There a myths and misconceptions about every generation, and Generation X (born 1961-1981) is certainly no exception. From our early life growing up amid the social chaos of the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s, we were the original “latch key kids” who had to learn survival skills early. Now entering midlife we have seen a lot of difficult times and they don’t seem to be getting much better. One of our greatest challenges is the negative reputation our generation has gotten over the years, much of it undeserved. Here are the top misconceptions about Generation X:
- We are slackers
Although many of us may aspire to be slackers, most of us really never had that choice (or at least not for long). Most Gen X’ers had to make their own way very early with little help from parents or society, so yes, we had lots of dead-end jobs and 7 year University terms. But “slacking” is equal parts not giving a damn AND not working hard. We are excellent when it comes to effectiveness: we know how to focus on the most important tasks to get things done. I heard this joke in reference to the difference between Boomers and Generation X: A Boomer says “You are lazy, I put in over 60 hours a week at my job”, X’er replies, “Yeah, that’s a shame that you work so slowly”.
- We are selfish
The size of the tribe that we care about may be smaller than for previous generations, but we definitely don’t care only about ourselves. For many Gen X’ers we put our families and close friends above our own personal needs. This can have it’s own negative side effects, like our over-protective nature as parents. Selfish is better than self-indulgent (Boomers), IMHO.
- We have no ideals
We grew up surrounded by talk about ideals, so yeah, we are a bit tired of talking about them. Our generation wants to know how we can realistically change society for the better. We don’t see missing the ideal state as a failure and are willing to compromise ideology for practicality. But that does not mean we don’t have ideals.
- We are cynical
Pragmatic is a better description, although we can be jaded at times. The biting cynical sarcasm of our generation’s comedians is one way we let off steam, but it does not mean we think the world is doomed. Boomers have a lock on pessimism, Millennials on optimism, so we just go with realism instead.
- We only care about money
Again this is about our pragmatism. Maslow’s heirarchy of needs includes a bunch of things that require (at least in our society) some degree of financial stability. Much of our generation has never achieved that financial stability and so we do tend to focus on money. Some of us do forget that past a certain point that money is not going to bring more happiness, but after so many years of scrambling to make it on our own, it’s hard to find fault with that.
- We hate our parents
Our parents are mostly Silents (born 1925-1942) and Boomers (born 1943-1960) and we do have a rocky relationship with both generations. But many of our parents were quite loving and caring, although they were focused on other things during our childhood. Most of us have no problem seeing our parents as equals and are willing to forgive them for their failings. There are plenty of examples of Boomers harshly judging their X’er children which, given how we were treated growing up, is particularly ironic.
- We don’t like Millennials (Gen Y)
Yeah, we are the middle managers having to deal with these somewhat spoiled kids entering the workforce, but many of our children are Millennials (born 1982-200?) as well. It may take us a while to adjust to the style of Millennials, but we are more likely to understand what they are about than the Boomers who see them as the next Hero’s that will save our society (or the generation that will ruin it). Again our pragmatism is going to see us through: give us a little time with Millennials and we will figure out the way to get the best performance out of them. Barack Obama (a Gen X’er) certainly has.
The Baby Boomers (born 1943-1960) have a critical role to play in the upcoming crisis. Are they up to it?
In The Fourth Turning” the describe the roles of each generation during the various “Turnings“. At the end of the book there are “scripts” for each of the generation in the Crisis (aka “Fourth Turning”) that represents the next 10-15 years in American history. Each script describes how the generation in question should act for a positive outcome from the Crisis. I already posted the script for the Millennial Generation (born 1982-200?) and Generation X (born 1961-1981). The script for Baby Boomers (born 1961-1981) is shown below (emphasis and links mine). “Prophet” refers to the archetype of the Baby Boomers.
The Fourth Turning brings special meaning to the Prophet, because the seasons of the saeculum exactly match those of his own life. From spring to winter, history’s seasons are those of his life cycle as well. Where the Prophet’s shadow (the Hero) had his greatest trial young, the Prophet will find his in old age. To achieve late-life glory, the Prophet must harness the civic duty and skill of the old Hero (The GI Generation, born 1901-1924, whom he rewards but does not honor) and child Hero (The Millennial Generation, born 1982-200?, whose temperament he nurtures but does not understand). In the current Unraveling, though, the Prophet is damaging the civic culture created by the old Hero, thereby making it harder for the child Hero to thrive and pursue his destiny. It is the Prophet’s challenge to confront his shadow, offer the old Hero respect as well as reward, and instill the old Hero’s virtue in the child.
As the next Gray Champion, the Boom Generation will lead at a time of maximum danger—and opportunity. From here on, Boomers will face the unfamiliar challenge of self-restraint. Having grown up feeling that GI Generation could always step in and fix everything if trouble arose, Boomers have thus far pursued their crusades with a careless intensity. In the Fourth Turning, GI’s will no longer be around as a backstop, and the young Millennials will follow the Gray Champion off a cliff. If Boomers make a wrong choice, history will be unforgiving.
The continued maturation of Boomers is vital for the Crisis to end in triumph. These one-time worshipers of youth must relinquish it entirely before they can demand from Millennials the civic virtue they themselves did not display during the Awakening. This will require a rectitude that will strike some as hypocritical, yet it will be no more than a natural progression of the Prophet’s life-cycle persona. When the Crisis hits, Boomers will need to defuse the Culture Wars at once. Their pro-choice secularists and pro-life evangelicals will need to move beyond their Unraveling-era skirmishes and unite around an agenda of national survival, much as Missionary elders did during depression and war.
Boomers must also display a forbearance others have never associated with them. By nature, they will always tend toward self-indulgence in their personal lives—but if they allow this to overflow into public life and demand generous public benefits, they will bankrupt their children financially, themselves morally. Unlike the Silent, sneaking through unnoticed will not be an option. Worse, if Boomers become pointlessly argumentative and let their values back them into a corner, their current talk-show hyperbole about annihilating enemies could translate into orders to use real doomsday machines.
Come the Crisis, Boomers will face the utterly un-yuppielike task of presiding over an era of public authority and personal sacrifice. This generation must squarely face the threat its unyielding moralism could pose to its own children, to the nation, indeed to the entire world. “When people repeat the slogan ‘Make love not war,’ ” historian David McClelland has warned, “they should realize that love for others often sets the process in motion that ends in war” But if aging Boomers can control the dark side of their collective persona, they can look back on their role in the Fourth Turning the way old Ben Franklin looked back on his. When asked what image belonged on the national seal of the United States, the old man replied: the inspiring image of Moses, hands extended to heaven, parting the waters for his people.
In Strauss and Howe’s book “The Fourth Turning” the describe the roles of each generation during the various “Turnings“. At the end of the book there are “scripts” for each of the generation (actually the generation archetypes) in the Crisis (aka “Fourth Turning”) that represents the next 10-15 years in American history. Each script describes how the generation in question should act for a positive outcome from the Crisis. The script for the Millennial generation (Hero archetype) is shown below:
For the child Hero, the Fourth Turning looms as a great coming-of-age trial. Whether the Crisis will be won or lost will depend in large measure on the Hero’s teamwork, competence, and courage. By forever sealing his reputation for valor and glory, the Fourth Turning can energize the Hero for a lifetime of grand civic achievements.
Today’s Millennial children should bask in adult hope, remain upbeat themselves, and reject the Unraveling-era cynicism that surrounds them. They should keep their innocence and avoid growing up too quickly. They should do small good deeds while dreaming of the day they will do greater ones. By applying peer pressure to positive purposes, they will be able to reconstruct a positive reputation for American adolescence. When older generations preach traditional values that they themselves failed to learn as children (and which are not yet common to the adult world), Millennials would do well to ignore the hypocrisy—and heed the lessons. The sooner today’s children succeed in displaying these virtues, the more likely older people will be to treat them generously (by paying school taxes and relinquishing elder reward), thereby helping them prepare for their coming trial.
At the onset of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover demanded “a fair chance” for American youth: “If we could have but one generation of properly born, trained, educated, and healthy children:” he predicted, “a thousand other problems of government would vanish.” Events—and young G.I.s – proved him right. The Millennials’ time is near. If they play their script well, perhaps the day will come when they sing in unison, as young patriots did in 1776, “The rising world shall sing of us a thousand years to come / And tell our children’s children the wonders we have done.”
Will the Millennial Generation be up to this task? Only time will tell.
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.
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.