The recent “OK, Boomer” meme is just the latest example of an ongoing tense dialogue between two generations prominently. Articles exploring ageism often cite the cultural experiences of Millennials and Boomers—while overlooking the cohort between them.
What about the members of Generation X? What do today’s 40- and 50-somethings know about ageism? How does it affect their lives? And how can they change the social, economic and political trajectory of its course?
Addressing these questions raises the basic issue of how valid it is to discuss generations as discrete groups. Are stereotypes for each really true, given the immense diversity among individuals within the same cohort?
“We like to talk about large numbers of people born between specific years as if they have a predefined set of characteristics,” explains Eunice Lin Nichols, Encore.org vice president and director of its Gen2Gen Campaign, “but there’s incredible diversity within generations. That diversity—in outlook, values and life choices—is shaped as much by other factors as by exposure to a set of shared events over a discrete period of time…. I’m much more interested in looking at the relationship of one generation to another through the lens of life stage and life experience.”
As it turns out, those life experiences cover a wide range of cultural circumstances. Sociology professor emeritus Dr. Stephen Katz of Trent University’s Trent Centre for Aging and Society lists Gen Xers’ age-based challenges as “a) being in the ‘shadow’ of the much larger and affluent population of their parents, b) experiencing a more volatile and precarious labor market, c) growing up in both a retro-Conservative political culture and dissolution of the Cold War, d) relating to the world through new digital technologies, e) coping with the consequences of greater divorce rates.”
That’s a lot of change to adjust to—on top of the realities of growing older among an aging global population. Moreover, Gen Xers are now experiencing the pressures of sandwich-generation caregiving and workplace ageism more than ever before.
A 2019 National Alliance for Caregiving report reveals that while 19% of Baby Boomers and 31% of Millennials are simultaneously caregiving for both children and parents, Gen Xers are affected the most at 49%.
Furthermore, according to a 2018 AARP survey, 54% of older workers believe that age discrimination at work begins in one’s 50s (although in some industries such as technology, it is occurring for 30-something workers).
What adjustments in perspective about getting older are Gen Xers making in response to their current lives?
“For Gen Xers, age is a state of mind,” says Dr. Candace Steele Flippin, executive research fellow at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. “They do not have to ‘grow old gracefully.’ They can have a second act, reinvent themselves and have new adventures.”
Katz would agree. He explains that “while the Boomer generation may be obsessed with retaining their youth and catering to a commercialized anti-aging ‘positive’ culture of exercise, diet, wellness, brain-training and active lifestyles, Gen Xers will know better, since their youth was not similarly idealized and their acceptance of more diverse identities and bodies is part of their generational identity… They understand ageism as not just as an ‘attitude’ but as a central question of social change.”
One major social-change strategy Gen Xers are using to counter ageism is to promote intergenerational cooperation in all social endeavors.
“Right now,” says Nichols, “we are the true mid-lifers, with a unique vantage point and influence as we transition out of early careers and child rearing toward our encore… As we navigate midlife, sandwiched between aging parents and our own children, we have an opportunity to live, work, and play across generational lines, to create a different, more age-integrated reality for everyone.”
Adds Steele Flippin: “Gen Xers are sandwiched between Baby Boomers and Millennials and can serve as an intergenerational bridge. They can mute the stigma associated with ageism by adding their viewpoint and voice to this issue. By modeling constructive behaviors, they can also take action to remove ageism barriers for themselves and Millennials.”
She predicts that “Gen Xers will be more optimistic and pragmatic about managing life as [they] age.” And why not? Gen Xers will have greater advantages than their Boomer predecessors at fighting ageism.
Steele Flippin points out that “technology and social media will benefit Gen Xers greatly when dealing with typical age-related challenges. Some of these challenges include social isolation, physical health, financial and transportation issues. Gen Xers will have more tools, access to information and resources available to help them better navigate.”
Katz sums it up in this way: “Gen Xers are also, of course, parents, they are no longer ‘the next generation,’ but their children (and their children) are such. Thus they are moving into becoming ‘seniors’ themselves and face the challenges of socializing their own children in terms of the intergenerational legacies they wish to pass on. So as Gen Xers are learning about growing older themselves, we can all learn along with them new meanings about aging.”
If the next generation is successful, their new definitions of what aging means will further disrupt ageism—for the benefit of generations to come.