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.
Ian Williams’ blog has some great Generation insights. And he’s a Gen X’er!
Matthew E over at Legion Abstract just turned me on to a great blog written by a Gen X’er: XTCIAN. Written by Ian Williams a screenwriter and director, it is mainly his own personal blog, but has some great posts about generations (he was a contributing writer on 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail with Howe and Strauss).
This post from last week is a great example. Williams is asking whether Generation X (born 1961-1981) is going to produce any monumentally great writers like earlier generations. His take on our position in the generational scheme is hilarious. For example, when it comes to our Silent Generation parents (born 1925-1942) he has this to say:
Every generation has a fatal flaw. The Silent Generation had one of the worst ever: they went through the “sexual revolution” at the same time as the Boomers – except the Boomers were doing it at 18, and the Silents were doing it at 38 with their spouse and kids at home. It was just bad luck for the Silent Generation; awesome sideburns, finding your G-spot, and having sex with your neighbors just came around too late for them to partake without fucking up us li’l Gen Xers.
That hits painfully close to home for me.
And how he sums up our problem:
Here’s Gen X’s problem in a nutshell: the internet appeared in the world at EXACTLY the right time to ensure we would never dive into our Masterpieces. As we were winding up to slap the world upside the ass with our lusty, groundbreaking works, we were fucking sidetracked by that “I KISS YOU!!!” guy from Turkey.
Is this the reason that my table on “Defending the Honor of Generation X” never got filled up?
I highly recommend reading his posts on generations. Here are few more (titles changed to make the topic clear):
Great stuff, all. I am officially a fanboy.
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 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?) a few days ago. The script for Generation X (born 1961-1981) is shown below (emphasis and links mine). “Nomad” refers to the archetype of Generation X.
Survival skills are what a society needs most in a Fourth Turning, and those are precisely what the most criticized archetype—the Nomad—possesses in abundance. Through the natural corrective force of the saeculum, the Nomad was raised to excel in exactly those skills that history will require from him in midlife at a time of real public danger. His challenge will be to stop dispersing these skills for scattered purposes and start gathering them for one larger purpose. Through the Unraveling, the Nomad has been able to withdraw from civic life, but come the Crisis he cannot. It will be his duty to ensure that whatever choices society makes will work as intended. In public life, the Nomad must cut through the paralytic residue once built by his shadow, the old Artist. In private life, he must rebuild the family and community rituals once discarded by the old Artist. As he does this, the Nomad will nurture the new child Artist.
The Fourth Turning will find other generations with lives either mostly in the past or mostly in the future, but it will catch X’ers in “prime time,” right at the midpoint of their adult years. They must step forward as the saeculum’s repair generation, the one stuck with fixing the messes and cleaning up the debris left by others. Every tool X’ers acquired during a hardened childhood and individualist youth will be put to maximum test. If X’ers apply these tools for community purpose, they will become antidotes to pathologies remembered from their own Awakening-era childhood— from divorce and latchkeys to public debt and cultural decay.
The X’ers gravest Fourth Tuning duty will be their society’s most important pre-seasonal task: to ensure that there can indeed be a new High, a new golden age of hope and prosperity. For the Crisis to end well, X’ers must keep Boomers from wreaking needless destruction and Millennials from marching too mindlessly under their elders’ banner. They will not find it easy to restrain an older generation that will consider itself far wiser than they, and a younger one that will consider itself more deserving. For this, X’ers will require a keen eye, a deft touch, and a rejection of the wild risk taking associated with their youth.
From now through the end of the Fourth Turning, X’ers will constantly rise in power. From 1998 until around the Crisis climax, they will be America’s largest potential generational voting block. As the years pass, their civic contributions will become increasingly essential to their nation’s survival. They will have to vote more and participate more, if they want to contain the Boomers’ zealotry. They will have that chance. Their own elected officials will surge into Congress as the Crisis catalyzes, eclipse Boomers around its climax, and totally dominate them by the time it resolves.
As they go one-on-one with history, X’ers should remember that history is counting on them to do whatever hard jobs may be necessary. If X’ers play their script weakly, old Boomers could wreak a horrible apocalypse, and X’ers demagogues could impose a mind-numbing authoritarianism—or both. If X’ers play their script cleverly but safely, however, a new golden age will be their hard-won reward. As they age, X’ers should remember Hemingway’s words: “Old men do not grow wise. They grow careful.”
This was written in 1997 and I am personally amazed at how true it holds today. Us X’ers have a tough and thankless job ahead of us (just like our tough and thankless childhood/young adulthood). But perhaps knowing how critical our role is in this transition will bolster our morale.
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.
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.
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:
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.