The conflict between Baby Boomer Alice Walker and her Generation X daughter, Rebecca, paints a clear picture of the strained relationships between these generations
This article about Alice Walker (early Boomer), written by her daughter Rebecca (Gen X’er) is a poignant example of the challenge faced by many Gen X’er with their Silent (born 1924-1942) and Boomer (born 1943-1960) parents. As Rebecca describes in the article, her mother was focused on adult issues (women’s rights) and ignored her daughter in the process. The story is told from Rebecca’s point of view, so we are not hearing all sides, but it is a picture that applies to an entire generation of kids born in the 60’s and 70’s: Parents focused on ideology of the adult world and kids fending for themselves.
“My mother is very ideologically based, and her ideology is much more important in many ways than her personal relationships,” says Rebecca.
“I keep telling people feminism is an experiment. And just like in science, you have to assess the outcome of the experiment and adjust according to your results, but my mother and her friends, they see it as truth; they don’t see it as an experiment.“
“People don’t really understand how strong ideology can be,” she says. “I think sometimes of that group and that feminism as being close to a cult. I feel I had to de-programme myself in order to have independent thought. It’s been an ongoing struggle. When you have a cult, you have a cult leader who demands a certain conformity . . . And when you have a celebrity who has cultural-icon status, economic power beyond what you can imagine, you can’t resist that person — if you want to stay in their realm. Because once you start challenging them, they kick you out.”
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.
Millennial Makeover predicted the shift in politics based on generational theory. Hear the authors describe their work.
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…
Generation X (born 1961-1981) has taken a lot of grief over the years, but never more than from the “I Hate Gen X” site. It’s time to defend the honor of our generation.
Yesterday I came upon this site titled “I Hate Gen X (and Y)“. The site has pictures and bios of various Gen X’ers who are, in the authors view, despicable:
Many of the pictures are linked to bios that describe the awful things that these generation X’ers have done and how they have ruined society. There is also a page on the voting history of Generation X (and quite a bit of Generation Y). Much of the thesis of the site is that X’ers are bad citizens because they don’t turn out to vote in high numbers:
Perhaps the site is tongue-in-cheek (it is pretty funny, really), but I need readers help in coming up with content as a rebuttal to this:
The site has this image and asks the question: Name one great Generation X’er.
So this is where I need your help. Can you name great examples under the categories listed above? Generation X is defined as anyone born between 1961-1981. So that includes Barack Obama right off the bat, but we need more, many more. Jeff Gordinier took a shot with his book, “X Saves the World“, which I highly recommend, but I think a comprehensive list would be powerful.
C’mon Gen X’ers, do us proud!
While you are at it, pass this post around to other Gen X’ers you know on Twitter and Facebook
I will amend this post with the top candidates for each category: