What happens when a social/political commentator transforms a generation into the nation's scapegoat, figuratively a black sheep?
And logical fallacies.
Marian Salzman, chief marketing officer and partner at public relations agency Porter Novelli Worldwide and author of two books, has accomplished all this with impunity in her commentary published by CNN.com on Christmas Day 2008.
In this diatribe, Salzman divides the post-World War II baby boom (1946 - 1964) into two groups: a cohort born between 1946 and 1953, which she labels as Boomers; and a cohort born between 1954 and 1965, which she brands as Cuspers. (Generation Jones is the most widely acknowledged and accepted term for the second half of the baby boom, or those Americans and Europeans born roughly between the mid-1950's and mid-1960's.)
Her commentary offers nothing generous to describe achievements of those belonging to the first eight years of the baby boom and nothing critical to describe those born in the second twelve years as they claim the mantle of power. (By the way, her demographic delineation describing the Boomer generation is conveniently brief, allowing for only eight years.)
About feckless Boomers she writes: “After strutting and tub-thumping and preening their way across the high ground of politics, media, culture and finance for 30 years, baby boomers have gone from top dogs to scapegoats in barely a year.”
She further ridicules Boomers by pointing her condemning finger at President George W. Bush, who, “born in 1946 at the start of the postwar baby boom for which his generation is named, will leave office with the lowest approval ratings since Richard Nixon was president.”
With Cuspers she is munificent, evoking the persona of President-elect Barack Obama as archetype: “They value traditional notions of family but see men and women as equals in parenting. They go back to older American values — civility, community, responsibility — yet keenly embrace technology and use the Internet naturally.”
Does Salzman demonstrate intellectual keenness in this analysis? As typical with those who foment generational antipathy, her critique reveals convenient logical fallacies.
First, she scorns one generation to elevate the generation she prefers. This paints a black & white picture, a form of black & white reasoning. Boomers equal black; Cuspers equal white.
Then she relies on confirmation bias, or elective use of evidence and interpreting information in a way that confirms preconceptions.
For example, she attributes leadership of the digital revolution to “leading-edge Cuspers such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Tim-Berners Lee, all born in 1955, (who) helped create the digital universe Cuspers and younger generations now inhabit as a matter of course.”
Aside from arguments that these men are Boomers for sociological reasons emanating from their cohort and period influences and behavioral styles as young men, what makes Bill Gates a more substantial example of the digital revolution than Paul Allen, born in 1953, who with Gates cofounded Microsoft? Or how are Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Tim Berners-Lee more commendable for the advent of personal computers than Steve Wozniak, born in 1951 and cofounder of Apple Computer with Steve Jobs?
Those who condemn a generation also typically rely on fallacy of accident, or making a generalization that disregards exceptions.
Take, for example, disgraced former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, born in 1959, now an alleged metaphor for turpitude and infidelity. Or consider Martin Sullivan, fired CEO of American International Group Inc. (AIG), born in 1955, who has recently become an alleged symbol for corporate greed. Or think about the maligned former Governor of Illinois, Rob Blagojevich, born in 1956, who now allegedly represents political corruption.
In Salzman’s generational demarcations, these men are Cuspers, people by their birth years and generational affiliation who are not "greedy, selfish, confrontational, hung up on past battles.”
As I’ve been writing for years, logical fallacies in unconstructive characterizations of a generation have sobering ramifications.
Is it beneficial for society to conclude that Boomers, or any amorphous generational group composed of millions of unique individuals, are “greedy,” “the generation that pursued pleasure,” “the generation no one wants to be associated with,” and “guilty”?
Off-putting oversimplifications can be dangerous. Not only can individuals be penalized for their perceived affiliation with a maligned group, dismissive caricatures perpetuate black vs. white thinking. This is antithetical to the value of inclusiveness championed by Salzman's paragon, Barack Obama.
Marian Salzman, someone we suspect is herself a member of her favored cohort, has established a reputation as a commentator about generations. She’s also the chief marketing officer for a public relations firm founded by Bill Novelli, immediate past CEO of AARP — a leading advocacy organization for the nation’s aging citizens, including Boomers. Generational stereotypes have no place at AARP.
Bill Novelli today has little more than a titular connection with the agency he founded, but if Novelli ever reads Salzman's excoriation, I am certain the former leader of AARP would disagree with her acerbic views of one of AARP's important constituent groups.
It’s also interesting to observe that, at the time of this post, Porter Novelli's clients include:
Johnson & Johnson Company: William C. Weldon is CEO and a Boomer born in 1948.
AstraZeneca: David Brennan is CEO and a Boomer born in 1953.
Wyeth: Bernard Poussot is CEO and a Boomer born in 1952.
Baxter International: Robert Parkinson is CEO and a Boomer born in 1951.
Amgen: Kevin Sharer is CEO and a Boomer born in 1950.
PricewaterhouseCoopers LLC: Samuel A. DiPiazza Jr. is CEO and a Boomer born in 1952.
Merck: Richard T. Clark is CEO and a Boomer born in 1946 (the same year as George W. Bush).
Generational commentary requires generalizations. Logical fallacies follow simplification. But it’s one thing to approach generations from a positive and uplifting viewpoint, valuing all generations equally. It’s quite another when portrayals turn divisive and dismissive.