Monday, June 17, 2013

The Lazy Stereotypist's Guide to the Generations

I am, apparently, a member of what they call "Generation X." We are loosely defined as those born between the years 1965 and 1979.

And I guess that sounds about right. I was born in the early part of that range (1969), but I identify fairly closely with that whole spectrum of people, who right now are anywhere from 33 to 48 years old.

Still, these generational designations are, almost by definition, somewhat arbitrary and the stuff from which lazy newspaper feature stories are made. Let's just put everyone into a box by birth year and then generalize everything we can about them.

They're also the stuff from which lazy blog posts are made, so if you would be so kind, I'll take several hundred words to try and separate fact from fiction when it comes to the generations:

The G.I. Generation (1900-24)

What everything thinks: They've been called the Greatest Generation because they fought a horrendous world war and (mostly) lived to tell about it. They've also been called old and cranky,  but then again, every generation gets called old and cranky at some point.

The reality: These are, by my estimation, good people. At least the ones who are still around. The oldest of them have passed on and the others likely aren't that far behind, sad to say. They look at the world around them now and shake their heads with simultaneous wonderment and, I would guess, a tinge of sadness. They deserve anything except me making fun of them, so let's move on...

The Silent Generation (1925-45)

What everyone thinks: Somewhere in here is a joke around the idea of these people being called the Silent Generation because more and more of them are, in fact, dead. But I'm better than that, so I won't go there. The term "Silent Generation" was actually coined in the early 50s, and one author referred to this group as "withdrawn, cautious, unimaginative, indifferent, unadventurous and silent." Yikes. Stereotype much?

The reality: I like this generation. A lot. They don't get the press the Baby Boomers or the G.I. Generation get, but by and large they've done OK for themselves. They're a lot better planners and savers than my generation, and they managed to navigate through some pretty turbulent times in history. Some also argue they broke the social contract and didn't leave things better than the way they found them, but that's probably just a lot of whining on the part of my fellow 40-somethings.

The Baby Boomers (1946-64)

What everyone thinks: The popular notion is that Baby Boomers are spoiled, entitled, self-absorbed hippies who took advantage of post-war prosperity to live a relatively pampered and unimaginative existence.

The reality: The popular notion is pretty much spot on.

OK, the real reality: Just kidding. All three of my siblings fall into this generation, which admittedly is really into talking about itself ad nauseum. As if they were the first people ever to graduate college, get married, have kids, grow old, etc.

That last point is key, by the way. Reporters like to point out when the oldest among this generation reach important life milestones. In just a few years, for example, the top-range Baby Boomers will turn 70.

But I generally cut the Boomers a lot of slack. Had I been born, say, 20 years earlier, I'm not sure how I would have reacted to American life. They were raised by a generation that fought a war and endured a lot, which led many of them to criticize their Boomer kids' seeming lack of initiative and appreciation for life.

But when you grow up during a time of postwar prosperity, how exactly are you supposed to act? What are you supposed to say or do? Do you need to be constantly grateful and deferential to those who put you into your privileged position? That would drive me crazy. So as far as I'm concerned, drone on, Boomers. You've earned it.

Generation X (1965-79)

What everyone thinks: At one point I think they called us "slackers." Or was that the generation after us? I can't keep track of it. But I do know we've been criticized as being kind of dull and unmotivated. We're all either well into our 40s or fast approaching them, so I think we're just as self-absorbed as the Baby Boomers thinking about that. Our hair is falling out and our eyesight is starting to go. We can't be wasting precious time fixing the budget deficit or addressing the national health care crisis when we have stuff like that going on!

The reality: My neighbor Tim posted a link on Facebook to an article about the fact that Generation Xers have done a poor job of planning and saving for retirement. We have massive amounts of debt. We're not especially well positioned for the second halves of our lives.

But I will say this: We've also largely powered the technological revolution, and many of us are are leading the charge to bring much-needed attention to the root causes of the world's most pressing problems, which is more than you can say for many of the people who came before us. We may die poor and unhealthy, but darn it, we'll feel good about ourselves!

The Millennials (aka Generation Y) (1980-2000)

What everyone thinks: These young'uns started out with the name "Generation Y," but that was painfully derivative, so they came up with the term I like better: "Millenials." The idea being that they were kids when we entered this new millennium, and their outlook on life was shaped by Y2K, 9/11 and such.

Anyway, to get an idea of what we oldsters generally think about the Millenials, allow me to quote two paragraphs from an article I found on

Maybe you already know all the Generation Y stereotypes. In case you don’t, let us clue you in on what people are saying about you: You’re entitled. You’re narcissistic. You have a tendency to job hop. You have no work ethic. You need constant affirmations of your overinflated self-esteem. And you’re afraid to abandon the sanctuary provided by your helicopter parents.
Or consider how the media has proclaimed your supposed inadequacies in headlines like “Generation Y Bother” and “Millennials: The New Office Moron,” or books such as Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.

Here's what I guess I'll say about that, being the parent of four Millenials myself (my youngest, Jack, was born in 2006 and therefore falls into what is tentatively being called "Generation Z" or even "The New Silent Generation," which I think is funny when you consider that the oldest of this generation is still in middle school. It may be a tad early to start generalizing about them.)

Anyway, here's what I'll say about the Millenials: Yeah, the whole helicopter parenting thing definitely had its negative consequences. And many of them do appear to be majoring in Slacker Studies.

But I love the way this young generation thinks. I love the way that, as a group, they're willing to step away from business as usual and reexamine the reasons and the ways business is conducted. They question everything, which is good, because a lot of us who are older simply don't think to do that (many do, of course....I'm just engaging in some huge generalization here).

I don't love some of the things they embrace, but that's OK because that's my job as a dad. I'm required by law to see something in society I don't like and harp on it forever.

I may be biased because I'm a parent of a small slice of the Milennial generation, but I think they offer up hope for the future. Assuming we can get them to look up from their iPods and tablet computers every once in awhile. Otherwise they're all going to wander out into traffic and get killed, and then we'll really be in trouble.


  1. As a Millennial myself, I think that your description is spot-on. Social media has definitely played a big part in our generation too, and I think it has its negative consequences. Kids compare themselves too much, it's all about bragging rights and letting people know how many friends they have and where they are and what they are doing. Hardly ever is it about what they are doing to make our world better. We are definitely self-obsessed and perhaps a little too self-aware.

    On the other hand, there are millennials such as myself who work hard to tune a lot of that out. In the end, my generation is probably one of the most cosmopolitan and accepting generations ever, and we have the internet to thank because of that. Even the difference in how kids treat each other at my sister's high school compared to how kids were when I was there six years ago is amazing. I think our generation will end up surprising many (hopefully in a good way).

  2. Leslie: Great analysis, and I fully agree. Lead the way!