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Why Generational Thinking Isn't Bull

Reflections on Pavement, Nirvana, the very meaning of history, and the end of neoliberalism.

If Gen X knew anything, it was that they were a generation defined by “The End of History” (1989). In my experience, this is a self-understanding so pervasive that even those who disaffiliated from the general conservatism and individualism of their cohort, like my colleague, and embraced the radical politics of movements like Anti-Apartheid, Central American solidarity, and ACT UP, prefer all the more to conceive of themselves not against their generation but outside of generational discourse altogether.

As intellectual and cultural historians have shown, the very idea of the “generation,” like that of the “decade,” is little more than a century old. While there were earlier attempts to frame time in terms of neat ten-year periods, notably the 1890s, the first confirmed decade appears to have been the 1920s. To be sure, there were plenty of earlier turning points that divided one age cohort from another; I think of Talleyrand’s famous line, “He who has not lived in the eighteenth century before the Revolution does not know the sweetness of life.” But the idea that each successive age cohort amounted to a period in the history of the world reached its first full theorization with Karl Mannheim’s classic, “The Problem of Generations” (1923). The idea appears to be a byproduct of the rise of mass society, the onset of the Second Industrial Revolution, and, yes, the beginnings of marketing as a social scientific profession.

What I suppose I’m trying to suggest is that one of the chief signs of the neoliberal epoch’s power was the extent to which the generation that came of age at its apex, the 1980s and 1990s, lost a sense of itself as a social mass defined by shared experiences in the flow of history. There’s a lot of discussion just now among social theorists, historians, policy analysts, and even Biden Administration officials, about whether the neoliberal era is over. Only time will tell. But one thing that time has already told: When I came of age, I thought that I, too, would be part of a generation outside of time, with little affiliation to a larger group, let alone a sense of myself as taking part in the making of history. But if there is one thing that is true about Millennials, it is that we understand ourselves to make up a generation. Much of what that means began to become clear in the past decade — Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, Water Protectors and Starbucks organizers — but the historical mission of this generation, and the still more radical Zoomers whose footsteps we hear coming up from behind, still remains to be written.