A while back I created a slideshow that described the generations of the last 100 years. I used a chart in that presentation that helps visually represent the cycles, but I did not post the actual chart. So here it is in high resolution PDF. You can watch this slideshow to fully understand the chart:
Gen-X’ers (born 1961 – 1980) had a relatively tough go of it when compared with other generations. In our early childhood we were either ignored or reviled (60’s and 70’s), and once we got to young adulthood, we were alienated and generally dismissed.
By the time we hit midlife (in just the last few years for the first Gen X’ers) we were a pretty jaded bunch. But we also had something unique from all those years attending the school of hard knocks: pragmatism. This generation, more than any other, does not have any illusions about the way the world is. We know what we need to do to get by in the world and we generally set about doing it. For the most part we don’t have high ideals or visions of world peace, but we understand how to get things done.
Barack Obama is an excellent example of this ethic. Although he talks often of ideas, hope and vision, these are more of a marketing effort to get the Boomers (born 1943-1960) and Millennials (born 1981 – 2005) to get on board with the direction. That, in itself, is a very pragmatic move. Rather than grabbing onto an ideology (as a Boomer might) he focuses instead on the goal and considers everything he needs to get done to get to the goal. Gen-X’ers are generally great marketers because they can craft the message to meet their market. I realize that there is some argument about whether Obama is Generation-X or not – more on that in a future post.
Individualism is also a hallmark of Generation-X. From our early years we had to go it alone, and most of us got pretty good at it. Later in life some of us are discovering that it can get pretty lonely without a cohesive peer group, and we are reaching out for community (see my previous article on Gen-X community). That, I believe, is the beginning of the disillusionment that also seems to nag our generation.
No Illusions lead to Disillusioned
The world that Gen-X grew up on was not desperate, not when you compare it with earlier cycles, such as the period between the Great Depression and the end of WWII. It was, however, a time of great discord and chaos. Institutions crumbled, and opinions became more varied and oppositional. It was near impossible to have a cohesive world-view, and the only one that worked well was Machiavellian: The ends justify the means. Gen-X knew better than to harbor any illusions about what was coming next, and that has led to a general sense of disillusionment.
In my own life I have played out this cycle in many ways. As a youth I was fired up about politics and ideology, but it quickly became apparent that the world had enough ideologists, and making a living should be my priority. After paying my own way through college and graduating at the age of 26, I started looking for job. My degree was in Fermentation Science, and I had several years of winemaking experience. But there were no jobs in winemaking up in Oregon where I was living, and the future started to look pretty bleak. What other skills did I have? Even with a college degree that was very vocational, my prospects were limited.
Eventually I found a position at a local brewpub that was starting up, and I became the head brewer for the place. It was a great job, and fit perfectly with my background, but I found that after just two years I was getting restless and bored with the work. By this point I had started a family (Caleb was born in 1996) and I knew I was going to be the main provider.
Thinking back through the early portion of my career I am struck by how on my own I was professionally. There was no institution or organization helping me find my way, and I am not sure if I would have accepted help from one anyway. Like most in my generation, I was used to going it alone. I certainly had lots of individuals that helped me along the way, but I never had the feeling of a team moving through life together (for more on this topic, see my post on Generational networks).
Fast-forward to today. I am 42 years old, with a wife and two kids (ages 8 and 12). I have worked for various companies over the years, taken time off, traveled the world with my family and found my own way for the most part. My career has been varied, from winemaking, brewing, teaching, programming, managing, selling and marketing. I am comfortable in many disciplines and work very independently, but I still don’t have a sense of belonging to a group with a greater purpose. Although some might think this is the perfect recipe for finding religion (and I did get laid off in January), I don’t think that is in the cards for me either.
Disillusionment is the obvious reaction to all of this. It’s not like some institution is going to fly in and save the day for me or anyone else in my generation. Depending on their needs there are companies out there who could really use my skills, but it won’t be about community. After many years of playing the market, I have not developed anywhere else to play. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
I won’t personally go the direction of disillusionment. It’s not in my nature. I see disillusionment as the combination of pragmatism and pessimism. It is a great source of depression really. My attitude is a combination of pragmatism and optimism, and always has been. Have a positive outlook, but look at everything with a clear eye. That is the gift that our generation has to offer.
