Sometimes your past leaves you poorly equipped for the present: mine has left me intensely conflict-averse. I grew up in frictionless harmony with my single mother, later joined by my stepfather, the gentlest man in the world. Seven years in Quaker school only reinforced my peacenik tendencies: the lovely Quaker belief that everyone is imbued with divine Inner Light (think spiritual Ready Brek) meant that the only conflict I recall there was over whether culottes were acceptable school wear.
It is a problem. I can’t watch an argumentative reality show or read a peeved email – even addressed to someone else! – without quivering dread, and a minor spat gives me a week-long fight hangover. I have no particular reserves of forbearance: I just turn my anger and resentment inwards, fomenting something that will eventually become a gigantic ulcer.
We can all cite so many exceptions to generational generalities as to make them essentially meaningless
This leaves me ill-equipped for 2020 public discourse. Everyone is so angry and I’m not saying they are wrong to be angry, for the reasons described above. But it does mean I am relieved to find myself on the sidelines for the latest bitter iteration of generational conflict.
In the blue corner, the OK Boomers with their final-salary pensions and mortgage-free homes; in the avocado-green corner, Millennials. Millennial beef with Boomers is clear: at its heart a sense that they selfishly squandered their position as the most privileged generation ever. The opposing view is often distilled down to a distaste for snowflakery, with a side order of entitlement. US author Lorrie Moore stoked the fire recently with her analysis of millennial culture through the prism of the screen adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. In it, Moore says Boomers consider Millennials to be “essentially suburban” with “no authentic counter-culture” – literary Fighting Talk.
Meanwhile, the Zoomers (TikTok teens, if we’re sticking to lazy labels) have lobbed grenades from the sidelines, venting amused disdain for Millennials clinging to signifiers of youth, their infantile attachment to the term “adulting”, Buzzfeed quizzes and Harry Potter houses. I don’t think they bother with Boomers, a toxic irrelevance.
Gen X – my people – have escaped, somehow: generational war’s Switzerland. Memes portray us as Karen from Will & Grace (no idea why, but I like it), sharing sweets with a child as conflict rages around us, or Heathers-era Winona Ryder looking aloof (also fine).
Before we smugly imagine ourselves as cool pop culture outsiders, you know who else is Gen X? Jacob Rees-Mogg, David Cameron and most of the cabinet. But given we have dodged the generational ire, perhaps I can offer a few thoughts on it without enraging anyone.
A birthday-based “them v us” binary is seductive. The catastrophic state of housing, employment and the climate affect younger people disproportionately and far more needed to happen earlier. But we should all be furious about that: it is no single generation’s problem and no single generation has the solutions.
Equally, I don’t want to pick a fight with sociologists or anyone, but I’m not convinced “cohort effect”, the notion of distinct generational identities, serves us well. Our values and beliefs are partly shaped by externalities, but no one really believes millions of people born over a 15- or 20-year span demonstrate a cohesive groupthink. If you do accept we are defined by big H History, wouldn’t that make us all generation pandemic now?
We can all cite so many exceptions to generational generalities as to make them essentially meaningless: our neighbours, friends and family. My social life is currently Boomer-heavy and the 60s radicalism calcified into complacent conservatism that supposedly characterises them is entirely absent. They are still protesting and volunteering; still questioning and curious. I wanted to cite Keanu Reeves as a Gen-X cliché earlier; it turns out he’s a Boomer (born in 1964).
It’s interesting that Moore highlighted Normal People as archetypally millennial in its themes. It is, I suppose, but it resonated deeply for older people I know, detonating a depth charge of emotional nostalgia. In fairness, Moore makes this point, quoting a 70-year-old friend saying, ‘This show has my number.’ It has all our numbers: it’s about first love, desire and heartbreak, relatable at any (post-watershed) age. Transformative events shape us individually, but share universalities. Love and loss come to us all: has that ever been clearer?
My most memorable cross-generational connections have happened when we managed to say to each other that we hurt, fail and are scared; that we have longings and regrets. That requires a willingness to be vulnerable. Obviously, I want us all to get along – I’m chronically conflict-avoidant – but wouldn’t it actually be comforting to accept we’re flawed humans fumbling around, not mutually hostile monolithic blocs? We all know that individually; perhaps we could start saying it collectively.
Follow Emma on Twitter @BelgianWaffling