A recent article in USA Today has popularized the concept of a “Generation Jones” born between 1954 and 1965. The idea is that there is a generation between The Boomers (born 1943-1960) and Generation X (born 1961-1981) that has traits of both but does not really feel it belongs to either. Although the concept is gaining in popularity as many people born during the Jones timeframe feel it resonates with them, I wonder if the concept really has much value.
The dates I mention on this blog for the timing of generations is drawn from the work of Neil Howe and William Strauss, who are well known for their work on generations. Their landmark book “The Fourth Turning” gives clear definitions of the cycle of generations and how they have evolved in the US over the last 500 years (going back to England). The value of their research is partially in understanding our personal roots (“Oh, now I understand why my Boomer friend acts like that…”) but more importantly in understanding the direction of our society overall. My question about Generation Jones (and other divisions) is whether it helps in that effort or just confuses.
Here is a chart showing the roll of generations since 1900 (click on it for a bigger version):
According to Howe and Strauss, the marks between each generation are very clear and are based on their surveys of people born in these years. Each generation has a specific character, and these are shown on the chart by the various colors (the “archetype” for each of these generations is shown in the legend on the right). The concept is that, for the most part, each generation is about 20 years (give or take) and they follow each other in a specific pattern (Hero, Artist, Prophet, Nomad and so on). This pattern has (mostly) held true for the last 500 years of history, although some of the timeframes vary by a few years. If you accept this theory, at least in part, it allows you to extrapolate into the future based on the ages and attitudes of the generations that will be alive. I go into this concept further in my two presentations on turnings and generations (Part 1 and Part 2).
But it does seem fairly unlikely that EVERYONE born in 1961 would have an “X” attitude when compared with EVERYONE born in 1960, who would have a “Boomer” attitude. But I don’t think that is the point. Let’s look at an analogy.
In 1984 Ronald Reagan won a landslide victory in the race for the Presidency against Walter Mondale. Mondale got only 13 Electoral votes vs. 525 for Reagan, in what, I believe was the most lopsided victory in US History. But what was the Popular vote? The result was around 59% to 41%. Again a strong majority, but it does mean that over 37 Million people wanted Mondale to be president. Without going into how silly our electoral system is, I think there is a parallel to how we perceive the change in generations.
Let’s look at that chart again, but this time with Generation Jones put on top to show the span of years.
It falls fairly neatly in the span between Boomer and X’ers on Howe and Strauss’ system. There are probably many people in this period that feel like they favor either Boomer or X’er attitudes, or perhaps feel like they combine both. But the important thing is that a balance point is reached where over 50% of people would favor the attitude of one generation or the other. Just like in the 1984 elections, when grouped together this slight shift in the balance can have large effects on our overall society.
Perhaps the more accurate chart should look something like this:
With a gradual shift from one generation to the next, but a “tipping point” that results in a large perceived shift in generational attitude. This would explain the “Generation Jones” effect (along with other theories that break the generations down even further), as the period of transition lines up with that proposed generation:
I am a Gen-X’er (born 1966), and I fit the generational stereotype in that I am very pragmatic. The value I see in this generational research is in understanding where, as a society, we are going based on where we have been. Breaking down the system into smaller parts may make many feel they can identify with the roles more clearly, but I am not sure if it helps our predictive ability. So its not that I doubt that many people born between 1954 and 1965 feel they are caught between generations, its just that I am not sure that clarifies where our country is going in the future.