10 Ways To Know if you are Gen-X
- You know what a latch-key kid is. You probably were one.
- You can name at least 5 kiddie horror movies in addition to Rosemary’s Baby that all came out while you were a kid.
- You are certain Obama is a Gen-X’er.
- You know at least 5 people who were laid off in the last month.
- Friends your age call you an optimist because you don’t believe in Peak Oil or other doomsday scenarios.
- You shot Coca-Cola out your nose the first time you saw a “Baby on Board” sign in the back of a car
- You think the designation “Generation X” is stupid.
- You’ve had more jobs in the last 5 years than your parents had in their lifetimes.
- You don’t trust your kid’s teachers, especially if they are over 50 years old.
- You remember riding in a car at age 6 without at booster seat!
I think there is a big generational gap between how Gen-X (born 1961 – 1980) and Millennial’s (born 1981 ~ 2005) see their relationship networks. Since getting laid off in January, I have been reaching out to my professional network quite a bit. That got me to thinking about the nature of networks and how, as a Gen-X’er, I think of my network in a very specific way. Although sites like Facebook or LinkedIn allow you to catalog your relationship network, I am talking more about how I view the nature of that network.
Gen X Networks
To me, a relationship network is made up of a bunch of connected individuals. Although the network seems larger than the sum of its parts, I still see it as made up of a bunch of parts. The value of the network is in those parts and how they are connected to me. The whole glob of the network is just a little too much to think about and is not really worth the effort for me.
Six Degrees of Separation, a concept popularized in the 1990’s, demonstrates this view of networks very well. The idea is that any one individual can be linked to any other individual by no more than six discrete steps. The reason why I say it demonstrates the Gen-X view of networks is that it is about the individuals. Connected enough of them and you are connected to someone else. [it does not really matter how those people are connected, through a church group, through family, through coworkers, just the fact they are connected]
Let’s take an example from my professional network. Let’s say I am looking for work at Google. I consult Linkedin and find all the people in my network who currently work for Google. In my case, the closest are 2 degrees from me (although I know several former Google employees directly). So then I can pick on that looks like a good connection to a particular position and get introduced to them through someone who knows me directly. I have used this service in the past very effectively, but that is not the point. The key insight here is that the network, for me, looks like a bunch of discrete nodes connected by little lines.
It may sound terribly mercenary, but I often see each of these connections as direct one to one exchange of favors. If I do something for someone else in my professional network, I have created a connection which I can call upon later if needed. In a strange paradox, even if I ask a favor of someone else I have created a connection that can be called upon later. But these connections are again based on individual exchanges, having little to do with larger groups.
There are certainly exceptions to this view for X’ers, but I really do think they are exceptions. If you are an X’er, think of a time when you really felt like you were part of something larger than yourself or your immediate family. Probably not an easy thing (okay, the Obama campaign doesn’t count) for most of us. Even though I have been deeply involved in my kids’ schools, I still have a tough time seeing them as something larger than myself. My motivations are very personal, tied directly to the welfare of my children.
In a visual representation, it might look a little like this (that’s supposed to be me at the center):
Where I am at the center, with my job contacts in blue, college contacts in red and hometown contacts in yellow. Maybe they know each other, maybe not. But when I go looking for work, I might lean on a college friend to give me a contact at a specific company from his network, which might span out into the job world:
Of course, each of my contacts has their individual networks, but it quickly becomes just too much to keep track of, event the first circle looking something like this:
There is a bunch of overlap, but it is still about individuals. I can make my way almost anywhere on the network (six degrees of separation) but travel is always node to node.
I think this is a fairly typical view of a relationship network for a Gen-X’er. I don’t think it carries over to the Millennial Generation.
My kids are both Millennial s but are quite young (ages 8 and 12), so most of what I am going to say here comes not from direct observation but rather to what I have read. So I am open to other possibilities.
