As I’ve written in Beyond Age Rage, the intensity in the “war of the generations” is driven largely by unmet demands and expectations.
Certain milestones of adulthood — marriage, first kids, first job — are supposed to happen by a certain age. When they don’t, there is criticism and blame from the older generations, and resentment and excuse-making from the younger. The Boomers (me included) make free with “when I was your age…” scolding, and the Millennials, who are not hitting the milestones “on schedule,” react with a whole arsenal of weapons, from irony and indifference to angry pushback (it’s all the fault of the greedy Boomers who won’t die off and unclutter the stage).
But all of this presupposes some kind of agreed-upon schedule of adulthood — markers plus a timetable. The consensus around this schedule informs most social commentary, government policy-making and, certainly, marketing and media-buying.
But what if the whole construct is bogus?
A provocative article in The Atlantic argues for a much broader and more plastic definition of adulthood. Most interestingly, for me, it points out that the benchmarks that are causing so much inter-generational conflict today are themselves very recent — and limited — in history. These benchmarks — the age by which certain things are supposed to have happened — attached primarily to the post-war Baby Boomer generation; they were not nearly as widespread or entrenched in previous generations. The author, Julie Beck, describes them, collectively, as the Leave It To Beaver definition of adulthood. And it’s a totally inadequate way to understand what’s really going on now.
The article provides one more proof that policy-makers and marketers are wrong to use age as the primary tool of measurement in assessing status and behavior. There are many components to adulthood, and many way-stations in status. The rigidity of pursuing, to use a media-buying example, “adults 25-49,” inhibits our understanding of what is really going on out there and how we can best respond to it.