Gen Blank


I’ve just wandered upstairs to my desk, leaving the teenagers in front of a new inter-generational quiz show that pits the Baby Boomers against Gen X and Gen Y. It seems like harmless enough fun. Hey look, 3D movies were big in the 50s! Roller blading was the 90s! Who can do the robot?

But the programme brought back to the surface a subversive thought that I’ve been harbouring for some time. Is it just me, or does anyone else out there suspect that the broad generalizations that are flung around about the supposed characteristics of Gen X and Gen Y are basically vacuous?

After all, don’t we swim in a postmodern ocean of personal autonomy? Isn’t the 21st century a place where every individual constructs his or her own identity—a place where people group themselves into a myriad of subcultures and sub-subcultures based on an almost infinite menu of options?

Perhaps it is the prospect of this postmodern whirl, with its billion filaments of personal choice and identity, that drives us to seek some illusion of coherence. And so we name all the people born between 1980 and 1995 ‘Generation Y’, and assert that they have certain characteristics: they think with their elbows and listen with their kneecaps (or something); they have the attention span of gnats and read 700-page Harry Potter novels; they highly value authenticity except when it comes to downloading copied music from the internet; and they don’t care about propositions, only that things work, which is why they spend most of their lives writing about themselves on Facebook and following with holy zeal the diktats of environmentalism.

I checked out the ultimate Gen Y source of knowledge (Wikipedia), and it told me that Gen Y are well known for being tech-savvy, family-centric, achievement-oriented, team-oriented and attention-craving. But try this: list 10 people you know at random from Gen Y (aged roughly 15-30), and rate them for these five characteristics. Now try another 10 random people over 30 and see whether the answers are meaningfully different.

As far as I can see, the categories of Gen Y and Gen X have all the explanatory power of astrology.

And me? I belong to the generation that nobody bothered to define—the one that came after the Baby Boomers but before Gen X. And so I guess the real reason I think all this Gen talk is just socio-babble is that I belong to Gen Blank, the Gen that never had a name, the Gen that doesn’t believe in Gens.

23 thoughts on “Gen Blank

  1. Apparently one thing that characterises the *true* Gen Xer is that they hate being defined or put into a box, and they are annoyed that their generation is the one that missed out on the prosperity of the Boomers AND the immense force of positiveness and achievement of all those spoilt Gen Y kids! (no offence to anyone under 30 smile

    So maybe Gen Blank is actually classic Gen X but is rejecting the label because they *are* classic Gen X?!

    It doesn’t matter how much we protest against the definitions, it just proves the stereotype more. We’re caught in a vicious cycle of generational definition wink

  2. TP—According to Wikipedia someone has now bothered to define our generation. We are “Generation Jones” supposedly (although apparently not without some dispute).

    I have two Gen Y’ers living in my house. Yet I am astonished sometimes at how different they are as people (how do such different personalities come from the same parents, I wonder?).

    So on my limited survey, I think you may be right: I could read their star signs and get as much insight.

  3. Actually Bronwyn, I think the real reason for my post, and indeed for all my brilliantly analytical and discerning posts, is that I’m a Virgo. As assures me: “You Virgos have the uncanny sense to see what’s wrong with a person, a situation or your environment. It’s why Virgo makes such natural critics. Virgo practical analytical abilities are second to none.” 

    In fact, I’m thinking of holding a conference soon about reaching out to Virgos. I don’t think we put nearly enough thought into the different way that Virgos relate and respond to the gospel. And it leaves our evangelism decidedly flat and one-dimensional. Anyone want to join me?


    PS. Warning: Irony alert. Literal-minded blog-browsers take note!

    PPS. Ian, I see you’re heading down the same track. But I’d expect that of you, as a Pisces. So intuitive and emotional and attracted to the mystical.

  4. Tony, it’s more complicated than that. 

    You seem I’m a baby boomer but that must be understood through my Sagittarian personality, and Sagitarius is a mutable sign of the zodiac, unlike Capricorn, which is a cardinal sign. But because I’m almost a Capricornian, I have some cardinal and some mutable characteristics: so really, though I am one person, I have 2 natures, mutable and cardinal, and within the framework of being a baby boomer.  And then consider the fact that I’m at the tail end of baby boomers, so I must also have some X-generation characteristics.

    Yes, I’m joking.

  5. As probably the most mature (in years) contributor so far, I’d just like to say something serious and deeply thought through about this issue, which I think all you youngsters are treating with far too much frivolity. – – Astrology?? Generational classifications?? – – BAH!! HUMBUG!! (which comment, although brief, has I believe, far greater explanatory power than astrology and generational classifications combined)

  6. The worst thing about this, Tony, is Christians taking it seriously. Luther’s sidekick Melanchthon, to Luther’s irritation, was into star signs. Luther’s response:

    On the other hand, he doubted the calculations of astrology. “I have no patience with such stuff,” he said to Melanchthon, who showed him the nativity of Cicero from the stars. “Esau and Jacob were born of the same father and mother, at the same time, and under the same planets, but their nature was wholly different. You would persuade me that astrology is a true science! I was a monk, and grieved my father; I caught the Pope by his hair, and he caught me by mine; I married a runaway nun, and begat children with her. Who saw that in the stars? Who foretold that? Astronomy is very good, astrology is humbug. The example of Esau and Jacob disproves it.”

