Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The perils of generational commentary

I'm currently reading a book by a very distinguished academic-- with 'distinguished' used in both the sincere and the euphemistic sense. And I've been struck by the author's repeated disgruntlement with "recent" developments in this or that academic literature-- where "recent" typically means the mid-to-late 80s and never means anything later than the mid-90s.

I thought of that again in light of this David Brooks column (hat tip Phoebe Maltz). In discussing the recent development of the unattached decade or so between college and marriage, referred to as the "odyssey" years, he observes:
And as the new generational structure solidifies, social and economic entrepreneurs will create new rites and institutions. Someday people will look back and wonder at the vast social changes wrought by the emerging social group that saw their situations first captured by “Friends” and later by “Knocked Up.”

NB: "Friends" debuted in 1994. At its outset, Ross had a Ph.D. and an ex-wife of several years, making him, at bare minimum, 26 or 27 years old. It has been off the air for more than three years, and by the time it ended almost every lead character was married, had children, or both. Ross would be 40 by now.

A current 25-year old was 12 when Friends debuted. Even a current 30-year old was 17. They did not see their situations captured by Friends then. They were 22 or 27 when it went off the air, and also didn't see their situations captured by the old folks struggling with biological clocks and the legacies of three divorces.

By contrast, "Knocked Up" was released in 2007. Old people my age who might have been twenty-something slackers in the mid-90s are not now 23-year olds, and do not see our situations reflected in the experience of people accidentally cutting their "odyssey years" short. Indeed, people who identified with "Friends" when it was on are more likely to be entering fertility-treatment time than accidental-pregnancy-in-post-college-hookup time.

In short: No one can meet Brooks' description. Much as I might like to believe that there's no great difference between a current 40-year old and a current 23-year old, my wishing it doesn't make it so. It's an occupational hazard of talking about generations younger than oneself to run them all together, and boomers are especially prone to it, but that means you probably don't want to use conspicuously dated and dateable markers for your discussion, even if you think it makes you seem contemorary and with-it.