John Wooden, coach of the UCLA basketball team for over 40 years is featured in a recent Ted talk where he gives his perspective on coaching. Wooden was born in 1910 and is part of the GI Generation (born 1901-1924). He carries the hallmark positivity of that generation. In the first minute or so of the video he has this observation about teaching during a different age:
“I have my own definition of success. In 1934 when I was teaching at a high school in south bend, IN. Being a bit disappointed and disillusioned perhaps by the way that parents of youngsters in my English class expected their youngsters to get an A or B. They thought a C was alright for the neighbor’s children, because the neighbors’ children are all average. But they were not satisfied with their own and they would make the teacher feel that they had failed or that the youngster had failed, and that’s not right”
For many teachers of high school students today this statement may seem all to familiar. The expectation of perceived excellence and the finger-pointing when it is not achieved is a challenge faced by all primary and high school teachers today. The parents of today, Boomers (born 1943-1960) and Gen X’ers (born 1961-1981) have high expectations for their kids and put dramatic pressure on teachers and staff to make sure they achieve. Back in Wooden’s day it was the Missionary (born 1860-1882) and Lost (born 1883-1900) who were apply the pressure, and just like today there was little concern about “the neighbor’s kids”.
He doesn’t mention his early teaching experiences much outside of that first statement, but the video is worth a watch.
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.
I am now officially a fan of Karen McCullogh, a consultant and motivational speaker who has some great things to say about Generation X:
Well said Karen! Glad to hear a Boomer rooting for us.
I have an earlier post about the attitudes of generations, and how they affect the climate of our society. In that post I used a chart I created to explain the cycles, but it was presented on an X/Y axis. I have created a circular version of that chart, and put up a slideshare presentation explaining it. Enjoy:
My brother, Robert, has generously offered to fly me to China in April to spend a week there with him seeing the country. That got me to thinking about the generations in China, and I found this interesting segment from Frontline about the Chinese equivalent of Generation X. Filmed over four years time, the episode aired in June 2008.
A notable quote from the start of the segment:
“The spirtual side of China is changing from a a very ideal world, from the time of Maoism, serve people and work for others, to an extreme: get rich, as fast as you can, and have a good life”
Chinese generations and turnings don’t line up exactly with US cycles, but the generation profiled in the segment seems very similar to our Generation X in the United States.
Another quote from a young woman who is supporting her family (meaning her parents and sibilings):
I don’t dare have any ideas or ideals
I wonder how other parents could support their kids education, but not mine. [starts crying]. Sorry. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that. It sounds like I am blaming my parents for not living up to their responsibilties. But that is past.
Very much like the US Generation X, they are forced to depend on themselves to get by, but have the added pressure of having to support their extended family as well.
A young street performing rapper says:
I grew up with my grandpa until I was 14. I did not get along with my Dad. My father, my Mother, both useless.
A man who experience the crackdown on the rebellion in the 80’s firsthand said:
After the June 4th incident they started arresting people. I knew some of them personally. Politically it affected my generation tremendously. After the June 4th incident, I decided to move out of the city. There was only one reason. I decided that politics was quite a risky and scary business. It would be better to distance myself from it
Millennial Makeover is a book that came out March 2008 and describes how the Millennials would affect the upcoming election. It is based on the ideas of Neil Howe and William Strauss. I found this recording of a C-Span show where the authors give a summary of their research. It’s worth a watch if you are interested in the interaction of generational research and politics:
I should probably get a copy of the book (which just came out in paperback) to fill out my library…
Generations span 20 or more birth years and each has a different character. Some certainly blame the Baby Boomers (born 1943-1960) while others place the blame on Generation X (born 1961-1981). For a brief overview of generational research see my “start here” page. But what generation is most responsible for our current crisis?
The Baby Boomers were born during a cultural “High”, a time when the American Dream seemed attainable and the upward path of the country seemed Manifest Destiny. They were doted on during their youth and encouraged to be independent thinkers by their parents (many of whom were of the GI Generation, born 1901-1924). By the time they reached young adulthood in the late 1960’s they started to rebel against the established culture of the GI’s by protesting against an ugly war and cultural values they did not agree with. Through the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s the Baby Boomer generation managed to tear down most of the social institutions and norms that had been created by the GI Generation. Although the Boomers were adept at challenging the establishment, they were not nearly as capable at building a new society.
It was in this cultural storm that Generation X came of age. Because of the battles being waged by the Boomers against the established GI’s the young Gen X’ers were mostly ignored during their youth. They became the alienated young adults in the 80’s and 90’s who had to figure out how to get by on their own. As a generation they are extremely independent and pragmatic, but also given to cynicism and selfishness.
It’s easy to say that the Boomers started the downfall with their expectation of extravagant lifestyles and their anti-civic nature. It’s also easy to blame the Gen X’ers, who don’t really seem to care much about the direction society is headed as long as they can protect themselves. But there is another possible culprit in this scenario, and it’s not the Silent Generation (born 1925-1942) that came after the GI’s and before the Boomers. They were the “go along to get along” types that provided little leadership or direction (as a group), but also should not shoulder much blame.
No, the generation most responsible for our current crisis is Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”, the GI’s who built our unsustainable American Dream in the first place. The Boomers were right when they called out their elders and stated that the American Dream was shallow and unattainable for a majority of the people. That did not stop the GI’s from continuing to lead as if it could go on forever. A long series of Presidents (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush Sr.) along with a vast majority of the legislature and corporate leaders all hailed from the GI Generation, and they mostly believed that our good times could carry on forever, even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. This is part of the reason that the various politicians in the late 60’s and early 70’s were so stunned by the Boomer reactions to their leadership. Didn’t everyone agree that the American Dream was the perfect ideal? Well, no, said the Baby Boomers, but unfortunately they did not have a singular viable alternative.
