I often hear questions such as, “Do I want Millennials on my jury?” or “Are Boomers likely to be more conservative on damages?” This focus on the attributes of these generational groupings is part of larger fixation on the categories we can see during voir dire: age, race, income, etcetera. But one thing I’ve found is that the more experienced one is in selecting juries, the less fixated they are on demographics, and the more fixated they are on attitudes, beliefs, and experiences. And it is becoming increasingly clear that, like other demographic traits, generational labels aren’t worth the mental effort, and aren’t worth the risk of detracting from more reliable indications of potential bias.
A recent Washington Post opinion piece, written by Phillip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, makes this case well. The author points to an open letter to Pew research with now close to 200 signatures from academics in fields relating to demographics. Based on the article and the letter, these broad labels constitute confusing and arbitrary pseudoscience with no practical meaning to those who study human populations. For that reason, the message to pollsters is “Just stop.” The same goes for others who analyze groups of people, including those who are selecting juries. In this post, I will share the reasons to set the demographic labels aside and focus on what we should be using instead.
Why Not Use Generational Labels?
The article begins with the example that the tennis-playing Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, are born a generation apart, while Donald Trump and Michelle Obama are both Baby Boomers. Aside from the generally arbitrary issue of where you draw the line between one generation and the next, the main problem is each group’s tendency to invite broad generalizations. When we treat generations like zodiac signs or fortune cookies, you can read just about whatever you want into their demographic categories. For example, Millennials are caring and connected… or maybe they’re selfish and individualistic. Of course, they can be either, and who they are depends on individual background, attitudes, and experience.
There are also other problems. The letter references Pew’s own research indicating that most people are not able to correctly identify their own generational label. Ultimately, the problem is that it isn’t good science. Cohen explains, “We in academic social science study and teach social change, but we don’t study and teach these categories because they simply aren’t real. And in social science, reality still matters.”
What Should We Use Instead? Look More Closely at Individuals
While we can’t offer population-wide conclusions based on a person-by-person analysis, voir dire is a small enough and controlled enough setting that we can treat individuals as individuals and not as categories. Background does matter, but even those aspects of background that do vary by demographics are lost when you look at generations. As Professor Cohen explains, “people experience history differently based on their backgrounds — Black people vs. White people, immigrants vs. natives, men vs. women, children with vs. children without iPads. So throwing everyone together by year of birth often misses all the glorious conflict and complexity in social change.”
There are still generational experiences: Someone who lived through the Great Depression is likely to have a different mindset. I suspect that future populations might say the same regarding those who lived through the 2020/2021 pandemic. The best practice in voir dire is to keep these broad traits in mind, but to place most of your attention on individual responses: What have your potential jurors experienced, and what do they believe, feel, and do as it relates to the issues in your case?
A while back, my daughter (working on a school project) asked, “What will we call the next generation after Z? Will we go to AA?” She thought that we must have been alphabetically naming generations starting a long time ago with A. “No,” I said, “we pretty much started that trend with X.” She said, “That wasn’t very good planning, was it?”