The craze of social networking really took off with MySpace, a website that still looks like total chaos to an X’er like me. What is the point of that uncontrolled chatter? How do I know how well you know such-and-such, or what is the nature of your relationship? It’s just a big hairball of information to a discrete networker like me. Facebook was at least a little more palatable, with the ability to control the flow a little. But there is one concept in Facebook that I have never really gotten around to liking: networks.
The basis of joining up on Facebook is that you belong to some group (aka “network”). Years ago when I first tried to join I was denied because it was only for kids in college. Once they opened it up, I still needed say I was part of the “Portland, OR” network to get in. “What is the point of that?”, I thought. Portland was just where I lived, not a group that I was part of. I figured that Facebook misinterpreted geography and sociology in some way.
Of course, being part of specific networks is critical to Facebook (and many other social networking applications). It can determine whether I can converse with others on Facebook and what they can know about me. The nature of Facebook and Myspace reflect two major Millennial beliefs about networking. The first is teamwork and the second is what I call “The Noise is the Signal”.
One well-known characteristic of Millennial s is that they thrive on teamwork. They enjoy a sense of belonging that started from childhood. For the most part they are attached to groups and work hard to further the aims of those groups. So part of their view of a network is really about teams.
Rather than seeing an organization as a bunch of discrete individuals connected by circumstance, Millennial s see a team with a common purpose, which they likely are trying to further. Working hard for a company is probably about more than making money or hanging with friends. It is also about being a special part of something you truly believe in for Millennial s.
The visual representation of this would be something more along the lines of:
Where I am part of something much larger (college in the case above). Now if I went looking for a job, I might think of the extension of this network like this:
And if I could include other networks as well:
If you compare this directly with the Gen X view, you can see the similarity: Both have three groups with overlap. But the key difference is how the individual at the center sees themselves relating to that group. Are they part of that group, or connected to individuals in that group?
But what really happens when that theoretical Millennial looks for a job by asking for help from their college friends? Probably the same thing that happens for a Gen-X’er: one friend calls another who puts them in touch with someone else. But the feeling a Millennial gets from this is very different than an X’er. They get the feeling they are part of something even bigger, rather than feeling like they are individuals navigating a twisty and difficult network. These feelings are not made up, they are real, because they are shared by an entire generation. Giving a helping hand for a Millennial means something very different than for an X’er. Teamwork is a strong value.
The Noise is the Signal
Another way to view these sorts of interactions is how transactional they are in nature. Many of the personal interactions I have are very transactional, particularly in business. I send an IM to someone asking for a specific piece of information or to take care of a task. I might email them with a brief explanation of something that needs to get done and then expect a return message asking for clarification or adjustment. While I find I can connect well with other Gen X’ers by phone or in-person, these electronic mediums seem better for handling transactions of one sort or another.
This is definitely not the case for many Millennial s. Sending 100 text messages a day, most with “? RU” or something similar is probably fairly common. You can see this sort of constant chatter on Facebook and Myspace (and Twitter before that). The transaction is not the important thing here at all, it’s like a constant casual conversation.
While a Gen X’er like me sees much of this as noise, for Millennial s the noise is the signal. It’s like a pulse of their community (as wide and diverse as that may be). As an X’er I am pretty well blind to it, and I am waiting for the transaction (which will probably never arrive).
What does it all mean?
I started by mentioning two online social networking tools, Linkedin and Facebook. In many ways these tools are good examples of the contrasts between these two generations. Facebook was created by a Millennial, LinkedIn by a Gen-X’er. On Facebook you are part of big networks (hometown, college, etc…) and LinkedIn is all about the individuals that you know. But both can be very effective for making connections, depending on what you are after.
To sum up:
- Gen X’ers see a network as connected individuals
- Millennial’s see a network as a community
The important thing to understand is that they are both true, regardless of the network you are talking about. Just because a Gen X’er can’t see the forest for the trees in a community, it does not mean the community does not exist. And both generations can learn from each other when it comes to relationships and community. Gen-X’ers are independent and may seem mercenary in their attitude, but we understand the dynamics of a network very well. Millennials can benefit for working with Gen-X’ers to see the individual goals in an organization. Gen-X’ers can learn a greater sense of trust in community and organizations from Millenials. Let the lessons begin!
