A Tale of Two Generation X’ers

Last week I attended my brother Aram’s 40th birthday party. It was a fun event and it made me think about the different paths that my brother and I, both Gen X’ers, have taken in life.

I was born in 1966 and Aram was born in 1969 (Generation X is defined as those born between 1961-1981). In many ways we are good examples two different Generation X life paths.

I have always been very successful in my career. I have moved comfortably between jobs and industries, starting out in massage, moving to street performing (juggling), then to winemaking (I have a Bachelor’s in Fermentation Science) then to brewing, eventually to teaching brewing and more recently into software. Even in the software field, which I transitioned to in 1998, I moved from place to place and job to job. I started in Web Development (including a stint at Microsoft) before becoming a manager of developers. Then I shifted over into Sales Engineering, which I really excelled at, both at PeopleSoft and then Guidewire. Most recently I made a change into Product Marketing.

Although I have had the support of a large network of friends and professionals that have helped me in my career, I built most of that network myself. As a successful Gen X’er I knew that I could depend on trusted individuals, but there was no institution or community that was going to help me find my way.

My brother Aram struggled for many years to find career path. He has worked many different jobs but until recently he could not seem to find something he enjoyed that also paid the rent. Aram is extremely gregarious, likable and smart, but he just was not able to line up his goals and desires with his life as it was. And, like most Gen X’ers, there was no institution or community that could lend him a hand.

In many ways we were following the same path, but with different levels of ease and success. Aram was, like me, a massage therapist for a time. Aram also was a juggler/street performer (we did shows together when we were younger). Aram also had a stint as Web Developer during the dot.com boom (he didn’t enjoy the work). But it always seemed like Aram was floating, just trying to find his way, while I always had a sense of purpose and direction. I think this is an important contrast that you see in our generation quite a bit. Those that are comfortable with the fact we are on our own to figure it out, and those who are not. Aram has shared with me that he knew from early on the career path he wanted, he just took a long time to figure out how to get there.

In January when I was laid off from my work at Guidewire, the tables suddenly turned. Aram is in a stable job that he enjoys and takes advantage of both his education (he is an MFCC) and his interpersonal skills. I, on the other hand, am out of a job in the worst economic times since the Great Depression. As the sole support for my wife and two kids, it is a big change for me and my family. And, for the first time, Aram was able to offer me a helping hand, which was greatly appreciated.

At Aram’s birthday party I had the pleasure of meeting many of his friends for the first time. Aram has built a community around him which includes people from his family, work, school and pastimes (he is an accomplished Salsa Dancer). Although there still are not any institutions stepping up to help him Aram made the decision to build his own community and support network.  I think Aram would credit this community of friends and family with helping him find his way through his various challenges.

I see this as a defining part of our generation in midlife: the longing for community. Raised to be individuals who made our own way in the world, some of us have struggled and others have succeeded. But all of us have, in one way or another, felt quite alone in our efforts. When I was first laid off I immediately thought of what I would need to do to get by, how long the money would last and what my options were for jobs or business opportunities. I DID NOT think of who I could turn to for help (other than my professional network for a job search) or what institutions could help me get by until I was back on my feet. Being on my own is wired into me and it is a tough habit to break. But I am coming to realize that this difficult time is an opportunity to build community and that is something I long for just as much as my brother.

Aram has been successful at building community in his world, while I have struggled with it in mine. I am extremely well connected professionally, having built up a network of individuals who are confident in my abilities. I also have many friends through the schools that our kids have attended, both in Portland, OR and now in Sacramento, CA. And of course I have my family who still looks out for me. But I have never had a sense of a community that I can depend on when times are tough. A big part of that is my expectation that I would have to make it on my own and should not depend on a group to see me through. Perhaps it is time for that myth to end.

I think the contrast between my brother and me is not particularly unique in our generation. And I also think that there are many Gen X’ers out there longing for community. Some will have figured out how to cobble one together for themselves (like my brother) while others will figure out how to get by without it (like me). The really unfortunate souls are the ones who can’t make it on their own and also can’t find community. But all of them will long for it, and I think that creating community is the redemption that awaits our generation of alienated individuals.

10 Best Generation X Movies Ever

Pop culture often defines a generation. In recent times movies have been a big part of that definition. The Graduate was a movie that defined the character of the Baby Boomer Generation (born 1943-1960). But what are the movies that define Generation X (born 1961-1981)?

Lest you think that this is just a list of my favorite movies from the 80’s and 90’s, I want to assure you that there is a scientific basis to this list. I did exhaustive research on the character of our generation, starting by reading many books on the subject (see Start Here for some examples). I then consulted the US Census Bureau for an analysis of family makeup during the 80’s and 90’s. I then moved on to cross-referencing that data with the top grossing films of that period. I added in statistics from several other proprietary sources (if I told you what they were, they would not be proprietary) and created a massive database of both the cultural values of the time and how these were represented in every major movie produced. It is kinda like the music genome project for Gen X movies. It was hard work.
After months of data gathering I finally started computing the results. I used complex ANOVA (Analysis of Variance) algorithms to make sure that everything was statistically significant. Finally, I ended up with a list of the best Generation X movies ever and I am now ready to share that list with you!

