American Culture

Judge not the group; rather, see the individual

By Carole McNall

ICATEGORY: Baby Boomers’m a female baby boomer.

Knowing that, what do you know about my politics and points of view?

Absolutely nothing.

But wait, you might argue: I know a couple of things that should allow me to predict what shaped your world view.

Really? Let’s test that theory.

Baby boomers are classically defined as those born between 1946 and 1964. That’s an 18-year span. Consider, for a moment, how different the world would look for people at varied points along that span.

John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. The earliest baby boomers would have been 17. Middle-boomers (say, someone born in 1953) would have been 10 — and looking at the death of a president in a very different way. Tail-end boomers would not yet be here.

Try another date: 1968 and the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago. Elder boomers would have been 22 (and might have been in Chicago). Middle boomers would have been 15 (and watching with a variety of reactions). Youngest boomers would have been 4 (and not caring much about faraway Chicago).

But surely, you can predict some of what I think by the fact that I’m female, right? Women share an outlook on the world that is different from men, right?

Maybe. But it’s not enough to tell you much that’s meaningful.

The boomers’ childhood marked one period of significant change in how women looked at their roles in the world. And I haven’t told you whether my parents were the “you can do anything you set your mind to” types or the “women are meant to do this and this, but not that” types.

Want a few more variables? If you don’t know me, you don’t know my race. And if you don’t believe that would impact how I look at the world, we may have to end this conversation now.

Another: Where did I grow up? Test that theory by spending some time talking to friends from big cities, from small towns and from very rural areas. The lines blur a bit more here, but your early home will impact the way you look at the world for a long time, maybe forever. Just for fun, throw in the distinction between those whose homes are in the East, in the West or in the South (on either end of the country).

And one more: Where was I educated — religious schools, public ones or somewhere else? Did I go to college? If so, was that a “normal” thing in my family or was I the first?

All this leads me to one point: Americans have developed a bad habit of assuming all members of a particular age group share all the same characteristics. All baby boomers are this and believe that and are responsible for this set of woes. All millennials (a group which includes my students) are this or that or a threat to the future.

But my friend Google tells me there are 75.4 million baby boomers and 83.1 million millennials.

Consider those numbers for a moment. Now think of a group of … oh, say five of your friends or acquaintances who are all boomers or all millennials. Do they see everything in exactly the same way? You’re likely now looking at this and muttering “of course not!”

Then why do so many feel free to say “all boomers are selfish clods who don’t care about the world they’re leaving to their children/grandchildren”? Or “all millennials are selfish, entitled little snowflakes who assume the world owes them”?

The demographic labels tell you so little about the person, who he is or how she sees the world. But those labels may tell you so much about why Americans seem to have moved more and more behind walls where one group stares out at “them,” members of another group, and wonder why “they” don’t understand.

Next time you hear someone declare that “all boomers are X” or “all millennials are Y,” resist the temptation to nod in agreement. Instead, imagine one of those boomers or millennials, not marching to the beat of a single drummer, but dancing to a tune shaped by her own history.

Carole McNall, a lawyer, is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at St. Bonaventure University where she teaches courses in media and internet law.