American Culture

The "dumbest generation": sloppy thinking, maybe, but it's put-up-or-shut-up time for Gen X

In the past I’ve written about a variety of generational issues, and have often focused on the Millennials. At times I’ve been construed as dogging them pretty hard. As I’ve tried to explain, my criticisms of them (for being entitled, for lacking critical thinking skills, etc.) haven’t really been criticisms of them, per se – a cohort that’s 75-100 million strong doesn’t get to be a certain way all by itself. The blame, if we want to use that word, falls on those responsible for educating and developing the generation.

Further, some have erroneously interpreted my critiques as somehow suggesting that my generation – X – was without flaw. Which, of course, is ridiculous. Every generation has its relative strengths and weaknesses, and X has been a trainwreck in some respects.

All of which leads me to the other morning, when fellow scrogue Brian Angliss forwarded along the link to a Washington Post column from Neil Howe, the man who co-authored, along with William Strauss, the finest series of works on America’s generations I’ve ever encountered.

The thesis under discussion this fine day? “Early Xers” are the dumbest living generation.

Not exactly the sort of thing you like reading about yourself, to be sure. But this is Neil Howe talking, so step one is shut up, set aside your attitude and emotions and read what he has to say. My conclusion? Howe’s take is interesting and credible on a number of levels. There are problems with the argument as set forth in the article, but it’s certainly worth thinking about.

The most disturbing part for me was this:

And today, as midlife parents, they have become ultra-protective of their own teenage kids and ultra-demanding of their kids’ schools, as if to make double-certain it won’t happen again.

Boomers were, by and large, the parents of early Millennials (born from around 1980-2000), but the back end of the parenting problem I’ve talked about … well, I don’t want to name names, but I’m probably like you in that I know some of the Xers he’s talking about. I know some who defy the type, too, but on the whole I think he comes closer to describing the rule than the exception.

This is not something I’m proud of, even though I’m not a parent.

I’m also intrigued by Howe’s use of the “Generation Jones” frame. Intrigued and a bit troubled, to be honest. GJ has always struck me as little more than marketing hook for the creator’s consulting business. I met the guy at a conference in 2000 and he talked my damned ear off trying to convince me of the legitimacy of his theory; however, nothing he had to say really put a dent in the more comprehensively articulated frame that Howe and Strauss had laid out in Generations and expanded on in 13th Gen, and as a result I found nothing about it that required me to alter my thinking significantly.

So to see so much of this analysis hinging on Generation Jones-style demography got me to looking a little more deeply. I’m not 100% happy with what I found.

I’ll begin by admitting, on behalf of “early Xers” everywhere, that we’re guilty of much of what is charged here. We may be guiltier than alleged, even. While I don’t plunge to quite the cynical, self-loathing depths that we see in, for instance, Todd Snider’s hysterical, auto-flogging “My Generation, part 2,” I do understand where he’s coming from. So whatever I may say on behalf of Generation X, I’d be delusional to try asserting that we represent a model to live by.

However, this doesn’t excuse Howe’s sloppiness.

For starters, Howe and Strauss were pretty clear about where the Boom ended and X began: the Boomer included birth years 1943-1960 and Generation X was 1961-1980. I don’t want to fetishize a moment in time – 12:01 AM, January 1, 1961- nor make sacred dogma out of an artificial and somewhat abstract way of dividing people, especially those on the cusp. At the very least, there’s tremendous value in examining the contexts surrounding macro-cultural transitions, so a serious researcher who wants to look at the period on either side of 1960-1961 is engaged in a perfectly valid course of study.

But, let’s be specific in how we categorize, especially if we’re the people responsible for establishing the definitions in the first place. Generation Jones encompasses a 12-year period: birth years 1954 through 1965. In Howe and Strauss’s model – articulated in Generations and reiterated in several subsequent books – this span includes the seven last years of the Baby Boom and the first five years of X. Which makes this particular line especially curious:

Whatever you call them (I’ll just call them early Xers), the numbers are clear…

Ummm, no. If you have 500 Germans in a room and 300 Swedes, you will not “just call them” a roomful of Swedes.

I respect the hell out of Howe’s work, as I’ve made abundantly clear on numerous cases, and this bit is out of step with his customary clarity of thinking and writing. If I didn’t know him to be an analyst of intelligence and integrity, I might wonder if I were smelling an agenda on the part of a parent who’s had enough of hearing his kids trashed. (Well, okay, maybe I am wondering that. Not accusing, but wondering.) Howe has Millennial children and thinks incredibly highly of them and their contemporaries (this is his point, directly paraphrased from Millennials Rising, not mine). Certainly the verve with which he goes after Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation (the jumping-off point for his column) suggests that he’s had enough Mill-bashing. To be fair, I can’t say that I blame him. If I had Millennial children, as do some of my friends and relatives, I’d feel the same way, and it’s not like there isn’t substantial data he can call on to make his point about Mills and Xers – something that becomes quite clear as the article progresses.

All this said, a good bit of the data he uses to whack these “early Xers,” does specifically reference actual early Xers, and with that I have no quibble. As I said earlier, guilty as charged. I might argue that, as useful as the measures he’s examining are (standardized test scores, for instance), I’d defend Xers a little because our outstanding critical faculties – which I think account for a good deal of our non-dumb moments – are hard to measure. But I’ll admit to being biased on that front. All that said, Howe is a man who’s capable of tremendous detail and specificity – something he’s proven time and again – and as a result I find myself baffled at why he’d clutter up his examination with one group by pointlessly conflating it with another.

