May 18, 2016
As a sociologist of youth culture, I spend a lot of time trying to explain what makes generations unique. The easy answer is – nothing. Broad generalizations are meaningless and teens in 2016 probably face many of the same issues that teens did in 2016 BC. Some things are eternal, like when do you get the keys to the hybrid or chariot?
But there is a social science of generations, looking at a cohorts born in a similar time and place. The parameters are usually based on changes in birthrates. The Baby Boom Generation begins about 9 months after the end of World War 2. In 1946, with the world safe for democracy, the birth rate in the US exploded and finally began to drop in the early 1960s. Nearly a third of the U.S. population are Baby Boomers and it’s pretty much explained nearly every cultural trend since. The sixties were the “Sixties” because you had so many college-age kids. (Bad time to throw a war.) And now all those boomers are retiring and there’s a Viagra commercial on TV every 60 seconds.
Then came Generation X, the relatively small generation that I’m part of the first wave. The birthrate bottomed out in 1974, so a lot of of the 1980s “kids in America” had to live in the shadow of the massive Boom. Next came Generation Y, or the “Millennials,” that ended the century. The birthrate jumped up in 1981 as boomers (finally) started settling down, AIDS killed “free love” and they invented the SUV (with a “Baby On Board” window sign).
This 1981-2001 “echo wave” ended up being even bigger than the baby boom generation. They were not only the brats of Boomers who had finally found their way out of the disco. The population of first generation immigrants also got considerably younger. The Millennials became the most diverse generation in American history. They represent the browning of America. Over 35% were born outside of the country, another 26% are first or second generation immigrants and 38% are bilingual. This is my wife’s, story. She is the new face of America.
These three generations, Baby Boom, Generation X, and Millennial, have some real markers. Baby Boomers watched Star Trek on Friday nights on NBC. Gen Xers watched the reruns after school as latchkey kids (and Star Trek: The Next Generation). And Millennials stream old episodes on Hulu between J.J. Abrams reboots. They are marked by different historical moments; the assassination of the Kennedys, the Challenger explosion, and 9/11. Boomers bought Beatles albums, Gen Xers bought U2 CDs, and Millennials may never have bought music on a physical format, preferring to download it instead. Baby Boomers got sent off to Vietnam, Gen Xers mostly avoided war and many Millennials volunteered for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In reality, there is an incredible variation within generations (including Millennials who buy Beatles albums – on vinyl). Usually when the term “generation” gets used it’s primarily referring to the experiences of middle class white males and what they do with their disposable income. The Great Recession of 2008 and the ethnic demographic shift makes the experience of the Millennials even less homogenous, but the one thing that makes them unique is their reliance on social media technology. Where Boomers hung out at the malt shop, the love-in, and the disco, and Gen Xers hung out at the all-ages punk club, the mall, and the rave, Millennials just hang out on line. The skate park gang is now a multiple-player online Tony Hawk game. The youth are no longer wild in the streets (unless there is a Bernie Sanders rally in town).
But these generations shape culture and not just hairstyles and popular dances. The Baby Boom gave us the second wave feminist movement. Gen X birthed Alex P. Keaton conservatism and Madonna sex-positivism and the Millennials gave us social networking. The great contribution of the Millennial generation is the recognition that you are not your job. They’ve seen their parents, painfully loyal to companies and careers, stabbed in the back, downsized and outsourced. Work is now something to provide you an income while you follow your bliss. Why commit to a profession that is just going to be replaced by a computer or Chinese child labor? As a Gen X’er who recently experienced this betrayal first-hand, this way of living sounds pretty good.
The oldest Millennials are 35 and the youngest are 15. The 9/11 attacks in 2001 also marked another shift in the birthrates. So here comes Generation Z, those born after 2001. This includes my daughter, born in 2014. The first Generation Zs turn 18 in 2019. What will their world be like?
It’s exciting to imagine what the 2020s will look like for them. We know there will be more non-white people in the U.S. and a declining pool of old white guys who want to make America “great” again. Z’ers will probably be even more immersed in technology (unless President Trump causes a global economic collapse and we have to revive the Pony Express). Between rising sea-levels and China repossessing the United States treasury, they will have plenty of issues to bring them together. We can hope that by then that whatever wave of feminism that’s happening is just tweaking the finer details of gender equality and expression. In 2026, Cozy will be 12 and I can imagine her doing a report for a 7th grade class about how her father used to have to explain what feminism was and why it was ever needed.
The Who played here in Portland last night and when they played their anthem, “My Generation,” I have to think 72-year-old Roger Daltrey grimaced a bit when he sang, “I hope I die before I get old.” But whatever your generation is, you’re going to have to stick around that long to figure what it all meant.