    From here.

    But I keep reading articles and hearing talks about Gen Y that, Melancthon-like, make up in their vacuity for what they lack in statistical evidence.

    One expert told me that these Gen Y kids felt keenly the tension between wanting to be individuals, and feeling lonely. I thought to myself, my goodness, there <i>is</i> something new under the sun. Until it occurred to me that he was foolishly generalizing from the experience of all Sagittarians born in the Year of the Rat.

  7. Thanks for the post Tony.

    As I read, I wonder whether the same things could be said of generalisations about gender?

    I can think of plenty relationship-oriented men and plenty of task-oriented women.

    And yet there is still truth to the generalisation, isn’t there?

  8. Yes, enough with the superior knowing tone, chaps.

    I am no booster for the Generations theory, though I was asked to give a talk on this once. I suspect Gordon is refering to me above. In fact, I am sure he is. 

    However: the thing is, however waffly we think it might be, ADVERTISERS take this stuff seriously. That is, people whose financial bottom-lines depend on getting it right actually take notice of theories like this. And they seem to think there is something to it all, however general and sweeping the whole thing is.

    Of course, the whole things gets hackneyed and ridiculous, and in the end it is individuals you have to deal with. Fair enough – I have always thought so. But the generations idea seems to mesh with people’s experience.

  9. <i>And yet there is still truth to the generalisation, isn’t there?</i>

    So we keep being told. But as the generalizations are sociological in nature rather than biblical, I keep looking for footnotes to statistical studies or anything, really, that will put living flesh onto the dead bones of pop theories.

    Where, for example, is the empirical evidence that someone from Generation Y feels the tension between ‘wanting to be an individual’, and ‘loneliness’? Is that a Gen Y thing, or is it true for anyone living under their parents roof? Is it as true of city people as of country people? Is it true of my Chinese cousins, or only my Swedish cousins? What about people in Rwanda?

    The questions go on because those who purport to tell us the truth about these things fail to back up assertion with evidence. Yet somehow this one-size-fits-all-under-30s theorizing is meant to influence the way we speak the gospel?

  10. Gordon must be talking about a talk I gave at the MTS conference. Either mine, or Jodie McNeill’s. And in my talk I actually DID mention statistics from the ABS about living alone (for example).

    I am not at all booster for generation theory,(I was just asked to give a talk) and I appreciate that sociological theories are by their nature generalisations: BUT

    people whose livelihood depends on it – namely, advertisers – buy into this kind of thing. So I think the hasty and, if I my say so, rather smug dismissal of generations theory on this thread ought to reckon with that.

  11. Mikey,

    I don’t get too carried away with gender characteristics.  Otherwise I’d be characterised as very effeminate.  But it’s a long bow to draw for a Christian to argue that gender differences are not founded in the created order.

    Do advertising gurus believe they’re true or want them to be true?  From the ads I don’t watch on TV one could conclude that any kitchen surface that hasn’t been napalmed is a breeding ground for deadly organisms, that any girl over size 14 is obese, and that money does buy you happiness.

    Are they watching generational differences not because it’s true, but because it’s good marketing to drive a wedge between people and create discontent.

    In the end I think gen differences are not like the horoscope.  They’re like the church life survey.  Of some use but often overated, and usually asking the wrong questions.

    For those who would argue that they are completely vacuous, reflect on changing membership and attendance patterns over the generations in your churches.

  12. <i>For those who would argue that they are completely vacuous, reflect on changing membership and attendance patterns over the generations in your churches. </i>

    Well, sure, and once again this heads us in the direction of being evidence-based.

    Even the advertisers may have something going for them in this regard, but if they do, we need to ask the obvious question: where are the surveys and interviews on which they base their work? After all, the main job of advertisers is to sell their own advertising. They <i>may</i> be working off solidly based research; they may be working off a hunch that their client will like the idea of a funky marketer who can throw around terms like “Gen Y”.

    I like the idea of turning to ABS statistics to discover that many young people live alone, but let’s not go beyond the evidence. They may be feeling lonely and alienated, they may be thanking their lucky stars that their parents have helped fund them into inner city hipness. The ABS statistics simply don’t help us with this question.

    I happened to hear the talk on Gen Y that Jodie McNeill gave, and he very helpfully reminded us that the most significant generalization to make about them was that they were sinners; human beings who need to repent. I was deeply grateful for that reminder.

