What Generation is Obama?

Obama was born in 1961, but what generation does he belong to? And why does it matter?

Barack Obama was born on August 4, 1961. It seems pretty simple to use this date to determine what generation he belongs to, but generational boundaries are always contested. Some say he is a Baby Boomer, others say a Generation X’er, and still others have made up additional generations to assign him to.
So who is the final authority on the generational boundaries? The short answer is that there isn’t one, and that because generations are nothing more than a theory there probably never will be. Generations serve different purposes for different people. Some use them for understanding the cycles of history, others to understand marketing or political trends and still others for self-identification. Most theories ascribe some sort of characteristics to each generation that can be discerned both in the group and in individuals. Some may think that this is nothing more than stereotyping, but people born at certain times, growing up under certain conditions will have some similar attributes. For example, kids growing up during the high times after WWII were told to have high ideals and go out and change the world. And the Baby Boom generation (born 1943-1960) did just that, much to the chagrin of their parents. The kids growing up during the turbulent 60’s and 70’s had a very different experience during a time when kids were largely ignored. Generation X (born 1961-1981) took that message of alienation in their youth and applied it during their “slacker” young adulthood.
As you can see from above, I am already applying some specific dates for the generational boundaries. These dates are drawn from the work of Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of “Generations” and many other books on the topic of generational research. Howe and Strauss use their extensive historical research to determine the generational boundaries based on cycles over the last 500 years. Although their research is considered the gold-standard of generational theory, there are other opinions about the generational boundaries.
Demographers often place the end of the “Baby Boom” in 1964, when the birth rate dropped down below it’s historic highs. Although this might seem a convenient boundary for the generation, much of generational theory has to do with attitudes and social norms rather than birthrate. The shifts that happen are often imperceptible at the time, but over the years it becomes clearer where boundaries lie. Using straight demographics does not aid in understanding the changes in cultural attitudes.
Another theory put forth recently is that there is a “in-between” generation, named “Generation Jones” (by political pundit Jonathan Pontell) that covers the switch from Boomers to X’ers (1954-1965). There is little research behind this theory, but it is popular in the media right now. Although it certainly makes sense to segment portions of a generation for specific characteristics (useful in targeted marketing) calling them a new “generation” is misleading. Since generational characters change in cycles, we should be able to identify “generations” similar in character to Generation Jones in earlier cycles. So far, there is no evidence that this is the case. Although Generation Jones may be popular in some circles, it has yet to prove it’s value as a social theory.
This brings up a question of why the generation of our leaders is of consequence (I have written a bit about this in the past). Much of the time this is not terribly important, but during a crisis as we are facing right now, it is a critical question to answer. The character of the Baby Boomers and Generation X are very different and our top leadership reflects this contrast. Baby Boomers, as a generation, tend to be righteous in their beliefs and will push society to move towards specific (often unbending) ideals. Generation X is much more flexible when it comes to ideals, and prefers to focus on achievable goals. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were both Boomers presidents that expressed polar views of their generation. They both marched steadily towards their specific ideals, often losing focus on the practical repercussions of their decisions.
Obama, as a Generation X’er, does not seem to have the same righteousness of our previous two presidents. Although he is certainly has a direction for the country, it seems to be based much more on pragmatic goals (both short and long-term) rather than an ideal state that we should try to achieve. He is willing to compromise ideals to try to attain practical ends. I think he was surprised that he could not get bipartisan support for the recent stimulus plan from the Boomer dominated legislature. That battle was a good example of the contrast between the survivalist attitude of Gen X (Obama) and the idealistic attitude of the legislature (Boomer). In many cases the Boomers are willing to sink the ship rather than compromise their ideals.
Many of the Millennial Generation (born 1982-200?) were big supporters of Obama because he represented shift away from the old battles of the previous two administrations. They have even gone so far as calling themselves “Generation Obama” which refers to the age of his supporters not of the President himself. That the Millennials have so quickly tired of the Boomers’ ideology is surprising in some ways because they were raised by Boomers. But perhaps that is part of their own youthful rebellion against their parents. The optimism and positivity of the Millennial generation is not something you find in their pessimistic Boomer parents. And the practical optimism of Obama seems to really appeal to the younger generation today. Although Obama and other Gen X leaders won’t say we are going to make a perfect world, they do exude confidence in our ability to make positive change. It’s more pragmatic, but also much more achievable.

20 thoughts on “What Generation is Obama?”

  1. I really hate the way president obama is being called a generation xer, yea he was born in 1961, so maybe scientificaly he is, but culturally he is not. Like Strauss and Howe talk about in thier book generations, about turnings throughout the generations, there is a huge culture diffrence between those who graduated high school before Reagan, and those who graduated after Reagan. The late 70’s were a turning poibnt in culture, the passing of the culture reins from the baby boomers to the yuppies, or generation jones as they seem to prefer. People who graduated high school in the 70’s as Obama did, seem to have more in common with generation jones, who are just actually late baby boomers, same feelings and ideaology. Im just afraid once again, like it has always been our generation is going to be misunderstood, because of the confusing actions and ideaology of Obama.

