The new astrology, accepted by True Skeptics

Skeptics, in my experience, are always strongly anti-astrology. It’s a ridiculous exercise in fortune-telling, based on the idea that distant stars and planets are influencing you at the moment of your birth and shaping your destiny. We laugh.

Then there is Chinese astrology, which we usually only see on paper placemats at Chinese restaurants*, although if you’re part of that cultural tradition, maybe you encounter it more often. It’s also ridiculous. Apparently, everyone born in 1957, like me, are “reliable and independent”.

I think we can all agree that that is absurd.

But there is one kind of astrology that is accepted without question by skeptics, and it annoys me to no end. It is the tedious categorization of “generations”. I recently listened to a podcast that went on and on about characterizing this generation, that generation, asking what we’ll call the next generation, what their attributes will be, and it was infuriating. The borders defined between “generations” are arbitrary, every generation is made up of diverse people, and you can no more define the nature of individuals with this categorization than you can with a paper placemat at a Chinese restaurant.

Look, the baby boom was a real thing: it described a demographic surge after WWII, in which sociologists noticed a rapid rise in the number of children being born. That’s a notable phenomenon. However, whoever first decided to describe the people inside that wave of births as “boomers”, shifting from a description of a population to a generalization of the individuals within that population, deserves to be dragged out and hanged, because it then spawned a whole pointless trend. First we had to name the generation after the boom, Gen X (fuck you very much, Douglas Copeland), and then we had to set up those stupid boundaries which mean nothing, since babies are born continuously, making the discontinuities pure invention. Finally, people made elaborate charts illustrating the long lists of attributes of each generation, an exercise that makes Chinese restaurant placemats look sane and sensible in comparison.

These things are garbage pseudoscience at best, and indulgences in bigoted stereotyping at worst. There are real shifts in the cultural environment over time, and it’s good to recognize those as aspects of our history, but it does a real disservice to the human beings involved to dismiss them as “boomers” or “millennials” or my favorite, “unknown, still being defined”. It’s about time someone stood up and pointed out that these are misleading labels that are about as credible as signs of the zodiac or Myers-Briggs personality tests.

*Chinese-American restaurants, I should say. I never saw them in Beijing, and the food was also completely different.


  1. Snarki, child of Loki says

    my favorite, “unknown, still being defined”

    It’s 20-fucking-19, is there an ‘official’ name for the decade between 2000 and 2010 yet? Between 2010 and 2020?

    Or did we as a culture just decide to put them all in the bucket of ‘The Crazy Decades’?

  2. cartomancer says

    I think we can derive some small insight from this phenomenon. There’s something about American culture that likes to split people up into discrete groups based on age, and to assume uniformity among them. That’s a narrative that appeals to a lot of people over there. Why, I don’t know. At a guess maybe it’s fuelled by your constant advertising surveys and desire to split people into shorthand demographics to sell things to them.

    We don’t tend to use these terms very much over here in the UK. Certainly not as descriptors for individuals. Though with the ubiquity of US culture it is a schema we understand and have started referencing more. Over here we have a fairly well defined class system that fulfills a similar function, so maybe we don’t need another set of arbitrary cultural divisions.

    Or maybe it’s because you’re such a young country that a periodicity of decades fills the role we in Europe would look to a periodicity of reigns or centuries for. These are your equivalents of the Angevin, Plantagenet, Tudor, Stewart, Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian and Modern eras?

    Or is it a result of the fact that the US has maintained a vision and fetish of children always doing better than their parents, thanks to their unusual global economic situation from their founding to the 1970s? Does this feed in to the ease with which generational cohorts are reified?

  3. starskeptic says

    “…and you can no more define the nature of individuals with this categorization than you can with a paper placemat at a Chinese restaurant.”
    — He is the Messiah!

  4. tomh says

    Geez, I’m part of the “silent” generation? First time I’ve heard of that. Guess they’re too young to remember the sixties in America, we were anything but silent.

  5. says

    Nah. I will only stop bashing boomers en mass when the news media stop the millennial bashing. The underlying concept of generations is scientifically ill conceived but politically and as a narrative potent. Please stop asking the left to unilateral disarm.

  6. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    tomh: “Geez, I’m part of the “silent” generation? First time I’ve heard of that.”
    Rimshot. I see what you did there.