My Brother Aram sent me this video:
This is a powerful statement about the marketing of the Millennials generation as the anti-Generation-X kids. The generation they are referring to as “Lost” is probably not the true Lost Generation (born 1883-1900) but the next generation that followed in a similar vein (Generation X, my generation). We actually have a lot in common with the Lost generation. The Lost were ignored as children (adults were busy with adult issues like Suffragettes), alienated in our youth (think “roaring 20’s” young adults) and pretty pragmatic by the time they hit midlife (on the way through the Depression and leading up to WWII). In general we are viewed as pessimists (I would call us pragmatists, but then, I am an optimist 🙂
The Millennials can be seen as the polar opposite. Raised with careful attention (starting with “babies on board” in 1981) and strong values as well as high expectations, they are set to be the next “Hero” generation (much like the GI’s born 1901-1924). So that “can do” attitude is more than marketing, it is the real hopes and aspirations for an entire generation. That is the vibe that Obama (a pragmatic X’er) struck upon in his campaign so successfully. Optimism is in. Yes we can, yes we can. My kids are part of this generation.
If you wait until the end of the video you will see the organization responsible for this message is the AARP, which is primarily focused on issues concerning a different generation, The Boomers. The older Millennials are the kids of Boomers (while much of the younger portion is parented by Gen-X). This is the same generation that has given us ideological and culture wars for the last 20 years or so (Bush and Clinton were both Boomers).
On the surface, the message in the video is very true to each generation
- The pessimistic Gen-X’ers and the optimistic Millennials
- The individualistic Gen-X’ers and the team-oriented Millennials
- The pragmatic Gen-X’ers and the idealistic Millennials
But the idea that somehow the Gen-X’ers failed and the Millennials will succeed is a fallacy. Comparing these generations attitudes during their youth is not as important as seeing how they will work together to change the world. Having the tough, capable and pragmatic Gen-X’ers working alongside the idealistic, team-oriented and enthusiastic Millennials is just the right recipe. We both have lots to teach each other.
After 42 years making it (mainly) on my own, I am starting to consider the wider view of community. I have been doing research on generations recently that has expanded my understanding of my own generation’s role in history. If you are a Gen-X’er (born 1961-1980), maybe some of this will ring true for you.
Growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s it was clear that kids were not exactly a top priority in society. The string of movies about children who were terrifying (from Rosemary’s Baby to Halloween to The Omen and many more in between) set the mood for this period, when adult focus was on adult issues. Although many parents strove to provide a happy home-life, the expectation for children was that they needed to figure it out for themselves; Because, after all, out there in the “real-world” no one was going to help you make it when you grew up.
This rang true in my childhood. I was often left to my own devices, expected to play independently and just figure things out. My parents were busy with work and self-discovery, and although they set an example of looking inward, the instructions on how to go about living life were lacking. Although I can’t ever remember a time I really missed this guidance, it is another hallmark of Generation-X . Taught from an early age to figure it out on our own, we generally do just that.
This was a time of adult’s problems and issues. One example that comes to mind was the treatment of one of my hometown’s primary school teachers. I can’t remember if he was openly gay or if someone just came up with “proof”, but there was a huge debate in town and many parents were involved. My Mom was a friend of the teacher (and still is, I believe) and supported him strongly at PTA meetings and other community debates. I don’t even clearly remember how things ended up (I know he got out of teaching eventually). However the energy expended on this issue was clearly about “the kids” rather than adult rights and adult choice.
I was speaking recently to a Boomer aged friend of mine, describing this childhood experience, and she said, “Yes, we all have to rebel against our parents”. I replied, “Well, no, I never rebelled against them. There just wasn’t enough there to rebel against”. I don’t resent them for it, but they didn’t force their values upon me strongly enough for me to bother resisting. But I, like most of my generation, was pretty much on my own.
