fourth Turning is the name of the book.

Nima: Yeah, exactly. There’s these four archetypes that each generation represents. So it goes from, like, Hero to Artist to Prophet to Nomad on this endless cycle. This has everything to do with white Anglo-American history. Obviously generations, I don’t think any of these theorists are writing books about the generations of people in Yemen or even Japan. It is so specifically targeted toward this Euro-American history that has everything to do with like white, suburban people at this point.

Adam Conover: Yeah. And it’s also completely just, you know, a literary fiction. I mean, how would you even go about analyzing such a thing? You know, it, it’s like a very much, you know, the hand waviest sort of a philosophy, sociology possible. I mean, it’s certainly interesting to think about, you know, it’s like, but you know, this is astrology applied to history, right? Um, uh, you know, Jean Twenge on the other hand is, you know, uh, really, uh, is a researcher who really operates in good faith. Um, and uh, you know, is, does like, you know, uses serious demographic data sets. Um, and is doing, you know, real sociology, um, but, you know, in my, in my opinion, uh, you know, sort of got a little bit wrapped up in the media appearances that one could do if one went on and validated this bias that everyone holds about Millennials being narcissistic, you know what I mean? She kind of, well, actually putting it that way makes it sound like she did it on purpose and I don’t want to necessarily say that, that it was like, ‘Oh, here’s my, here’s my sort of scheme to get on TV.’ But if you, look, if you’re a researcher and you’re saying that Millennials are narcissistic, you’re going to get to do a lot of morning shows, you know, and, um, and you’re going to strike gold doing that. And so that’s what she found and that’s what ended up happening. Right. Um, so that message ended up spreading, not because the research was incredible. In fact, a lot of her peers dispute the idea that Millennials are more narcissistic. Um, but because it was media catnip, right? Um, and uh, but getting back to marketing, you know, the ad industry, uh, relies on demographic data, right? And on research because they need to come up with some kind of metric to set their ad rates, especially like in TV, right? They need to be able to say to an advertiser, ‘Hey, we’re charging you 10 bucks a minute for ads because we know that our viewers are like A-B-C-D, that they have these qualities and that’ll result in this many more sales to you,’ right? That’s the way the whole thing is built. And so they are hungry for any kind of data that can let them make that sort of assertion. The thing is nobody working in advertising, these people are not scientists. You know, this is, uh, one of the least rigorous fields of study. And I say that very anecdotally, but I’m a guy who works in television and I’ve talked to the network about research, you know, and the stuff they say is nonsense to, to, uh, uh, to say the least. So, um, you know, it sort of creates this sort of research industrial complex where you’ve got people who, you’ve got an industry that is hungry for data that will stereotype they’re consumers, right? That’s what they need. They’re like, ‘Please tell me what they’re all like, I need to know!’ You know? ‘So that I can get someone else to buy something from me.’ And as a result, that’s where a lot of these, uh, that’s what incentivizes a lot of this research.

Adam: Yeah I mean it’s, it’s socially acceptable astrology.

Adam Conover: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know, a lot of it’s not based on nothing.

Adam: Well yeah, obviously there are differences, right? The scientifically significant question is, is there differences that don’t also apply to 20, 30 years, 50 years from the same age demographic?

Adam Conover: Yeah.

Adam: Because really what it’s like, there was one article that I saw that went viral where it said ‘Millennials are taking over the workforce’ and it’s like, yeah, it’s called the arrow of time. It’s called the second law of thermodynamics. Like, time happens. Like who the hell else is going to take over the workforce? Or we can have Boss Baby come and run the show? I don’t understand.

Adam Conover: Right. I mean, let me tell you when I did that, that talk that was at a Turner Marketing Conference, um, that, uh, I was asked to speak at because truTV is part of Turner, uh, and you know, they just asked me as one of their pieces of talent who does informational stuff, ‘Hey, would you want to speak to this marketing conference?’ And the theme of the marketing conference was how to market to Millennials. And it was before I did my talk, there was a full day of programming of here’s what Millennials are like, here’s what Millennials are like, you know, they really love smart phones.

Nima: (Laughing)

Adam Conover: They’re always sharing things. Um, you know, they like to live at home because they’re lazy. Stuff like that. And then I ended the day by giving that talk about like, all of this is bullshit. These are people and please treat them with respect.

Nima: (Laughing) Were you invited back to this conference?

Adam Conover: Let me tell you that they loved it because they’re people, right? You know, like they were watching it and they were like, ‘Oh my god, finally something that’s sort of cutting through the crap a little bit,’ um, but also, you know, it was more accurate information in so far as they did want to speak to their audience, it helped them figure out how to do it. I hope. I hope.

Adam: I’ve been in marketing meetings where people at the end will be like, so it turns out the key to good marketing is having a good product. And I’m like, correct. That’s, that’s the general idea. Because there is a lot of snake oil that develops around that. Now because I, I’m sort of willing to concede that there is a marketing a practical marketing value to it. And if I was helping someone run for Congress, I sure as shit would want to know that the generational demographics, I would try not to abstract too much out of them, but I think it’s an issue of whether or not it’s, it’s intellectually or politically useful to draw these kinds of analyses. And I think those are kind of two different covenants. Those are two different charges one is under. One is to sell you soap and one is to sort of understand the world and I think with the former it’s perfectly fine and I think with a ladder it’s, it’s a total intellectual cul-de-sac.