Okay, that’s a bunch of crap. I just picked my favorites and that is what you see below. 🙂

If you don’t agree, put your suggestions in the comments.

  1. Breakfast Club – John Hughes (boomer) at his best. All the characters are here. The slacker/stoner, good girl, etc… but each is an individual and all are uncomfortable with being part of anything.
  2. Slacker -Austin was the origin of the “Keep … Weird” bumper sticker, and this movie shows just why that is the case. With so many movies about X focusing on the left and right coasts, this one is a weird and wonderful take on our generations young adulthood.
  3. Dazed and Confused – If you were a teenager in the 1970’s this one will be almost too painful to watch. The keggers, stoners, jocks and even the bicentennial are all here. Richard Linklater (Boomer) directed this one (he did Slacker as well). Heck, he did “School of Rock” which also represents some great intergenerational ideas (Gen X rebel meets Millennial conformists)
  4. Singles – This list would be nothing without a film from Cameron Crowe (another Boomer who gets Gen X). Life as a 20 something Gen X’er in the center of it all: Seattle during the Grunge movement. I never much liked Curt Kobain, but everyone else seemed to. Eddie Vedderf Pearl Jam has a role as one of the band members of “Citizen Dick”.
  5. Risky Business – Paul Brickman (Boomer) directs this breakout vehicle for Tom Cruise and defines the “Get what you can, whatever it takes” character of Generation X. This movie helped reinforce the image of Generation X as slick marketers with absent parents.
  6. Reality Bites – Ben Stiller (A Gen X’er) directed a great slice of the challenging young adulthood faced by our generation. The story weaves failed dreams, selling out and making a life on your own.
  7. Wayne’s World – Before there was Youtube there was local-access cable. Although it would be easy to pass this one off as just silly comedy, the characters are definitely the sort of successful slackers that Gen X loves.
  8. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – Okay, I realize this is the second John Hughes film on the list, but the guy really gets Generation X. I wished I could be Ferris and I am not even sure why! He just seemed to make things great wherever he went.
  9. Fight Club – the book was written by an X’er (Chuck Palahniuk) and it definitely has the feel of the nihilistic world that is unraveling. The closest thing these guys get to community is kicking the crap out of each other.
  10. Heathers – Mean spirited, tough, independent. The in crowd was small in my day, and Heathers spoke to that very well. Christian Slater was unforgettable with his Jack Nicholson impressions in this one.
  11. Clerks – Ultra-slacker film by the ultra-slacker bunch. I think this one represents X’ers well because of the way it was made. They put the production costs on a credit card and filmed it all with a few buddies. No big studios to help and a “fuck it, who cares” attitude. If that is not Gen X in action, I don’t know what is!

Yeah, I know, that’s more than ten. Well, this list goes to 11.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Put your angst, rants and raves in the comments below. If you are not Generation X (born 1961-1981) you can still voice an opinion (but it doesn’t mean I will listen) 🙂

Generations Explained: Understand Generational Cycles in just 10 Minutes

If you are struggling to understand the effects of generations on our society, this basic primer will give you a grounding for further research. Delivered in a fast-paced 10 minute video that explains each of the living generations and where they are headed

You have heard of Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and perhaps even the Silent and GI Generations. But do you know how they are fundamentally different from each other? Each holds specific values, particularly around what they believe is an ideal society. This 10 minute video is a basic primer on the current living generations and how to understand their cycles.

The Millennial Generation’s Rebellion

The Millennial generation is rebelling from it’s parents and society, just like every generation before. But the form this rebellion takes is unique and has not been seen in over 85 years. Learn how the cycle of generations predicts what will come next in our society

In this webinar posted on Slideshare, I discuss how the Millennial generation is rejecting and rebelling against the values and ideals of it’s elders. This will shape our society in surprising ways in the next 15 years. Watch the slideshow with audio below to learn more:

Legislative Generations

The generational makeup of our legislature is shifting, and it will definitely affect our future as we move further into the crisis.

Our leadership is constantly changing, not just in their political party, but also in the generation they represent. If you look at this chart from the Strauss and Howe website, Lifecourse.com, you can see the shift in the generations over the last 100 years:

Source: Lifecourse.com

This covers only up until 2005 (you can also download a spreadsheet with their source data – very cool!) so I captured the information for 2007 and 2009 from the Congressional Biographical Directory and created a couple charts showing the recent trends.

