OK Boomer: Why Generational Labels Are Toxic

with Dr. Tracey Gendron,

Author, Chair for the Department of Gerontology at VCU

Do you ever find yourself making assumptions about someone based on their age? Or maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of age-based discrimination? This week on the Art of Aging, host Rev. Beth Long-Higgins chats with Dr. Tracey Gendron, author and Chair for the Department of Gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University. During the episode, Beth and Tracey discuss the nuances of ageism and how it affects individuals of all ages. The conversation also includes the impact of generational labels on our perceptions of others, the arbitrary nature of generational labels and how they contribute to ageism, how to bring awareness of discrimination and stereotyping, and more.
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Highlights from this week’s conversation include:

  • Defining Ageism (1:44)
  • Observations on generational labels (6:30)
  • Overcoming ageism and generational labels (11:01)
  • Limitations of generational labels and how they are contributing to ageism (13:33)
  • Ageism Awareness Day (16:01)
  • Dr. Gendron’s personal examples of abundant aging heroes (19:00)
  • Final thoughts and conclusions (21:02)


Abundant Aging is a podcast series presented by United Church Homes. These shows offer ideas, information, and inspiration on how to improve our lives as we grow older. To learn more and to subscribe to the show, visit abundantagingpodcast.com


Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 00:07
Hello and welcome to The Art of Aging part of the Abundant Aging Podcast Series from United Church Homes. On this show, we look at what it means to age in America and other places around the world with positive and empowering conversations that challenge, encourage, and inspire all to age with abundance. Our guest today is Dr. Tracy Gendron, who is chair for the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of gerontology. She is also director for the Virginia Center on Aging and is the author of the book ageism unmasked exploring age bias and how to end it with over 25 years of experience as a grant funded researcher and nationally recognized speaker Tracy is dedicated to raising awareness and ending ageism through education. Her personal and professional goal is to raise awareness of the elderly as the solution to the deeply embedded ageism perspective, that’s pervasive in all cultures, settings and individuals. And we should mention that Dr. Gendron is going to be our keynote speaker at our annual Ruth Frost Parker Center Symposium which will be on October 6 this year 2023. And you can register for it to attend live in Columbus, Ohio, or online by visiting UnitedChurchHomes.org. Welcome, Tracy, would you just give a brief definition of what ageism is since I’ve already mentioned that in the intro, and we’re going to be talking about that throughout the podcast?

Dr. Tracey Gendron 01:44
Yeah, absolutely. So ageism is in its largest form discrimination based on age. So it’s anytime we discriminate, we stereotype, we marginalize , we make assumptions or judgments about somebody based on age, that all falls into ageism. And that can be towards people that are older, it can also be towards people that are younger. So ageism is directed towards other people. But ageism is also internally directed. It’s how we feel about our own aging. It’s the potential fear that we carry around about growing older and what that means for us. So it’s external, it’s internal, and then it also lives within our relationships. Have we talked to each other about what it means to be older and how we complement each other often by looking younger or acting younger? Or how we disparage what it means to be old? Oh, I’m 52 years young, instead of 52 years old, all of that lives within our relationships. So it’s actually quite nuanced, and multi-layered.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 02:48
Thank you. So you mentioned your book ages on my mask, and it was published a year ago, and what have you learned as an author and a gerontologist, in this year, of sharing this book and having conversations on this work with a wide variety of audiences?