Although the GI Generation might suggest prudence and wagged a finger at our excesses in the last 20 years, they were the ones that chose the direction and got the ball rolling. Yes, they won a war against an evil enemy. Yes, they bolstered a society to have pride in its amazing accomplishments. But the Greatest Generation definitely suffered from the hubris of not knowing when to say when.
This is also a cautionary tale for the young Millennial Generation (born 1981-200?). You have been given all the tools to succeed by your parents, and will face many daunting challenges. I am confident that the Millennials will see us through these difficult times and come out victorious. But there are already early signs of the hubris that the GI’s had that may lead to yet another false ideal and another turn in the cycle of generations. Is it possible for this generation to be both strong and humble? Will they have the strength of character to see that the values that pull us out of a crisis are not necessarily the right foundations for a healthy society? Only time will tell.
Baby Boomers (born 1943-1961) are a fairly opinionated and outspoken bunch. I read somewhere in reference to the Boomer generation “Never has a generation said more and done less than the Baby Boomers”. As they enter Elderhood (age 63 – 85) they are beginning to feel the need to express their opinions more vehemently, knowing that they have precious little time left to do so. Although they often drive Gen X’ers (1961-1981) and Millennials (born 1982-200?) with all their talk, there are some reasons why we should consider listening to them.
- Some of them actually know what they are talking about. The plethora of opinions coming from Boomers almost guarantees that at least some of them are right. Figuring out which ones can be an onerous task, but it is still important to not dismiss them all.
- They are, for younger Gen X’ers and older Millennials, our parents. Gen X’ers may not see this as much of a qualification (since we were largely ignored in our childhood), but your parents probably know you better than most (doesn’t that drive you nuts?).
- They were not the only ones responsible for our current crisis. It’s easy to blame older generations for your problems – the Boomers certainly did this with the GI Generation (born 1901-1924) in the back in the 1960’s. Although the excess of the Boomers (and yes, X’ers) in the 90’s and 00’s is seen as the cause of our current problems, the issue goes back much further. Truth be told, it is probably what Tom Brokaw called the “Greatest Generation” (The GI’s) that should shoulder much of the blame for our current problems. They are the ones that built the ideal of the “American Dream” with ticky-tacky houses in the ‘burbs, superhighways, mass agribusiness and a culture of consumerism. They may have not been responsible for the extremes, but they set the ball rolling. The Boomers sure got that right.
- They want to leave their mark. Although this can be frustrating at times (see my previous post for the problems related to leaving a legacy) it means they are uniquely motivated to take action at this time in their lives. Many Boomers are tired of talking and want to DO something.
- They often want to mentor younger generations. Part of this relates to the Boomers moving into Elderhood, but it is also the nature of the style of this generation. They like to be leaders, and leaders need followers. I have personally found that Boomers make great mentors. Sometimes you may need to stroke their egos, but they have a lot of valuable life experience to give.
- They have fond memories of their youth. The Silent Generation (born 1925-1942) were “old” right from the start, never having much of a chance to shake things up in their youth. Generation X was latch-keyed from an early age and had a tough time as young adults. But Boomers were cherished as children and threw a wild party in their young adulthood. Let them tell you some stories, you might learn a thing or two.
It pains an X’er like me to admit: They may have talked about doing more than they actually did, but they still are great teachers. Lend them an ear and you might be surprised at what you find out.
I was recently talking with a friend at a non-profit and he was telling me about the challenges faced by the organization. Most of the company is getting on in years, mostly Boomers (born 1943-1960) who have been with the organization for a very long time. Because it is an non-profit, they are driven by a desire to fulfill the “mission”. As many of these Boomers are nearing retirement, they are realizing that they would like to “leave a legacy” behind them. The only problem is that each of them has a different vision of what that legacy should be.
This is a uniquely Boomer reality: the desire to leave a legacy which only arise as they are getting close to departing from their work-life. The challenge with this desire is two-fold:
- If everyone wants to leave their own legacy at an organization, the organization is likely to have troubles being true to a singular mission
- You can’t build a legacy in just a few years
Many Boomers have spent their lives rebelling against a system that they saw as corrupt and shallow. They accomplished this goal, tearing down the American Dream society built by the GI Generation (born 1901-1924), and I would argue it needed tearing down. But because their focus was inward and individual, they were not able to rebuild an new society based on their vision(s), at least not in their midlife (from 42-63). But now as they enter Elderhood (64-84) they are realizing that building something lasting might be possible with the enlisted help of their heroic children (Millennials, born 1982-200?).
All that is reasonable enough, but the problem arises when each individual Boomer wants to build their ideal and leave their mark on an organization or society in general. There just is not enough room for all those ideals. The other problem is that to build a true legacy you must work your entire life towards that goal. You must be true to a singular vision from very early in life. It is not something you can adopt at 63 and expect to bring it to fruition before your are too tired to continue. Many Boomers will leave a legacy, but it is likely that they started working on that legacy a long time ago.
But for many Boomers this is not a deterrent. Many Boomers see the opportunity to finally build something lasting instead of taking down something they despised. It is a worthy goal, but it must be done with a recognition that it will be another generation will be deciding which ideal to pursue and the time for talk and squabbling is almost over. This pushing and pulling for the reins will become more common in the next few years while we decide what ideal to build upon.
This attitude reminds me of the leadership of several failed startups I have worked at. I have often said that the leaders of these companies became so enamored of their part in the story of the company that they stopped caring where the story was going. They just wanted to be sure that they were a part of the story, even if that meant it ended badly. Let’s hope Boomers don’t make the same mistake.