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Thoughts on the generational differences in the U.S.


When I first heard of the designation of Gen X for the generation following my fellow Baby Boomers, I thought it was really dumb—just one more trendy catchphrase in our soundbite world attempting to label people unnecessarily.

After all, how can you stereotype a whole generation? None of us like to be pigeonholed as a “type”, wiping out our unique humanness with an offhand comment: “Oh, that’s because you’re a…(fill in the blank: woman, black, Scorpio, Southerner, vegetarian, etc.) We’re more complicated than that.

I never felt offended being called a Baby Boomer, because I thought of our generation as just the bulge in the demographics, like the rabbit going through the snake’s belly, beginning with the explosion of births after WWII and ending with the advent of the birth control pill.

I wondered if this labeling was more harmful than useful and was curious about how these generation spans were determined and named. I decided to research and also to explore it from the inside out, asking people of different ages if they thought the descriptions of their generation were true and if they themselves fit the mold or not. Since I’m not Pew Research, I had a very limited pool of interviewees in a very limited amount of time.

But first some background. Pew Research and others have been collecting information for many decades. The “edges” of the generations, which are necessary to do generational analysis, are determined by demographics, attitudes, historical events, popular culture, and prevailing consensus among researchers.

Opinions vary about the precise years and characteristics of generations. The Pew Research Center regards them as guidelines, not absolute distinctions, providing a lens through which to understand societal change, rather than a label used to oversimplify differences between groups.

The naming of the generations is sometimes instigated by an individual and other times bubbles up from a cultural boiling pot, when multiple names may arise until one perseveres. Generation Z, the youngest generation to have come of age, was first called by several names: “iGen” (because they were the first to have smartphones since birth), “post-millennials,” “centennials” and “Homelanders,” but “Generation Z” has been adopted by Miriam Webster, Oxford, and Urban dictionaries, so it looks like the name is going to stick.

Following are the designated age groups:

The Lost Gener-ation, 1883-1900. They fought WWI, and “lost” refers to the 40 million people who died as well as an aimless confusion that beset survivors. Gertrude Stein coined the term and Ernest Hemingway popularized it in The Sun Also Rises.

The Greatest Gener-ation, 1901-1927, now 92-118 years old. They fought, worked in factories, and won World War II. The term was coined by Tom Brokaw in his book by the same name.

 The Silent Gener-ation, 1928-1945, 74 to 91. Children of the Great Depression and World War II, their “Silent” label refers to their image as conformist and civic-minded.

Baby Boomers, 1946 to 1964, 55 to 73. Named for the profusion of babies after WWII; aka “the me generation.”

Generation X: 1965 through 1980, 39 to 54. Originally called the Baby Bust, with lower birth rates than Boomers (and Millennials), the name came from a 1965 book called Generation X as well as Douglas Coupland’s 1991 book called Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.

Millennials, 1981-1997, 22 to 38. So named because they came of age at the millennium. Originally called Generation Y, aka “the me, me, me generation” and referred to as the “echo boom,” as they are largely children of Boomers.

Generation Z, 1998-2010, 9 to 21. Lazy labeling takes over the more creative names mentioned above.

Generational differences are nothing new. Cave men and women probably looked at their children playing with fire and said, “That’s not the way we did it. What is this younger generation coming to?”

There are complex and interwoven factors associated with those differences. Researchers look at three separate effects that can produce attitudinal differences between age groups: life cycle or age effects, period effects, and cohort effects. The life cycle or age effect means differences between younger and older people is largely due to their position in the life cycle. For example, young people are less likely to vote and engage in politics. Boomers were the same way when they were young, but today are among the most likely to vote and get involved.

The second process is a period effect, when events and circumstances (like wars, economic booms or busts, scientific or technological breakthroughs) or broader social forces, such as increasing visibility of gays and lesbians in society, impact everyone, regardless of age, and generally have lasting effects.

The third is a cohort effect. “Cohort” can mean a group of companions or warriors, but in this context means an age group. When members of a cohort experience a unique historical experience, like the Vietnam War, it can shape their world view, values, and personal identities.

If it occurs during the formative years of adolescence and young adulthood, it can have a more powerful impact. The whole population was affected in varying degrees by the Vietnam War, but the Baby Boomers bore the brunt. Young men were being drafted into a war they didn’t believe in, and the young women lost brothers, friends, sweethearts, and potential mates to death as well as to the long-term emotional and mental aftereffects so many Vietnam vets carried with them. In earlier history, the Great Depression and its aftermath helped shape a cohort of Americans who were strong Democrats for long after.

As I talked with people, one Millennial said, “Don’t be too hard on us,” because his cohort has caught a lot of flak. A 2013 Time magazine article started off calling Millennials narcissistic, fame-obsessed, over-confident, and lazy.

Psychology professor Roy Baumeister says that parents wanted to give their kids high self-esteem, but the result was narcissism, and that it was an honest mistake. He predicted that inflated levels of confidence set up unreal expectations, which can lead to ongoing disappointment in the way the world regards them and rewards them, especially in their work lives. But the article ends by recognizing Millennials as “earnest and optimistic, pragmatic idealists, tinkerers more than dreamers, and life hackers.”

Tom Brokaw, champion of the Greatest Generation, loves Millennials. He calls them the Wary Generation, and he thinks their cautiousness in life decisions is a smart response to their world. “Their great mantra has been: Challenge convention. Find new and better ways of doing things. And so that ethos transcends the wonky people who are inventing new apps and embraces the whole economy.”

I have lots more to muse about but no more room, so watch for Part II on the generations’ gaps.


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