Dr. Tracey Gendron 03:08
I’ve learned so many things, it’s been a really fascinating year. And it’s been, you know, really exciting to have this conversation with so many different people in different organizations. You know, it’s interesting to me, ageism, and ableism, both are discrimination based on ability, are kind of less included in a lot of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. It’s like, really an afterthought, I think, for so many. So when I come in to talk to different groups of people, it’s always interesting to me to see how younger people connect with this material. And that really took me by surprise, the first time or two that this happened was younger people coming forward and saying, you know, I’ve really experienced ageism, I have, you know, been told I’m too young for this job, because you know, or I look a certain way, so I must not be qualified for something. And that was really surprising. And then so many people who were telling me about their experiences being judged based on their generational label, and how that was feeding into ageism. So all of that, you know, really got me thinking and got me exploring ageism towards younger and generational ageism, as kind of, you know, more deeply than I had thought about them before. It’s been fascinating.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 04:36
Yeah. My personal affinity to ageism is because I experienced pretty significant ageism. In my early 20s, as a young woman, entering a career that was predominantly dominated by men and men actually, yesterday, a major denomination just voted once again And then said women are not allowed to be clergy. And I am an ordained pastor. And so I think that in large part of my journey, and affinity towards all this has to do with ageism, that I experienced as a young woman or person, those two together. So, the other thing is that I was born during this period of time, the four years that are very controversial. Technically, I’m a baby boomer because I was born before 1964. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had conversations, particularly in graduate school, with others who are officially baby boomers. Who didn’t want to claim to me they’re like, how can you be? How can you be of our generation? And so I’ve wrestled personally with this whole generational label. And tell me a little bit about your observations of those labels, and how do they contribute to ageism? And Are they helpful at all?

Dr. Tracey Gendron 06:08
Yeah, that’s such a good question. And there’s so many layers, this is just a soapbox and a passion of mine to tell you the truth. So, you know, like, like ageism, which exists everywhere. This generational labeling also kind of is just normative. It’s just something that we hear about, and we just kind of take for granted, we don’t really think about it very much. It’s like, oh, yeah, you’re a baby boomer, you’re a Gen X, or when you stop, and you take a step back. And you think about what that actually means? Who decided these labels? Who decided what years these labels started, you start to have more questions than answers. And digging into this, you know, what I have learned is other than the baby boomers, who at least, had a rationale for why it was 1946 to 1964. With, you know, the number of birth rates, the rest of them really don’t have rationale, they’re kind of arbitrary as to when a generation starts and when a generation stops. And then I think, you know, we have misused them in so many ways, where we actually believe at this point that people born within this 15 to almost 20 year period, have common likes and common dislikes, and common personality traits, and that we can predict somebody’s behavior based on whatever generational label we gave them. It’s actually ridiculous when you think about it. I’ll give the example of, you know, baby boomers, as you said, born in 1946, to 1964, you cannot tell me that someone born in 1946 had the same historical experiences as someone born in 1964. It doesn’t make any sense. They don’t. And then if you think about the concept of intersectionality, by Kimberly Crenshaw, and you talk about how all of the forms of our identities impact our experiences, you also realize two people born in the same year can’t possibly have the same experiences. If we look different if we live differently, if we just don’t, life doesn’t work that way. And yet, we lump all of these people into this group and think that it means something that it’s a homogenous predictor of behavior. And I think that, you know, really, marketers really leaned into this. And I understand the need to want to wrap your head around a target market, and how we can sell them products and what behaviors they’ll have. But I think we’ve taken it to a really unhealthy level. And instead of using it as a predictor of trends, or even looking back onto trends, we now use it to predict individual decisions and personalities. And I actually think that’s a bit dangerous and misguided.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 09:00
Yeah. And, you know, in previous historical context, we use the generation to refer to family systems, my parents, that generation across the family system, and I’m the oldest of my generation of my sisters or my cousin at all. And I think because our culture has become even more diverse, everybody isn’t following the same pattern, going into high school, getting married or going to college and getting married. So everyone’s having children at about the same time. And so there was this assumption that we had the same experiences. I have to tell you, our daughter was in first grade and she came home one day, and she was telling me about this conversation around the kids around her table. And one of them said, my mom is 25 and someone else said, Well, my mom is 23 and someone else said, Well, my mom is 27 and she She reported to me then she said, it was her point mom, when I decided I was not going to participate in the conversation, because her mother was like 38. She and she had an awareness that just because they were in the same class, and they all had mothers, that their mothers were not having the same life experiences. And by the first grade, she was aware of age, and that maybe it wasn’t as cool to have a mom, who was a little bit older. And then yeah, so it’s really a challenge. So how do we help to move beyond using in some ways, it’s a shorthand, these generational labels? How do we help to overcome some of the ageism that exists in the US, for instance, that, you know, millennials are slackers, or, you know, what, whatever the other with a terms are lazy or entitled.

