One of the biggest social challenges for adolescents stems from something called Class Diagnosis. Class Diagnosis is what happens when we group people by some shared characteristic—age, gender, ethnicity, religious identity, national origin—and then assume they all share other characteristics as well because they’re in the group. It’s not that Class Diagnosis is completely without basis...we’re not giving anything away by acknowledging that old people tend to have more life experience than young people. It becomes a problem when it becomes a stereotype, a short cut, an easy answer to a complicated question: He’s young, what does he know?
I think Class Diagnosis seems most dangerous in the hands of politicians and social scientists because some of them have the power to lock kids up, or drug them, or establish law enforcement standards that are out of line. It was Class Diagnosis when people my age were young and they called us The Me Generation. We hardly had a chance to prove them wrong or right. Apparently it sounded right, and they just went with it.
Class Diagnosis happened again when marketeers jumped on Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X. They weren’t trying to understand; they were looking for market share, trying to get their hands on the 125 billion dollars young Americans were spending each year. Coupland wrote a eulogy for the term Generation X:
The problems started when trendmeisters everywhere began isolating small elements of my characters’ lives—their offhand way of handling problems or their questioning of the status quo—and blew them up to represent an entire generation…Around this time my phone started ringing with corporations offering from $10,000 and up to talk on the subject of How to Sell to Generation X. I said no. (The Gap asked me to do an ad. It was tempting, but I politely refused.) In late 1991, after both political parties had called to purchase advice on X, I basically withdrew from the whole tinny discourse. And now I’m here to say that X is over.
—Details Magazine,June, 1995, page 72
For Douglas Coupland Generation X was never about demographics or even generations. He borrowed the term from the last chapter of Paul Fussel’s funny book about America’s classless society, aptly titled Class. Thus, Generation X is a distributed category of people who don’t fit in any generation because they won’t fit in; a fifth column of people whose values run counter to the current culture. If anyone ever called you a hippy (and meant it) that probably sounds familiar.
Of course the question remains: How do we sell them stuff?
And now it’s happening yet again to the people known as Millennials (or, more lazily in my estimation, GenY—you know, the one that comes after X).
What’s shocking is that parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, youth workers and everyone else who cares doesn’t raise a ruckus; doesn’t say, “Hey, you don’t speak for me,” to the hacks who make their living trashing a generation of people they barely know if they know them at all. Where’s the love? Where’s the loyalty?
— from Raising Adults