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The hard-hitting pandemic that welcomed Generation Alpha — those born in 2010 and continuing through today — into the world is just one example of the history-defining events that are often used to help differentiate one birth cohort from another. From the military service that defined the Greatest, or GI, Generation to the collapse of the Twin Towers associated with Millennials, each and every age group seemingly has their historical moment, digital technology, musical phenomenon, or cultural qualifier.

Be it Boomers, those members of the post WW2 baby boom, or Zoomers, the term for the digital-natives of Gen Z, why do we need these labels in the first place? In short, the terms make life easier.

For a statistician or an academic, the ability to group individuals by age makes seeing trends and shared characteristics much simpler. Corporations use this quick and simple identification as a way to target certain populations. Knowing a handful of things about a group of people—for instance, adults over 50—means advertisements or products can be designed to draw in this desired demographic; fifty-six cents of every dollar spent in the United States in 2018 came from someone 50 or older, according to a recent AARP report, which projects that amount is only expected to increase.

Though they provide a rough picture of demographic group, social labels, whether they pertain to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or age, deemphasize the individuality that makes every person unique and fail to recognize the breadth of individuals in each cohort, cautions Paul Nash, an instructional associate professor at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. In context, an individual born years prior to 9/11 will have a completely different experience of gallivanting around or breezing through the airport than someone born years after who is used to security in every inch and cranny of an airport. This too may differ from cohort to cohort.

“When we group people, we make generalizations that are stereotypes but are not going to be appropriate for everyone in the group, yet still the labels get applied,” said Nash. When we judge people on group membership rather than individual characteristics, traits and behaviors, then we are doing them a disservice.”

Generation vs. Cohort

Even the term “generational label” has deviated from historical or age-related categorization to more of a familial designation.

“While we use “Baby Boomer Generation” often, the term was born out of the fact that those born post-WWII were babies in this era,” said Instructional Associate Professor Caroline Cicero. “Now, we think of Baby Boomers in relationship to aging, and generationally as parents and grandparents. People born within a span of years, or who experienced some other milestone event at a common time, are in fact technically a cohort rather than a generation.”

The blurriness of these designations fuels the flames of arguments even within families, where the typical discussion at the dinner table has transformed into a debate stage between the young and old; People are quick to assume that age determines beliefs or values. Academics like Cicero say it’s important to differentiate between generations and cohorts because, despite the subtle word change, the specificity allows for different groups to come to terms with each other outside of their negative perceptions. For instance, a young person who was under the assumption that many old people fail to care for climate change would be surprised and delighted to have that stereotype broken altogether.

Do Labels Fuel Ageism?

“I think that the media has gradually transformed each label into an insult and stereotype rather than a simple categorization,” said Kaitlyn Yi, a sophomore majoring in Lifespan Health. “It’s all based on how the media reflects that specific generation, and then after that, it’s all a bandwagon effect from there.”

The discourse that has been fostered by this in-group and out-group mentality presents challenges to intergenerational unity – think of the OK Boomer and Gen X Karen memes of recent years. And in many cases, it’s understandable to see why younger cohorts and individuals would cultivate a “sense of anger and disillusionment with older groups,” according to Cicero. From the environmental climate change crisis to the fears of economic collapse or wealth inequalities, younger groups may believe that they are in a position of vulnerability as they now begin to age.

The stereotypes thrown around at each age group appear to have also contributed to this sense of powerlessness and generalization. Older adults may be perceived to be overly traditionalist, “wealth-hoarding” or frail in comparison to the entitled, “lazy” millennial. The issue of labelling does not only affect older individuals but people of every age, and younger people can recognize the duality of cohort terminology and its effects.

“Personally, I’m conflicted,” said Student Gerontology Association President and Human Development and Aging senior Ryan Doyloo. “On one hand, there are many generational characteristics that can be attributed to these cohorts that help gerontologists and demographers identify trends. But at the same time, I think the issue isn’t the labels but the prejudice fueling it.”

Fighting Prejudice, Embracing Aging

Some people may enjoy the titles given to them, but embracing a title and identifying with a certain stereotype are two completely different ideas. For instance, an older individual may identify with being a “boomer” but not conform to what a younger person’s stereotype of a “boomer” is.

Nash emphasized how society values the notion of youth. The aging narrative continues to be one based on negativity, highlighting physical impairment or sensory loss rather than treating it as a developmental process. Ageist rhetoric continues to dominate the conversation around aging, which challenges any push towards breaking social stereotypes. This battle ultimately affects us as individuals who live in a society in which many people and institutions devalue aging and encourage a biological fight against age and time. Forbes’ “30 under 30,” anti-aging skin products, and articles highlighting “age-defying” individuals all play into the defamation of growing old.

“The way to counter [ageism] is to be aware of our stereotyping and our implicit biases,” Nash said. “We can do this by actively engaging with the groups we are referring to which enables us to challenge some of the assumptions and see the rich depth of the individuals rather than the shallow platitudes provided by stereotyping.”

It’s important to be aware of significant differences across cultures as well. Instructional Assistant Professor Min-Kyoung Rhee spoke on how the Confucian values of filial piety and showing respect to older adults have established an expectation of respect from young people through proper language, including honorifics, and gestures such as bowing, hand-kissing, or taking on the major responsibility for taking care of their aging parents in some Southeast and East Asian cultures. However, Rhee also mentioned that demographic changes and adoption of Western ideologies slowly break down these traditional expectations.

“Younger generations are expecting more egalitarian mutual respect, rather than authoritarian respect,” Rhee said. “Thus, it’s becoming more difficult to expect younger generations to respect older adults in traditional ways. While the cultural influence of filial piety still persists in Eastern cultures, the way of showing respect seems to be changing.”

Rhee also agrees with the notion that these cohort labels, while supportive of marketers and business professionals, are responsible for collectivist ideologies. She calls on others to be mindful about adopting or applying those concepts to other cultures.

“This is particularly so for many older Americans who are foreign-born, whose major external events experienced during their young adult years in their original countries may be significantly different from the older adults who were born and raised in the U.S. even though they’re in the same age category,” Rhee said.

There is also a strong need for intergenerational discussions to reduce age-related tension and build a foundation of respect between each and every cohort.

It is important for individuals from different generations and cohorts to be able to speak, listen, and learn from each other,” Cicero said. “Intergenerational exchange and dialogue can build understanding and a collective future.”

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