Dr. Tracey Gendron 10:59
Exactly. Exactly. So, you know, I think it’s important for us to realize that no matter who it is that we are interacting with, in that moment, to strive to see the individual rather than put any kind of labels or boxes around them, whether that be age, whether that be race, whether that be generation, whether it be anything, you know, it’s like you cannot tell who somebody is what it is that they like, what it is that they value, what did they their ideology is, by looking at them by knowing any of their demographic characteristics, you cannot you need to get to know someone and actually ask them questions. So I, what I would encourage people to do is really stop buying into the generational rhetoric. You know, the next time you say, Oh, those millennials, you know, they said that they’re slackers, or they’re the ones who want the workplace to conform to them? Who are you talking about? You know, probably not the person that’s in front of you that is striving really hard? And yes, of course, there’s going to be people that fit the stereotype, there’s always going to be people that fit the stereotype. But more than not, someone doesn’t. So I think just starting to question, why we use these generational labels, and to what end? What’s the value? And we just did a little bit of research on this. And what’s striking to me is that most people in this sample of people that I surveyed felt that knowing someone’s generation told you something meaningful about them, most people felt that people in a generation had common likes and dislikes. That’s a little scary, because, you know, that means we really are using this. And what was interesting is that people who describe themselves as either being in the millennial or the Gen Z generation, by far felt that they were more discriminated against based on generation. And what was a little troubling about that, and it’s not causal. But it’s still interesting that they also had the highest dislike of older people. So I think we also need to start to think about potential cycles, that we are creating potential effects, that when we are stereotyping someone who’s a Gen Z, or who’s a millennial, what are we feeding them? So I think there’s a lot of reasons that we can, you know, just take a step back and start to question: Does this even make sense? Yeah.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 13:34
Are they reacting to older people? Because of their age? Are they acting to older people? Because of the positions of power that they perceive they hold over? institutions or family systems? Or whatever? Yeah. And the other thing I would want to say is when they talk about older people, are they lumping everybody over the age of 65? As one. And, you know, just as it’s hard with the generational labels to have 20 years, given longevity, today, we’re talking about 30 to 35 years. And when you’ve seen one old person, you’ve seen one old person and that we can become more divergent in later life, and that’s not helpful either. Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Dr. Tracey Gendron 14:26
He was essentially an empty variable. It tells you really nothing about someone. So you’re right. When you’ve seen one older person, you’ve seen one older person, when you’ve seen one millennial, you’ve seen one millennial. Yeah, but I understand why we want to put labels on things. I think it makes it easier for us to process a lot of information faster. But we do have the capacity to step back from that question.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 14:51
And I think that, that we as individuals sometimes do like to use those labels, because then that it, there’s the assumption that Well, I belong to this group, you know, whether or not the boomers want me or not, I can belong to this generation, for whatever reasons I see those connections to be. So I think that individually, that we also kind of latch onto those a bit because of our need to belong. That makes perfect sense. Yeah. need for connection within the larger community.

Dr. Tracey Gendron 15:27

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 15:30
Well, we will continue to be aware of these generational labels. And we’re going to continue to deeply thank you for doing more research about these things. And they do need to be a part of our conversation as we talk about ageism. So let’s remind people about the Ageism Awareness Day, which is coming up the day after I suppose what you’d like to talk about.