  13. Thanks for the comments and lively discussion everyone (and apologies for the slow moderating over the last couple of days).

    Sorry I registered a higher than normal reading on your smug-o-metre Michael. But it’s hard not to sound superior when other people are so stupid. (Oh rats, done it again!)

    And I’m not sure what Gordo was referring to, but I certainly didn’t have any talk of yours, Jodie’s or anyone else’s in mind.

    I guess the real point of the discussion is: How do we construct an anthropology that is shaped and determined biblically, and which beginning from that vantage point (because there is always a vantage point) observes and understands people in the world?


  14. No worries Tony – and I didn’t think YOU were picking on me.

    I seem to remember making the point about sin and Gen Y and X and Blank very strongly myself. But I guess it wasn’t noteworthy. And the ABS stats were accompanied (at least in my research) by comments from social researchers like Hugh Mackay, whose job is to interpret the kind of data and test it.

    Thing is, whether advertisers made them up or not, the generational idea is there as a categorisation that people identify with. Now, it is just good communication strategy to figure out what people are like – no theology need be implied.

    You are right about the need for a biblical anthropology, TP. But part of that is that the Bible also prompts us to be wise about the world – to observe to the world in the light of revelation.

  15. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to feel picked on! No names, no pack drill. But we mustn’t avoid driving to the heart of Tony’s question either:

    <i>How do we construct an anthropology that is shaped and determined biblically[?]</i>

    What appealed to me about Jodie McNeill’s reference to Gen Y as a subset of human beings (and therefore sinners) is that he drove straight to the biblical sources to ground his anthropology. Titus 3:3-7, IIRC, & AOT (Among Other Things).

  16. Interesting! Just found a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer over on ,a href=“”>theologica</a&gt; which expresses some of the problem with this Gen Y carry-on:

    The most experienced psychologist or observer of human nature knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the Cross of Jesus.

    The greatest psychological insight, ability, and experience cannot grasp this one thing: what sin is.

    Worldly wisdom knows what distress and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the godlessness of man. And so it does not know that man is destroyed only by his sin and can be healed only by forgiveness. Only the Christian knows this.

    There’s a bit more, but that’s not bad eh.

  17. From where does wisdom come? Wisdom to market produce could come from human endeavour. But wisdom to build up the body of Christ, must be from the word of God. Anything else is of human authority. The only authority given to the church is in setting out the word of God.

    Generational analysis is another threat to biblical authority. If a bible teaching institute utilised social analysis for direction in making decisions, can we see this as nothing more that a strategic marketing exercise? Not at all. Generational analysis is bound to commercialism and commercial trends. It is an expression of an anti-theistic paradigm. The goal is influence, control or power. The means is elitist knowledge. 

    But the gospel tells us that such `knowledge’ only puffs up. And such control risks distorting the dynamics of truth lived out.The gospel is to be lived out in relationships through which the Holy Spirit permeates; the direction of which no body knows, John 3:7-9. Who are we to presume by human wisdom to attract those whom God is saving and building up?

  18. Hi Benjamin

    I agree that in Christian ministry, both the message (the Word) and the method (prayerful proclamation to and through people, by the power of the Spirit) are authoritatively given to us in Scripture. And that we are not at liberty to avoid or disobey these God-given directions.

    But it’s not so easy to hermetically seal church and Christian decisions off from wisdom—as if wisdom only applies to non-church matters, and all Christian/church matters are exclusively and solely directed by explicit instructions from the word of God. There are a multitude of decisions that Christians and churches have to make about the conduct of church life and Christian ministry that, while being informed and circumscribed by biblical principles, are nevertheless pragmatic judgements about what would be best in this particular circumstance (whether we commence our Sunday church meeting at 8 am, 9 am or 11 am, for example).

    Some have called this interplay between biblical injunction and observational wisdom ‘principled pragmatics’.

    So to take an example from our Gen Y discussion—it would be a perfectly valid observation to say that a lot people aged 15-30 (ie ‘Gen Y’), live and breathe on the internet, and many of them are on Facebook. So using Facebook to stay in touch and minister to people would be a wise and useful thing to do.

    To make this observation is not to undermine biblical authority, but to operate within the freedom it grants us.

    Anyway, there’s much more to say on ‘principle pragmatics’. Another time.


  19. G’day Tony,

    I don’t disagree with you, but do wish to emphasise the need for much caution in imposing human wisdom on others.

    Widsom decisions cannot be imposed with the same authority as scriptural decisions. Generational analysis succeeds in secular business because it sets itself up as authoritative. This human authority should not be allowed to preside over biblical authority.

    There is a potential conflict of authority when appeal is made to secular (or Christian) human experts. An example of wrongly imposed human wisdom could be where a social study proclaims that more students listen to teachers trained in XYZ methodology. So a ministry makes this a requirement for all their teachers. But scripture has its own criteria for teachers and XYZ methodology is not one.

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