    1. The boomers became the yuppies, they turned from peace, love and understanding – to get the hell out of my way, I have to make piles of cash screwing over other people. Gen Jones just got the shaft.

  2. I definitely relate to this article 100%. I was born in 1994 which most people consider to be Gen Y (Millennials) or the very beginning of Gen Z (Digitial Generation), and I can say from my experiences of being raised by Baby Boomer parents that while I do love them I have grown very tired of some of their political and social ideologies (Race, Gay rights, Economic policies etc). Wether or not you agree with Obama’s decisions as president, one thing is certain and that is that he is the first President in U.S History to encapsulate the shifting of attitudes in all generations born after the baby boomers.

    1. the birth years of generation z didn’t begin in 1994. it seems some in advertising and marketing are trying to make this the case, but if generation z is being born this early it is a part of the millennial generation, not the following generation. the newest generation began in the early 2000s.

  3. Obama’s absent father and a well traveled upbringing makes him a Gen X’er in my view. He also is politically very in the centre as he has introduced universal health care (left), kept Gitmo open (right) and kept the US out of action in Syria (centric).

  4. Obama is a latter day boomer. His early history and influences are so sketchy and confusing (including his college history) that is a wonder the Chicago political machine and banksters put him at the helm so they could maintain control. Further, his astrology imprint shows radical inclinations with his moon/uranus conjunct his north node. He is trained in neural linguistics (NLP) and he uses that skill to dissemble his communications and persona.

    1. Now…this is just a weird view. There is nothing sketchy about his college history or his persona. He is simply an intelligent progressive individual with a heart for the people. It’s simple…not a mystery. He will go down in history as being the best President we’ve ever had. Accept it or not.

  5. Why the assumption that the Millenials were raised by Boomers? All but the very youngest of them were more likely born to GenX. The ‘slacker’ label was given to a generation (X) that rebelled away from their parent’s materialist values. We hated sell-outs because that’s how we saw the ‘peace and love’ generation before us. They sold out their hippy values for a BMW, and we became cynical because we grew up in that hypocrisy.

    It’s our kids who grew up in an age dominated by corporatism and constant connectedness, but told by their parents that it was OK to reject all that. They also see close up and honestly that their parents screw up and aren’t perfect people, and that we’re on with that. They’re making their own way, and we’re proud of them. It’s the nearly aged out Boomers who don’t get them.

  6. William Strauss and Neil Howe are hardly the gold standard of generations. I was born in 1981 and they consider me as the last of Gen X and I resent that. I came of age during a technological revolution just like my peers born in 1982. I reached the alcohol drinking age, graduated college and started most of my adult life in the 21st Century. I had computers in my school as far back as Kindergarten and grew up using them in my home as my dad had one. I remember first hooking up to the early internet in middle school and most people knew all about the quickly emerging internet by the time I was entering high school. I was still in high school when President Clinton made his last campaign about entering the 21st Century and I graduated high school at the very tail end of the 20th century which by that time had become all about 21st Century.

    1. I agree that many people do not feel they are part of the generation that they are assigned to (either by Strauss and Howe or other generational theorists). I have a post on this topic which describes why the generational boundaries are not clear cut when it comes to individuals: http://www.thegenxfiles.com/2009/02/10/does-generation-jones-exist/. Neil Howe doesn’t really agree with my conclusion that the generational boundaries are more about a majority of the population rather than every individual, but I think it does explain how you feel. I know folks that were born in 1983 that don’t think they fit the Millennial mold at all, just like you don’t feel you are part of Gen X. But my argument is that the overall generational shift has to do with the sentiments and attitudes of more than 50% of the population, and that means that many individuals will feel differently.

  7. I was born in 1979, and on the cusp of Millennials. Understand traits of Millennials. But to Dave and Neil I’m GenX. Cusp could be an advantage. But if it’s final 1979 is X than I’ll have a GenX fate. Agree ?

  8. Obama is an X-er. I’m a year younger and I don’t have anything in common culturally with Boomers. I came of age in era of diminished expectations, SNL and Start Wars. I don’t remember Woodstock, the assassinations or JFK, RFK, or MLK. Vietnam was a vague memory of something that happened on the news when I was really young.

  9. Thank you for a chance to vent of the whole concept of “generations.” In the real world you can’t pigeon hole people into a one size fits all mold, as much as some social scientists would like to do. Societies are far too complex to do that. The previous contributor illustrated as much. In its original meaning, “baby boomer” meant nothing more than someone born in a era of high, “booming”, birth rates (1946 – 1964). In as such, even though Barack Obama may have “characteristics” more “like””generation X “, he is most decidedly a baby boomer, and that’s okay.

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