Dr. Tracey Gendron 16:01
Absolutely. Ageism Awareness Day is coming up on October 7, which is the second annual ageism Awareness Day. And hey, for anyone out there that has felt discriminated against based on their generation, or felt discriminated against based on age, use this as an opportunity to share those experiences with other people to say, you know, let’s question why we do this. Let’s take things like okay, Boomer off the map, because it doesn’t mean anything, and it’s really just hurtful. So it doesn’t matter, we’re gonna say it is a great opportunity to be able to do that on any social media platform, you can hashtag ageism Awareness Day, you can just raise awareness of your own. And I’ll say this about Ageism Awareness Day. Movements are made one person at a time. So it really is every person that participates, every person that makes a little change gets us closer to a world that has age equity, to a world where people feel valued at all ages, and people of all generations feel that way. So do it, post it, talk about it, share it with your friends, and let ageism awareness, they just be the start.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 17:15
Yeah, and the American society on aging is an organization that’s really helping to put energy behind this. And I know that we’ve had conversations, beginning conversations, at least, why we call it the American society on aging. Because most of the people who participate in this organization are individuals who in one way or another are working with folks who are at the latter end of their lifespan. And if we are serious about aging as being aging, equal living or an aging equal change, there is an emphasis on older adults for Ageism Awareness Day. But I think we need to be aware of how we are connecting and how we are helping to raise awareness. This isn’t just about older adults, but this is about any, any point in the life course. So those are some challenges for us to carry forward as we get this going. And on the following day, or the day before, that is our annual symposium, as I mentioned earlier, and Tracy among others will be helping us dip our toes into really pulling away some of those masks that we carry for ourselves to be aware of how ageism exists within each of us. So as we come to the end of the podcast, I have a question for you, Tracey, that we ask of all of our interviewees and all of our guests. So is there someone that you’ve met or who has been in your life that has set a good example for you in how to age someone that inspires you to age abundantly?

Dr. Tracey Gendron 19:00
In the book I write often about my grandparents and Nanny and Poppy were and continue to be my inspiration and my role models. They were incredible people. I grew up seeing them just about every week, and they to me just live life abundantly. They did so much joy and so much passion around family and love and just being with them really opened the door for me to not only want to be a gerontologist, but to see aging in a way that a lot of people don’t. So for sure I still I have a picture of them in my office that’s up high so that I can look at them and so I feel like they are looking at me and really proud of how I am advocating for older people for all people who all of us because we’re all aging, so for sure it would be them

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 19:59
I love reading your stories and how they inspired you in your book. The other thing that I’m aware of is how fortunate you are. Many of us say it was our grandmother’s. But for you to have had your grandparents, your nanny and your puppy, because he lived into his 90s, I forget. Yeah. And how increasingly there are males who are aging abundantly and who are living longer lives and can serve as examples as well. And it’s not just about grandmothers that we really need to be talking about grandparents, for those of us who are living into the 21st century, so yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, thank you, Tracy, and to our listeners for listening to this episode of The Art of aging part of the abundant aging podcast series from United Church homes. We want to hear from you. What’s changed about you, as you’ve aged? What has surprised you most? And how do you define abundant aging and who are those individuals who have sent an example to you about what it means to age abundantly? You can visit us at abundant aging podcast.com to share your ideas. You can also give us feedback when you visit the Ruth Ross Parker Center website at WWW DOT United Church homes.org backslash Parker hyphen center, backslash. And Tracy, do you want us? Just one more time to share where people can find you?

Dr. Tracey Gendron 21:31
Absolutely. You can find me at my website, Tracy gendron.com. You can also look me up on the Virginia Commonwealth University website. And you can find my book on Amazon, Barnes and Noble. Just google it and you will find it.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 21:46
Thank you. Thank you for your time. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and your experience. And thank you for the book. Thank you, I can tell you that one of my colleagues here, read it after I was referencing it at a workshop in December and she is on fire. Suddenly she is hearing things and seeing things that she hasn’t seen before. So you have changed at least, at least whimpers now and I know I know many more so thank you for you. Thank you. Peace.