Never mind the generation gap. A boomer, a gen-Xer and a millennial walk into a bar … Why it’s time for the word generation to f-f-fade away.
Last year, for the first time in history, millennials outnumbered boomers in the Canadian workforce. That’s not going to change. The over-50 cohort has, unfairly or not, pegged the younger generation as being rather demanding and entitled on the work front. So will the ascendancy of the under-35s only deepen the generation gap? Or is it time to retire the G-word and the whole dusty notion of a demographic that’s ruled by the calendar? Can’t we all just … get along?
Let’s eavesdrop on a multigenerational scene to find out.
It’s early on a Thursday night in Toronto, and three people walk into a bar called Lo-Fi. Wendel is 29 and black. Don is 64 and white. Angela is 45 and from southeast Asia. They work in the same ad agency and they’ve come straight from the office to celebrate – Don has decided to postpone his retirement yet again, and Wendel’s going to be promoted. Their agency, InOV8, has been trying out a new campaign that targets both millennials and boomers, and they really like this “age-agnostic” approach.
Don happens to be a co-owner of the bar. (Diversify, his accountant urged.) He orders a margarita – Tromba, no salt. Wendel has a craft beer, and Angela asks for something called a Crown and Anchor, made with rye whisky, crème fraîche and maple syrup. It’s on my tab, says Don, smiling. He enjoys these fleeting moments of seniority.
The bar has a big poster of Grimes on the wall, Japanese anime playing on small TVs and a chrome karaoke stage up front. It’s pretty hip for someone Don’s age – but then, he and Wendel like to think of themselves as a slightly less hip version of another cross-generational pair of buddies, 29-year-old musician Drake and Norm Kelly, the 74-year-old Toronto city councillor.
Despite their age differences, Drake and Kelly share several core values, including full-out civic pride in their hometown and a passionate belief in the Raptors. Drake tutored Norm in the power and glory of Twitter, and Norm finally learned the meaning of the word “diss.” Just like Wendel got Don to stop holding his phone vertically when he takes pictures. Reverse mentorship: it’s the way of the future.
Drake’s international success has also demonstrated a millennial paradigm: he went global by staying close to home. His lyrics are rooted in the local. He could have shot his most recent video anywhere in the world.
Instead, he chose The Real Jerk, a family-friendly Jamaican restaurant in the city’s east end. Metaphorically speaking, Drake is still living in his parents’ basement – but look at how it worked out! Let that be a lesson to doubting boomers.
Back at the bar, Angela texts her husband to let him know she’ll be late. No biggie, these outings are part of the job. In the Mad Men era, office and home were kept separate, but now the work/life boundaries have dissolved: it’s all work and all life all the time. Emails fly back and forth on Sunday morning or after midnight. When you’re on the digital time clock, nobody punches out.
The millennials are surely the most connected generation ever, and many of their values – authenticity, work-life balance, inclusiveness and tolerance – are admirable. The only problem is that the economic realities have not caught up to their values. The system is set up for a fixed hierarchy arranged in cubicles, but many of the young prefer to work from a corner table in a café.
And if they have a job-job, when they get a performance review, they review their boss’s performance. They don’t have much patience for authority. The digital revolution has created a new democracy, a level playing field where any kid with an iPhone can leap to the top of the talent pile with a single posting on YouTube. The membrane between anonymity and global fame has become extremely thin, and the concept of “working your way up” has less appeal.
Meanwhile, the political ideals that once defined the boomers have faded – or are they just being reborn, as millennial self-expression writ large? Beyoncé at the Super Bowl, evoking the Black Panthers with militant ThighMaster choreography. Rap singer Kendrick Lamar electrified the Grammies with a fiery pageant of African-American history. The very last (we hope) all-white Oscars took place, shame heaped on its head by the witheringly funny Chris Rock. In Canada, pop music will never be the same after a show-stopping performance by Nunavut-born throat singer Tanya Tagaq at the 2014 Polaris Music Prize awards. Slowly, our culture becomes more multicultural. After decades of bubbling under, issues around race and gender have come to dominate the media.
They put up with the sporty boomers who never want to leave the party and the stubborn millennials who want to telecommute to work. It’s the gen-Xers who remember to put out the recycling bins – indeed, they invented recycling. They just don’t get credit for it. That might change with the international sparkle of one member of their cohort – Justin Trudeau. The 44-year-old prime minister has elevated the selfie-with-a-citizen to a portrait of a more open, warm-blooded style of governing, and his focus on aboriginal issues, climate change and a gender-balanced Cabinet has set an example for the rest of the world.
Gen-Xers tend not to complain about generational differences because they’re too busy getting on with their lives. (They rode the tail end of a friendlier economy, too.) But the young have good reason to complain; they are up against a harsher, more competitive and unforgiving world. The boomers were born into a carefree young adulthood, with jobs that grew on trees and a stable economy. Millennials now face the anxiety of climate change, unpredictable global markets and a world in violent political flux, gripped by wars and civilian upheaval. The only thing the boomers suffered in their youth was an excess of folk music, STDs and bad coffee.
A word about those STDs here, though. The arrival of the birth control pill in the 1960s, combined with the ridiculous concept of “free love,” created the sexual revolution, a belief that two people (or more) could fall in and out bed without obligation, guilt or consequence. Dream on!
That fantasy era was swiftly followed by the lethal early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when the word “consequence” acquired a new and tragic weight. The pendulum swung back, gen-X had to sweep up after the party and sexual behaviour took a conservative turn. Until the millennials, Tinder and hook-up culture came along. Casual sex is back with a vengeance – made even more casual by our handy digital escape hatches. Getting “ghosted” by last night’s Tinder date (when s/he won’t reply to your texts) is probably just as painful as the days in the so-called sexual revolution, when women had carefree one-night stands and then sat by the rotary phone, patiently waiting for him to call. Sex doesn’t always obey generational rules.
The gap was real. As a boomer in my 20s, I wouldn’t have dreamed of sharing my thoughts and fears with my perfectly lovely parents, who stood for everything I wanted to change about the world (then, didn’t).
But was that gap a precedent for future ones – or just an aberration specific to that era? “Talkin’ ’bout my g-g-g-generation,” sang The Who back in 1971. (And we never stopped talking about it!) But now, when I notice how close many young adults are with their parents or when I watch a campus rally erupting in applause for 74-year-old Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, I wonder: maybe the phrase “generation gap” should be retired.
Maybe even the word “generation” has lost its relevance. As one 20-year-old woman instructed me when we met to talk about this subject, “Nobody thinks in terms of generations any more. I have friends of every age.”