WHEN people discover that I'm a skeptic, they often say something like, "So, you don't believe in UFOs?" My suspicions are more down to earth. For example, I seriously doubt the existence of Generation X. I realize this sounds peculiar, much like J. Edgar Hoover's long refusal to acknowledge the reality of La Cosa Nostra. But Hoover was ignoring evidence that had been accumulating for years. Generation X emerged as a fully developed concept in 1991 with the publication of Douglas Coupland's novel about bored, alienated young people trapped in low-wage jobs.
The theme was quickly picked up by the media, and repeated so often that it's now widely accepted as a major trend of the 1990s. But every decade since World War II has been down this road. When "Rebel Without a Cause" was released in 1955, Americans worried about an outbreak of juvenile delinquency. In fact, most kids were law abiding, and nothing I have seen or read convinces me that an entire segment of the current population is Gen-X material.
In much the same way, talk shows and political commentators created the notion of upscale "soccer moms" during the last presidential campaign. And while I accept the fact that some women do have positive opinions about Land Rovers and the Clinton administration, they never showed up en masse at my local soccer league. Frankly, I can't imagine why anybody on the sidelines would even mention the president, unless he was supposed to bring the post-game snacks.
Once these labels become fashionable, they penetrate into our culture like pesky termites. So here is a warning: If you see a total stranger drive by and think, "Ah, there goes one of those annoying soccer moms," you're only a short kick away from genuinely ugly stereotypes such as dumb broad, lazy Mexican, or drunken Irishman. Isn't this exactly the kind of hostile, narrow-minded attitude America's been trying to stamp out for at least 100 years?
It would be nice if the world was orderly, predictable, and every controversial issue could be explained in a TV news package. Simplicity is reassuring. Finding culprits to blame for our anxiety helps shield us from the fact that life is complicated and full of surprises.
So I will remain skeptical of pundits who encourage thinking about Americans as groups rather than individuals. Every person is unique. Passing judgment on someone before you've even said hello is a huge mistake. A more useful strategy is to make new friends as often as possible. Direct conversation is a great way to learn about other people. Sometimes you may even learn new things about yourself.
Jeffrey Shaffer, a Portland, Ore. writer, is author of "It Came with the House" (Catbird Press, 1997).