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“Back in my day, we didn't discriminate based on age”

The age-old issue of ageism

Boomers. Millenials. Gen X and Z. The Greatest Generation. I am sure you have heard of them. Journalists and marketers love to give names to generational cohorts. It makes each cohort easier to understand, describe and sell to. We all know that these labels miss out on the nuance of what it means to be an individual. In broad sweeping terms, they do offer some insight into the psycho-social trends that can help (but never fully) define people. Used in everyday, non-emotive speak, these labels are fine. However, generational labels run into trouble when we take them too seriously and attach a derogatory meaning to them.

The "ok boomer" comeback is a recent example of where these labels can run into trouble. Used to dismiss or mock members of the boomer cohort born between 1946 and 1964, it is obviously discriminatory. In 2019, it even made word of the year in New Zealand. Terms like this are isolating and remarkably inflammatory. It is amazing how many people you can piss off in one go with ageist insults. It is not the same as personal insults such as calling someone an idiot or a fool. Labels like "ok boomer" take on a life of their own, and insult others within that age range because it picks on their identity - who they cannot help to be.

A baby boomer and a millennial who dislike stereotyping arguing and being ageist

Why even bother with ageist taunts?

What makes it worse is taunts like "ok boomer" anger the very people you want to have on your side. That is a remarkably ineffective tactic. When has it ever been a good idea to mock someone? Boomers control a huge amount of resources and wealth. Why piss them off? Surely finding common ground is more effective, though easier said than done. Yes, older and younger people do often have different political preferences and seeing eye to eye can be difficult. Discrimination is not a good answer. Boomers will continue to be a powerful voting bloc for the foreseeable future. Having them on side for issues like addressing housing affordability is critical. Insults score points in the moment but are harmful long term.

Describing young people as "Peter Pans" (can't grow up) or the "Snowflake Generation" (lacking resilience) is equally unhelpful and discriminatory. There are plenty of mature and tough millennials. These labels miss the context of issues like expensive housing that diminish young people's independence. Derogatory generational labels do not consider generational or individual context effectively.

Generational labels don't tell you very much. Look for common ground with people of different ages.

Generational labels impart a false wisdom for managers who get to say things like "being a millennial, I understand you are impatient". That's a real example. People can be impatient because, guess what, they are impatient. Being of a particular age has little to do with it. They support lazy unthinking arguments like "the boomers screwed the environment" without expressing a well thought out rationale. Issues like class, industry and consumption all play a large role when talking about topics like the environment, and playing the blame game is unhelpful. Consider the context. Why not dig a little deeper?

Start with the common ground. Believe it or not, older people typically do want to handover a healthy planet and support affordable housing. Young people typically do respect their elders and seek independence. Making meaningful progress on a divisive issue is much easier when you approach a problem with an open mind.

Inter-generational conflict is harmful and undermines social cohesion. People are people first and not a stereotype. Labels like "ok boomer" and "Generation Snowflake" are devoid of context and ineffective for bringing people on side over important issues. We are all individuals hurtling through space at hundreds of miles per hour. As individuals we have a variety of perspectives and are not defined simply by our peers and identities. Recognising that individuality is critical for smart communication.


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