  7. doubtthat says

    I think there is some value in understanding groups of people who move through similar experiences. So, the generation that went through the Great Depression then WWII experienced a wide range of trauma that affected their political and economic choices…
    Or consider the generations of African Americans who lived through various obscene injustices. How does Jim Crow affect a group of people vs. red lining…
    I also think things like the economic collapse + cost of higher education has affected a group of people in a fundamental way.
    But the Great Depression and WWII affected multiple “generations” in that arbitrary year designation sense. The current economic situation has affected, profoundly, at least three of these “generations.”
    I kind of get their use as shorthand for – Had one pair of shoes from 4th grade until they were 20 then stormed Omaha Beach. What I find most offensive is the use of this “generational psychology” as a means of covering for the real economic devastation in the country – “Millennials Don’t Like Doing Yardwork!” vs. “people graduating from college are so loaded with debt and the job prospects are so grim and low paying that they will never be able to purchase a home…”

  8. larpar says

    @PZ #3
    I don’t care. The point of my question (perhaps poorly expressed) was to expose the absurdity and randomness of the labels.
    Since, according to the Chinese, I’m an ox and need to practice compromise with people, I’ll withdraw my question. : )

  9. siobhan256 says

    And Simon Sinek being one of the worst offenders – why do people like him so much!!?

  10. says

    As I understand it, people do tend to be heavily influenced by the dominant cultural trends of their formative years, particularly during adolescence. The arbitrary hard edges of that generational chart are obvious nonsense derived from the need to simplify complex situations to make them easier to digest. The biggest problem is probably that using the single axis of time ignores the very real differences in cultural influence caused by geography. That said, the pop-sci ‘generations’ are an oversimplification of a real phenomenon, which is that people raised in the same place at the same time tend to have a similar set of cultural and political referents.

  11. bachfiend says

    Generations do have some reality, at least in Australia, and even if it’s restricted to politics and economics. There’s a well described, if figurative, ‘war of the elderly on the young.’ The elderly are enjoying many benefits denied to the young, including home ownership from times when housing was cheap before the surge in house prices caused by the allowing of negative gearing on investment properties, and no taxation on superannuation payments.

    The Opposition’s proposal to get the elderly rich to pay at least some tax is getting a lot of criticism. From the elderly rich as being ‘unfair’ (and I’m one of them, though I don’t oppose the changes).

    And in the meantime the young can’t afford to buy a home. And increasingly are in part time or casual employment. And still have large education debts.

  12. monad says

    Man, I wish boomers all had anti-war and equal rights as core values. And it would be interesting to see how “trust no one over 30” would play out, considering the youngest are listed as 44.

  13. Curious Digressions says

    Riddle me this: if there are no millennials, who’s buying all of that million dollar avocado toast?

  14. says

    The inter-generational hatred, particularly against the “baby boomer” cohort, is starting to ratchet up. There’s a guy I follow on Twitter, a Linux developer, who was bemoaning Bernie Sanders’ (77) and Joe Biden’s (76) decision to run for US President in 2020; I mentioned how I was reminded of the last days pre-perestroika USSR with the succession of sclerotic old Politburo mediocrities like Andropov and Chernenko demanding and getting their chance to sit in the Premier’s chair before they shuffled off once and for all. He replied bitterly that he was wishing the whole boomer generation would just hurry up and die. Seriously, look at the guy’s blog and search for “boomer”; apart from a few token invocations of #notallboomers, he regards the whole generation as a blockage in the system standing in the way of Universal Basic Income and other necessary reforms.

    The other thing I’ve seen is on forums where “boomer” has started to be used as a generic term of abuse for someone particularly ignorant or congenitally incapable of Getting It (for whatever values of “It”).

  15. wzrd1 says

    Each generational grouping, while ad hoc in many ways, also shared common experiences and traumas, so that a phrase could trigger a wealth of memories that members of that generation would grasp in depth, whereas other generations, especially later generations would be clueless about.
    How many millennials would able to figure out who Bert the turtle was? Or remember the feeling of inevitability that duck and cover would actually save your life (yeah, it wouldn’t have, for the most part).
    How many Gen-Xers would grasp the shattering of hope, when JFK was killed? That was literally my earliest memory, seeing it happen live.
    Indeed, the entire Boomer generation’s angst was summed up quite effectively by Billy Joel in, “We didn’t start the fire”.