Not that I didn’t dream of some utopia with a strong community. I grew up in a small town (Healdsburg, CA) where we knew most everyone in town. We lived way outside of the town (pop. 6000 at the time we moved there in 1973) a mile up a dirt road (and you can believe I will using that on my kids when they whine about having to bike to school). Given that we knew all the people on the long dirt road we lived what on sort of felt like a commune. It’s not that I lacked idealism growing up: I remember musing with friends about how we could start a community somewhere, away from all that mainstream crap.
By the time I was 19, I was ready to get out and see the world. I traveled to Europe for 6 months (much like my Mom had done when she was 19) but came back and realized that there was not necessarily any specific life-track waiting for me when I got returned. I made my way through Junior College and then on to UC and started a career and family. And although over this time I built an impressive professional and personal network, there was rarely a feeling of community in any of it.
There are a couple notable exceptions. One was a job I had with PeopleSoft. PeopleSoft was started by Dave Duffield and although I joined after he had left the company, it still retained much of his paternal spirit. During my four years at PeopleSoft I got a sense of the belonging that my Father often talked about during his 33 years with Hewlett-Packard. But by 2005, PeopleSoft had been acquired by Oracle (in a hostile takeover) and I moved on, my view on the (un)reliability of institutions unconsciously reinforced.
The other exception has been our kids’ schools. They have attended Waldorf Schools, mainly in Portland, OR, but more recently in Fair Oaks, CA. Our family started to see the seeds of real community at Cedarwood Waldorf School. We own a home right next door to the school, and participated regularly in the activities associated there. I served on the school board and we volunteered our time and money in many ways to help the school and its community. I think this experience was not particularly unique for many Gen-X’ers: Our kids lead us to our first real chance to form a community. Some of us respond well to this opportunity, others, poorly. The experience, for most of us, is at least unfamiliar if not downright foreign.
Since we moved down to Sacramento in August of 2008, we have been forced to adjust to a new community, although it is also formed around a Waldorf school (Sacramento Waldorf School, in Fair Oaks, CA). The similarities between these communities are more striking than the differences. The same Gen-X parent temperaments are all around: individualistic, demanding, talented, insightful and tough. We’re a pretty bristly bunch in general, and just being around our own kind does not change that. But we do seem to recognize the need to pull together for a common cause, especially an important one like the future of our children. The real challenge is figuring out how to keep the focus on the common good (“the children”) rather than the individual good (“my child”). That struggle, I think, typifies the Gen-X challenge of community. With so many years being ignored or alienated, it’s hard to trust that the community will really take care of everyone.
But there are glowing examples I have seen already in our short time here in Sacramento. I helped put together a site for our friends, the Nuttings, when their Son, Elias, was going through surgery in November ‘08. The Nuttings, like us, are Gen-X’ers, but they have a unique sense of community. Working on the site gave me a window into the possibilities of community, observing how they gave without expectation and received without debt.
The wonderful thing about this dynamic for Gen-X’ers is that we have a unique opportunity not granted to many generations. While our elders (the Boomers) got solid institutions and a strong social glue (which they rebelled against) and our kids (the Millennials) will grow up protected (perhaps over-protected) and build the new future, Gen-X’ers have a different path. Our opportunity is to create community without first-hand knowledge of what solid community feels like. It is to build bonds to things we did not know existed. It is to break down walls that we have never really acknowledged were there in the first place. It is to build up belief in the face of our own skepticism.
I have always had a soft-spot for that character in a story who was tough and pragmatic, but eventually realizes that it is real connections between people that matter most. Generation X was never granted that sense of community. We have to form it of our own will, and when we have, it will be an accomplishment.
I have been doing a fair bit of research into the effects of generations lately. The result of this research has been several charts and illustrations that give the big picture about where American generations (and society) are headed. This work is based primarily on the book “The Fourth Turning” by Neil Howe and William Strauss. The following slideshow (with accompanying audio) explains the first chart I created to explain the generational turnings.