The first is the number of congressmen (including both house and senate) from each generation in the last three congresses:
You can see that the Boomer (born 1943-1960) numbers hold quite steady (there are more in 2007 than in 2009) and the GI generation (born 1901-1924) is almost non-existent (there are just two or three in congress, so they don’t really show up on the chart). The shift that is beginning to happen is that the Silent (born 1925-1942) are giving up ground to Generation X (born 1961-1981). The chart below isolates these two generations:
Generation X now equals the Silent Generation in Congress, up from around only 35% just four years ago. The shift from Boomer to Generation X will likely take many more years.
The significance of this shift is important. The Silent generational leaders are very knowledgeable, but are not known for decisive action. Generation X, on the other hand, is very practical and won’t get caught in “analysis paralysis”. Gen X leaders often go with their gut and are willing to try things out and evaluate as they go along. This will probably make for faster decisions in congress, but might also mean that those decisions are not as well thought out. You may also notice that there are not any Millennial generation (born 1982~2005) leaders in the Legislature yet, but I expect there will be several in the next congress.

Millennial Indie Film: Pope Dreams

Last night I watched an Indie Film called “Pope Dreams” and I felt the generational themes were strong enough to mention here. It is a coming of age film about a Millennial (born 1982-2005) who is caught between the expectations of his parents and his own desire to do something good, and important, in the world. His parents are probably Boomers (according to their stated ages). There are many aspects of the film that fit with generational archetypes (or perhaps stereotypes). For example, there is a clear differentiation between the “Haves” and “Have Nots” in the relationship between the protagonist, Andy, and Brady, the “Abercrombie” girl he has a crush on. The sense of duty that Andy feels towards his friends and parents is also a typical Millennial character. Andy is pressured, sheltered, team-oriented, conventional and feels he is special and should achieve something in life.

The acting in the film is very good, Phillip Vaden in particular, and it is well composed overall. In many ways this film feels like it captures the spirit of this new Hero generation as the John Hughes films caught the spirit of the Gen X generation that came before them. The fact that it stars Millennial-aged actors ads to its authenticity. Put it on your Netflix list and let me know what you think.

Presidents’ Generations

There has been a lot of talk about Obama’s generation lately. Many demographers would say he is a Boomer (the strict definition of the Baby Boom goes through 1964) others (myself included) say he is a Gen X’er (based on the definitions of Strauss and Howe). Others categorize him as part of a newly discovered generation, Generation Jones. For me the interesting thing is not the name of the generation he fits into, but the character of that generation when compared with the past.
One of the main features of the generational theory put forth by authors William Strauss and Neil Howe is that there are repeating “archetypes” or characters of generations throughout American history. There are four archetypes they identify: Artist, Prophet, Nomad and Hero. Each carries its own signature style and has specific attributes depending on what age bracket they are in at the time. I have two webinars (part 1 and part 2) that can be useful for an understanding of the generational cycles if you want to know more about them.
The other important feature of their theory is that there are “turnings” or cycles in history where certain events are likely to occur. These are the High, Awakening, Unraveling and Crisis. We are currently in the Crisis phase according to their theory, having recently moved out of the Unraveling. Again, if you want to get an overview of these turnings refer to my “start here” page or the Lifecourse site that Howe and Strauss put together.
Thinking about the archetypes and turnings in US history, I created a spreadsheet that contains the generational archetypes of each of the US presidents. It also has the turning during which they started their presidency. And finally, it contains the “ratings” of each president based on expert ratings (found on Wikipedia ).
I have posted the spreadsheet for your viewing pleasure. You will need to sign into Google to use the sort functions on the spreadsheet (please don’t change any of the values for now). Go to the “Presidential Archetypes” page. As with all my diagrams, the archetypes are color coded with the following colors:

  • Orange = Artist
  • Blue = Prophet
  • Green = Nomad
  • Yellow = Hero

The Red color in the ratings section refers to the bottom quartile of ratings, while the Green refers to the top quartile.
Playing around by sorting the results generates some insights. The top three presidents according to most of the surveys came from Crisis eras (Washington, FDR and Lincoln). By contrast, the Unraveling periods produced consistently low results for most of the presidents during those periods (Woodrow Wilson was the one exception). If you try sorting by Archetype (select that column, go to Tools>sort by colum Z -> A, or just click on the bar below the title of the column – again, you must be signed into google to use this function) you will see that Prophets contain mainly either top or bottom ranked presidents; there are few that are in the middle. This fits well with the polarizing character of Prophets. Heroes have lots of highly ranked presidents and only a couple in the bottom quartile (Carter, Nixon and Ford). Nomads are less remarkable in their presidencies and with just a few exceptions don’t rank in the top or bottom quartile much at all. Artists are similar to Prophets in that you either love them or hate them.
So what combination of Turning/Archetype creates a great president? It’s hard to tell, but it is clear that Prophets that preside during an Unraveling don’t fare very well (Fillmore, Pierce, Harding and Coolidge), a trend that is likely to be born out by our previous two presidents (G.W. Bush and Clinton, both Prophets in an Unraveling) once we can look back on this period with a historical eye. Prophets can do amazingly well during a crisis (FDR and Lincoln) but also really badly (Hoover and Johnson).
Presiding over an Unraveling, when society is falling apart, is unlikely to reflect well on a president regardless of their archetype. Hero’s seem to do well during a High (Jefferson, Madison, Kennedy, Johnson) but less so during an Awakenign (Carter, Ford and Nixon).
Take a look at the chart, do some sorting and poking around and give me your insights and observations.