    Just last week, I and a millennial were talking about the Gen Z crowd, there was generalized insistence that the soldiers carried a “stress card” (entirely false, as millennials were originally accused of the same bullshit, I and my peers took it easier on them and when it was obvious the trainee was nearing the breaking point, we’d give them some time to pull themselves together).
    When preparing to deploy, we ramped up the stress and taught them how to cope with it a bit better. We’ll soon be fighting alongside them and we didn’t want them to get killed, due to poor training or an inability to handle stress. His generation had adopted wisecracks that my generation had invented out of ignorance, as our generation also invented the doctrine that prevented psychological breakdowns and incrementally increased, while training how to deal with the stress.
    And I’ve been in the room when a Colonel and a General, respectively, were writing “that letter home” to the family of a deceased service member. It’s literally like losing a child.

    Is it a hard science? It’s an ad hoc cultural shift by approximate generational culture shock common experience base. The shared experience allows one to assess a common experience peerage, but only that. In my generational grouping, we’d have former hippies and Vietnam war veterans, obviously the same now. Aging, growing infirm and frightened for the future, ours and our children and grandchildren.
    Useful for figuring out how to explain things, send messages, etc, to various age groups.
    For, we wouldn’t have to explain to anyone born before 1980, the disgrace and disgust multiple generations felt over Nixon and Watergate, but after, we’d have to find different explanations to provide a common context.
    For, without that common context, one has a grave time managing to effectively communicate.
    That it gets misused by idiots, well, that’s unheard of in biology, right? Eugenics, racial superiority, phrenology, need I go on, when those still rear their ugly heads even today?

  16. eurosid says

    At my work we had a presentation from one of the company’s “Futurists”. Her job was to figure out what product features our designers had to focus on creating.

    Somebody asked her what she thought of these generation labels. She replied, “They are astrology for marketers.”

  17. nathanieltagg says

    No, I disagree here. There IS a statistical difference in the environments in which generations had formative experiences.

    Most notably: for many many Boomers, university was cheap. This gives them an incorrect perspective when viewing contemporary university students’ complaints. While no millennial believes that they can get through school by just working summers, that assumption lives on in a sizable proportion of the boomers.

    Also, too, they are different AGE. Boomers have experienced a different range of things than others – many of them better economically, and the survivors blame their own merit for their success. Which may happen to every generation, but right now it’s them.


  18. M Smith says

    Re. millenials, this is the generation that was entering the workforce/degrees in or around 2007, aka the year of the financial collapse.

    It’s a useful category from that perspective, because we faced challenges that those who established themselves prior to that simply did not.

    Apart from that, a lot of the marketing spiel related to millenials is bull; in many ways we’re the same people, we’ve just been handed a raw deal compared to our predecessors on the housing/earnings/job-progression front.

  19. M Smith says

    apologies for the double-post,

    @7 Mike Smith, completely agree, #fuckallboomers. Crashing the market so we can’t get houses, then buying them up to rent them out, and preventing the expansion of housing stock, suppressing wages and increasing rents, concentrating wealth away from us.

    I’m very vocal about this; when older people worry about who’s going to look after them when they’re older, or that their aren’t enough young people being born to sustain their pensions, I will happily tell them they can look after their fucking selves. I certainly won’t have the money to pay for my parent’s care.

  20. Dunc says

    Re. millenials, this is the generation that was entering the workforce/degrees in or around 2007, aka the year of the financial collapse.

    It’s a useful category from that perspective, because we faced challenges that those who established themselves prior to that simply did not.

    Wait – “millennials”, as defined in the graphic in the OP, span 15 years. They can’t all have been “entering the workforce/degrees in or around 2007”. The ones born in ’81 would have been 26, while the ones born in ’96 would have been 11.

    Secondly, there have been plenty of other financial collapses before. Personally, I was starting out in my IT career in the year of the dotcom crash…

  21. drken says

    Near as I can tell, Millennials is just shorthand for “Those damn kids that won’t get off my lawn”. Sort of like hipster is shorthand for white guy with a beard under 35 wearing a hat.
    But, as the baby boom is a real thing, so was the baby bust, a refractory period of low birthrates (at least in the US). When those born during the baby boom started having their own kids, it was referred to as a baby boomlet, also a real thing. Basically a more diffuse baby boom, the product of which are now known as millennials. As someone born in 1968 (a “Gen-Xer”) during the bust, there is some difference being born into an age cohort that gets marketed to more (due to there being more of you) compared to one that was marketed to relatively less (due to there being less of you). So, that’s how I look at our recent obsession with naming the “generations”. Just a way of describing the ebbs and flows of a variable birthrate, via the marketing department instead of sociology.

