By Emily Erickson
According to Merriam-Webster, a generation is defined as a group of individuals born and living contemporaneously, or existing and traveling the phases of life at relatively the same time.
We’ve come to use the concept of generations as a way to organize and compare ourselves and the common characteristics of our peers against the differences of those born in another period of time.
When we simply understand generations as a way of measuring people by when they were born and the social environments encompassing their coming of age, the categorization can be helpful and productive.
However, when we begin to use generations as a way to cast broad, and often negative generalizations across large groups of people, we risk cultivating the worst characteristics within those groups.
We divide ourselves into “us“ versus “them,” perpetuating division that is both unnecessary and harmful to individuals and society as a whole.
In an attempt to uncover the basis of our tendency to participate in generational segregation, I spent the last couple of weeks in my favorite local coffee shop, engaging a variety of cozy, caffeinated patrons in generational and Millennial-related conversation.
To the latte-sipping Millennials I inquired, “What is one thing you want other generations to know about you?”
The question was met with colorful details of the joy and struggle of life lived differently, the brazen defensiveness natural in those who feel unfairly categorized, and a repeated theme of shying away from identifying with the Millennial generation.
Katie Adams, co-founder of the non-profit Plant Positive and part time Evan’s Brother’s barista said, “I am happier than I ever thought I could be without a ‘regular’ or ‘traditional’ job or life!”
Faith Nelson, Forty-One South waitress and Spuds cook defended, “There are positives to us [Millennials] as well. We are amazing multitaskers, are creative, and value learning and education. I wish the people that focus solely on the negatives realize that we are the ones that will likely be taking care of them in the future.”
Pat Moriearty, photographer and employee at both Shotski and Beet and Basil shuddered at the question, stating, “I guess I just don’t really consider myself a Millennial.”
After conducting my informal interviews, it was evident that Millennials are subject to an array of feelings toward being a part of their generation, as they are so often proud of their attempt at leading their best lives, but also are uncomfortable accepting the negative labels ascribed to them and their peers.
To the coffee-guzzling patrons from the non-Millennial generations, I asked, “What do you think of when you hear the term ‘Millennial?’” and “What is one piece of advice you’d give the Millennial generation?”
These questions were met with incredible variety, as a portion of people responded by detailing the expected generalizations of laziness and entitlement, while others answered with questions about our motivations behind labeling generations as well as beautifully crafted metaphors about inclusivity and togetherness.
Adam Kusler, member of Generation X, described Millenials as, “individuals who are more interested in self-centric ventures as opposed to the traditional route of college, having kids, committing to a career, and relying on the golden years to pursue their bucket list.”
Lawrence Blakey of the Silent Generation wondered about the purpose of generational categories stating, “When I was a young man, I don’t remember such generational designations. Why are we labeling generations now? I am pretty adverse to being pigeon-holed myself, so I wonder about the intention or if it’s even productive or accurate.”
Lee Santa and Richard Beber, also members of the Silent Generation, advised Millennials and people of all generations to “Listen to more jazz,” and to “Join a band or orchestra.”
Beber continued, “When you’re in a band, it doesn’t matter how old you are, or what your political or economic status is. You have to listen to everyone around you in order to contribute to the overall sound.”
He described that when you’re playing music in a band, you cannot simply think of yourself, but rather, you have to take into consideration every member participating. The togetherness achieved through playing music can transcend notes and instruments and be applied to our everyday lives.
Following suit, Baby Boomer Greg Flint commented, “What’s in our hearts doesn’t have to be in the same language to harmonize. We are all connected in unique ways, especially today because technology has put us all in the same room. And the potential of that is amazing.”
When we shift our focus away from all of the reasons why we are different across generations to the benefit of all of us viewing the world through our unique and diverse lenses, we can each begin to contribute to improving society as whole.
So dust off your old saxophone, grab a bass guitar, and let’s get to playing. Harmony awaits.
Emily Erickson is a freelance writer and bartender originally from Wisconsin, with a degree in Sociology and an affinity for playing in the mountains.