Linear Thinking leads to Cyclical Reality

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

— George Santayana

Many people feel that our society is falling apart and are putting great effort into bringing it back together. The problem is that when we are blind to the signs of real change, we tend to miss our target and over-correct. It is likely we will follow this same pattern in the next 10-15 years.

Generational research purports that history turns in specific cycles and by understanding those cycles we can predict what society might be like 10, 20 or even 50 years in the future. If that sounds something like hokey astrology to you, then you are probably a linear thinker. And linear thinkers are exactly what fuel the cycles that generational research is about.

The work of William Strauss and Neil Howe (including their books Generations, The Fourth Turning and Millennials Rising) all talk about the cycle of generations and the “turnings” or social periods that result from those generations. Most of their work focuses on the generations in the United States, but their theories apply elsewhere as well. The reason they apply so well in the US is that we, as a society, tend to be very linear in our thinking, which creates higher highs and lower lows in our social changes.
If you consider the chart I created to describe the cycles of generations:


You can see a red line that curves up and down on the chart. This is meant to describe the overall cohesiveness of society during the various turnings (High, Awakening, Unraveling and Crisis). At the top (for example, in 1955) society is very cohesive, with a singular worldview that tends to be very positive. At the bottom society is fractured, with complex worldviews that tend to be very negative. We have been at the bottom of this curve for a bit, but things are changing now (as the curve starts to rise during the crisis) but our linear thinking makes it hard for us to see that possibility. Our perception might look more like this:


One example of this comes from Strauss and Howe’s book “Millennials and the Pop Culture” (which I highly recommend). Early on in the book they have a “quiz” about the trends occurring amongst American youth. This table is a shortened excerpt of that quiz. For each factor you are encouraged to state how you think the factor has trended since 1995:

Factor Up Unchanged Down
Fatal shootings in school
Abortion rate, teen wome under age 18
Violent crime rate, teens aged 14 to 19
Suicide rate, children/teens aged 18 and under
Stranger abductions of children

So what would you guess for each of these factors (the full list in the book is much longer)?

The answers are:

Factor Up Unchanged
Fatal shootings in school
Abortion rate, teen wome under age 18
Violent crime rate, teens aged 14 to 19
Suicide rate, children/teens aged 18 and under
Stranger abductions of children

How did you do? Many people in our society would guess the exact opposite: that all these factors have been, and are, increasing. Part of that is because of media reporting, but the larger responsibility is the fact that we can’t help extrapolating in a straight line from our past. In the years BEFORE 1995 we saw a consistent increase in the factors mentioned in the chart. Because of this we assume that this trend will continue even when the statistics tell us otherwise.

This tendency to believe that when things are bad that they are only getting worse creates a strange dynamic in society. The feeling that our society continues to fall apart make many people (particularly young people such as the Millennial generation born 1982-2005) fight hard to change the direction of society. This is important and admirable, but failing to recognize when change is actually occurring makes it so we overshoot our target.

A good example is the Awakening of the 1960’s. The rebellion by the Boomers (born 1943-1960) against the “establishment” (the GI Generation born 1901-1924) started the fragmentation of society. This continued for the next 20+ years and got more extreme at every turn because we failed to recognize that society had indeed changed! Many people continued to push for further change, for further breaking down of institutions and for further individual freedoms. The pendulum swung completely to the other side, and then well beyond! Because the rebellious Boomers (and pragmatic X’ers) refused to recognize the damage that this breakdown was causing, it went too far. And this was caused by linear thinking that said, “We need to break down every institution and rule to the point there are none left that anyone can trust”.

The same thing will happen again as part of this crisis, but in the opposite direction. As people pull together to deal with the heightening crisis, we will become more cohesive as a society. But the fears fueled by so many years of institutions being challenged will make organizations and individuals so passionate that they will shoot way past the balance point. We will come out the other side an extremely ordered and cohesive society, but it will be TOO ordered, TOO singular and it will fuel the next rebellion.

This is the reason I believe understanding the generational cycles is so important. Accepting the cyclical nature of society gives us perspective on current and future events. Being able to see when change is occurring is difficult, but it will definitely help us avoid the extreme highs and lows which are caused by linear thinking.

Does Generation Jones Exist?

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.