Adam Conover: Well, yeah, I mean if you actually want to, I mean look, if all you’re trying to do is come up with a justification for your ad time, yeah, sure do whatever you need. Like it doesn’t really matter that much. All you’re doing is making your ads more poorly targeted and you know what, I’m sick of targeted ads so I’m totally fine if, uh, you know, I’m not being sold exactly what I want. Um, I, I don’t really, I don’t really give a shit, but yeah, if you’re, if your goal is to actually, you know, have an impact on the world by virtue of understanding the people who you share a society with better. Yeah. It’s completely useless.

Adam: Well, I think that, uh, “it’s completely useless” is a good place to stop.

Nima: (Laughing)

Adam Conover: (Laughing)

Adam: Thank you so much for your time, Adam.

Nima: This has been amazing. Uh, Adam Conover of Adam Ruins Everything on truTV. Thank you so much for talking generations and the bullshit of generations on Citations Needed with us this week.

Adam Conover: Thank you guys so much for having me. I had a blast.


Adam: So that was, yeah, that was very enlightening. We have the YouTube video on the link so you can watch it. It’s pretty damn funny.

Nima: Yeah, it’s great.

Adam: I actually didn’t realize it was at a marketing conference, which I guess in retrospect makes sense. One of the things that’s really interesting is that one of the main focuses on Millennial panic of late, over probably the last year or two years, since the Bernie Sanders campaign was hugely popular amongst the youngs, was the embrace of socialism or the rejection of capitalism by quote unquote “Millennials.”

Nima: Which really, really terrified a lot of writers and media entities.

Adam: Yeah. Because again, it combines the, like ‘Uh the spoiled kids these days and their embrace of socialism. Back in my day we — ‘ you know, I’m imagining something like Wilford Brimley type guy being like, ‘We worked hard and now kids are just lazy.’ So you have The Washington Post’s, “A majority of Millennials now reject capitalism, poll shows.”

Nima: And they actually do this whole thing where it’s just because they’re kind of stupid and don’t know what words mean.

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: So that you know The Washington Post yeah has that headline, and then goes on to say “The Harvard University survey, which pulled young adults between ages 18 and 29, found that 51 percent of respondents do not support capitalism. Just 42 percent said they support it. It isn’t clear that the young people in the poll would prefer some alternative system, though. Just 33 percent said they supported socialism. The survey had a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points.” (Laughing)

Adam: There was a Bloomberg News, “Get Rid of Capitalism? Millennials Are Ready to Talk About It.” “Young People Are Really Over Capitalism,” Fast Company. October 2017 at The Weekly Standard, counter hot takes summed up by the caption, “Millennials profess to love socialism but they would be lost without the technology and other luxuries that are afforded to them by capitalism.” The assumption being —

Nima: They don’t understand how the world works.

Adam: Right.

Nima: That’s the same as like when Bernie Sanders was caught paying for coffee because apparently he hates money and so the fact that he’s using money means that he must love money. None of it actually makes any sense.

Adam: Well, yeah, yeah, they love the gotcha. They always do the um, you know, ‘Oh, you, you’re tweeting about socialism from Twitter,’ and it’s like, ‘Oh no, you’re a libertarian that took a public road and went to public school. You literally can ever talk about anything ever.’

Nima: (Laughing) Right.

Adam: But yeah. So you see this sort of anxiety about the youth and the moderate anxiety is over again the people with, you know, to the extent there are material differences amongst generations. Millennials obviously are more vulnerable to the unknown, to the uncertain they have, they’re by definition more economically precarious, so they may be more willing to try other things.

Nima: Right.

Adam: They’re also more, as Adam explained they’re just generally more ethnically diverse. Nonwhites are generally more liberal, or more socialist. So you see this kind of moral panic surrounding something that avoids talking about what the sort of underlying issues are and the Millennial frame as opposed to the like people-without-jobs frame or people-who-are-suffering frame or people-who-are-saddled with-$20,000-$30,000-in-student-loans-with-no-job-prospect frame allows us to sort of avoid that conversation about what the real culprits are.

Nima: It really just goes to show like the idea of generations being the dividing point has never been the case. That has been manipulated by the media to talk about things in a very generalized way and to flatten these ideas of race, of class, of education, of economics so that we can further be divided and not find solidarity with each other because we’re too busy panicking about either the youth today or, like, shitty old people.

Adam: Yeah. It’s a way of talking without saying anything, which is really the most important thing for a lot of corporate media. It’s to sort of, you want to sort of give people information, but you don’t want to really offend anyone in power and so ‘generations’ provides the most evergreen way of doing that and it’ll never go away ever. It will be with us forever as long as there are people being born, unless we have some sort of Children of Men scenario, which, which if it stops generation pieces, I would may even take that bargain. I don’t think this is ever going to end. So on that note.

Nima: On that note this podcast will end and it ends now, so thank you everyone for joining us. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook at Citations Needed and, of course, help us out on Patreon at Citations Needed Podcast. All your help is much appreciated. Helps the show keep going, and no one helps more than our amazing critic-level supporters. Thank you everyone for joining us. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Research assistant is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Transcriptions by Morgan McAslan. The Citations Needed Players are Mark Shock. The music is by Granddaddy. Have a great one, everyone.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, May 23, 2018.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.