The only way to learn the difference between aging and cohort effects is to practice and reflect and practice some more. Start with yourself and work your way out. How have you changed over the course of your life? What kinds of experiences and cultural modes do you share with other people your age? Which of those things that you share with your cohort are different from people of other ages? What factors do you think lead to those changes? What events wholly external to you have seriously impacted different points in your life, and did they affect just you, or many people? For instance, some popular coverage on elderly Americans and the digital divide will use age-language, like “people over 70,” but those statements will lose accuracy in a few years. As a technology strategy director for a health care client pointed out to me in an interview for a project, it’s far more accurate to say “people born between 1940” when referring to most of these issues. Sure, there are some age-related barriers to technology use: accommodating reduced dexterity and eyesight, for instance, but contort and familiarity with communications technology formats is a classic cohort effect.
This whole exercise requires two other more fundamental tools of anticipatory anthropology: reflexivity and counterfactual thinking. Reflexivity is a skill that all thinking people should cultivate constantly. How can you be more aware of yourself and how perceive the world? What can you do to compensate for you cultural biases, even your idiosyncrasies? Counter-factual thinking is a little more complicated sounding, but simple in principle: how could things have gone differently? This works in history, if an event or trend had worked out differently. It also works in life, if some circumstance changed, or some choice was made differently. Philip Tetlock, professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas Business School, can teach you a lot more about that than I can.
When you’ve reflected on yourself, comparing and contrasting, imaging some of the different you’s that were possible at some point in time, then you’re ready to branch out. Pick someone of a different age from yourself, with radically different life experiences, and repeat the exercise. If you need more information, ask them. What were the turning points in their life? How did they act in that time of flux, what did they use to get through it? What things make them feel closer to their age-mates, or do they even identify with them? What political and social events really influenced their understanding of how the world works?
It’s good to practice these questions on people who will be patient with you. At first some questions may sound stilted and awkward, but that doesn’t last. You’ll get more comfortable asking weird questions, and find better ways of asking them of different people.
It’s fine to get a picture of the world from your own position, but anthropologists have to at least try to understand the positions of others to really know what we know. See if you can get introduced to someone who’s a friend of a friend of a roommate of your cousin’s babysitter. Seriously, go to the very edges of your network. Then, talk to strangers. You would be amazed at how much you can learn on a train ride with someone.
While this working your way out will help hone your skills, it also does something even more important: it gives you a variety of points of reference. Each story is a tile in a mosaic that includes your own knowledge of history and theories of how social change works. When you have a good sense of background, how things have happened to people, you can start imagining how things are going to happen to people. If Uncle Joe handled his sudden unemployment and divorce in this way, how might he handle a future disruptive event? What kinds of events do you forecast are plausible for him to encounter in the future? What kinds of futures would you consider very likely for him? When you answer that, pick a variable and twist it around so it changes the outcome at your time horizon. What’s the range of possible futures for him now? How do they affect all the people in his life? How is that connected to the experiences of others in his cohort, and to interactions between cohorts?
That’s quite enough questions for one post.
Part III forthcoming.