  22. mountainbob says

    The “I got mine, fuck you!” generation is not on the list, but its influence is pervasive and it’s span is broad.

  23. Muz says

    I was amazed the first time I found out Gen X was so large a cohort. I know some who’s memories are all about Star Wars and Nukes, Reagan and the fall of the Berlin wall. Stanger Things and general 80s nostalgia can just about bring them to tears. Born a few years later you’re still Gen X apparently but you have barely any awareness of any of that stuff except that your older brother was really into Star Wars. Grunge, X-Files and ninties activism is your (that is, my) jam though.
    They are like different worlds.

  24. M Smith says

    @22 Dunc, as other commenters have pointed out, hard-and-fast lines are pointless, and you will see different lines drawn by different people. Treating that chart as the authority on generational boundaries is an absurd straw man.

    Besides, people are at different life stages at different times…I was born in 1985; due to a late start I began university in 2007; my wife, also born in 1985, and graduated in 2007, jsut before I started. She had a vocational healthcare degree, which at the start came with a guarantee of an NHS job, but by the end came with shrugs of “well here’s how you use these skill in the real world.” I was equally impacted by the struggle to find a job when I graduated in 2010, which was a couple of years into austerity. Although I did find something after 10 months searching, by that point newcomers were faced with tightening purse strings, and for the last 9 years we’ve just scraped by. Still others would have gone straight into the workforce and started a job at 16 in 2002/2003, so will have been impacted differently again. So I can believe that someone born 4 years before me has also been impacted. They may have had a job, but maybe their plans to get a mortgage were well-and truly scuppered, leaving them in an inflationary rental market, with suppressed wage increases.

    On the flipside, my younger brother’s younger wife was able to stay at home while studying and starting her career, so she could save up a large deposit (her dad is fairly wealthy). This enabled them to buy a house earlier than most, so they’ve largely been insulated (although they now face a burden of massive mortgage payments which necessitate them both working full-time to scrape by, which would not have been the case for someone in their position 10 years prior). They may well identify more with the previous generation than millenials.

    The reason the financial crisis is different to the dotcom bust is that dotcom was followed by unprecedented growth and stability fueled by easy credit and globalisation, whereas the credit-crunch has been followed by exactly the opposite (tight purses and nationalism). We are still re-adjusting to the fallout. Add to that the burden of climate change, which boomers have (and continue to) neglect, and it’s likely my generation (or my child’s) are going to have to pay those costs too.

    Just to reiterate, fuck the boomers.

  25. says

    Oh, swell. I go along feeling sympathy for someone who’ s being dragged for being born in a particular year, and the valedictory is “fuck [everybody born in a range of years that includes me].” Textual evidence doesn’t support the brief hope that it’s a self-aware jest.

    I’ll just point up at the premise of the blogpost here, and note that I’m using my index finger.

  26. snuffcurry says

    Why does millennials stop 4 years before the millennium?

    Because adults of the 80s were anticipating 2000 as significant and wanting to imbue it with meaning; it’s meant to describe a cohort who will come of age post-millennium but would presumably be old enough to remember the pre-time; and, most importantly to some, everything has to be about Boomers and their own Boom-ets.

    There’s something about American culture that likes to split people up into discrete groups based on age, and to assume uniformity among them. That’s a narrative that appeals to a lot of people over there.

    Whereas for some people, everything is very UK-centric, It’s sort of disappointing to pretend this isn’t a worldwide and historical practice. PS Gen X who survived Thatcher and Gen Windrush say howdy.

    Over here we have a fairly well defined class system that fulfills a similar function, so maybe we don’t need another set of arbitrary cultural divisions.

    Class, Not Race is it?

    Or maybe it’s because you’re such a young country that a periodicity of decades fills the role we in Europe would look to a periodicity of reigns or centuries for.

    Again, complete ignorance + privileging a small subset of western Europe. Again, old civilizations and their modern iterations: many do this.

  27. says

    I noted monad’s “trust no one over 30”.
    I was born in ’47, so just boomeroidal, and a fascinating phenomenon occurred around the early ’80s when I (and I’m sure many of my cohort) realised what we really meant was “trust no one under 30”.