So, Neil – who’s the dumbest generation, X or Jones? If it’s Jones, why are you laying the trip on X instead of both the Xers and Boomers, and if it’s X, then … why are we even mentioning Jones, exactly?

I don’t really stand to gain or lose anything regardless of the answer, since I’m part of both demographic groups. I’d just like to have a cleaner sense of what we’re really talking about here.

In any case, this is not a pretty picture of my generational cohort, and in truth, I don’t find anything about his relevant points that seem necessarily inaccurate. In college I was routinely appalled by what the people around me were up to, although at that point in time, before I had really studied generational dynamics (or, for that matter, really imagined what generation I was a part of – remember, I graduated from college seven years before Coupland’s Generation X popularized the term) I thought of this more in terms of a crisis in values than I did basic dumbness.

But maybe I was wrong. I can look back now and see how so much of what 13th Gen had to say explains my contemporaries, and while I might nitpick one methodology or another around evaluating test scores, the bottom line is that Howe is, at the very least, making a defensible argument about the deficiencies of a demographic group. Fair enough.

I think Howe’s explanations as to why we underperformed (then, and perhaps now, as well) gets at something important, and it echoes what he and Strauss talked about at length in 13th Gen:

Yet sheer numbers aren’t the whole story. The early Xers’ location in history also plays a large role. Quite simply, they were children at a uniquely unfavorable moment — a time when the divorce rate accelerated, when the media image of children turned demonic and when the “latch-key” lesson for kids stressed self-reliance rather than trust in others. By the time they entered middle and high school, classrooms were opened, standards were lowered, and supervision had disappeared. Compared with earlier- or later-born students at the same age, these kids were assigned less homework, watched more TV and took more drugs.

Most early Xers know the score. Graduating (or not) from school in the early 1980s, they saw themselves billboarded as a bad example by blue-ribbon commissions eager to reform the system for the next generation, the Millennials. Angling for promotions in the early 1990s, they got busy with self-help guides (yes, those “For Dummies” books) to learn all the subjects they were never taught the first time around.

Yup.

With regards to the career side, I’ve written over at Black Dog about Xers and the macro-succession crisis (in this article, particularly). We’re a small generation (~50M) following a very large one (~75M), and there simply weren’t as many leadership opportunities available because, well, the Boomers in those jobs have no real obligation to retire and get out of our way, do they? So on that front we Xers found ourselves on the wrong end of an unbalanced math equation. Still do, in fact.

In the coming five years or so a massive number of Boomers are going to retire (the earliest Boomers hit retirement age this year, in fact) and early Xers are going to have to step in and step up. (For a lot of reasons, I don’t expect this transition to be a terribly pretty one.) The most prominent symbol of Gen X taking the reins right now is Barack Obama, who will soon become the first Xer president. Unless you’ve been off planet for a few years, you realize the massiveness and unfathomable complexity of the challenge he faces, and for better or worse it’s now time for my generation to step up and lead. You may think Xers are slackers and “the dumbest generation,” or you may prefer the Howe and Strauss narrative from 13th Gen, which credits us with a good deal of street smarts and a collective ingenuity born of necessity. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter. The time is now, and we’ll either get it done or we won’t.

Whatever failings we’ve been guilty of in the past, I’m hopeful we can make up for them in the next couple of decades.

18 replies »

  1. I also read that Howe op-ed in WashPo yesterday, and was bothered by it. I haven’t met the guy who coined the term Generation Jones, but I don’t care if he’s making money off of it; I nonethess definitely relate to being part of this generation between the Baby Boomers and Generation X, and I’ve been very happy to see so many prominent journalists and experts talking about Generation Jones in the national media. I am really offended by Howe’s years of trying to undermine our long-lost generation (the reason Howe keeps trying to undermine GenJones is that Howe’s theory doesn’t allow for the fact that most generational experts now view generations as shorter than the traditional 20 years which Howe’s theories depend on).

    If you have a chance, read the comments on the Washinton Post site responding to this op-ed yesterday and today; I was happy to see lots of people defending Generation Jones. Here’s one of my favorite comments, from ‘CultureAndPeople’…

    “As someone who has studied generations for years, I must say that I’m very surprised that Neil Howe would go this far when it comes to attacking GenJones. It’s well-known to many of us in the field that he has felt very threatened by the whole GenJones thing, but you’ve got to get over it, Neil! Generations are getting shorter, there is a Generation Jones. Instead of embarrassing yourself trying to diss it, just figure out a way to adapt your theory to include the shortening of generations. Your theories can co-exist with GenJones; figure it out.

    This article takes the cake when it comes to your attempts to diss GenJones. Using ridiculously bad science to try to position GenJones as “The Dumbest Generation”?! Wow. Feels over the top to me.

    First, Neil, framing this generation as “dumb”?! As you know, dumbness is another way of saying “low intelligence”. What evidence do you have that Jonesers are less intelligent?! If Jonesers were the “victims” of ineffective educational experiments, less attentive parents, a souring national mood toward youth, etc., etc., etc., on what basis does that make them less intelligent? You might more plausibly say that they are, for example, less knowledgeable (although I believe that would also be untrue), but to characterize them as “dumb”?

    You might also frame this in a positive light; for example, showing how Jonesers have overcome these enormous obstacles to get where they’ve gotten (e.g. wealthiest generation in the country). But instead, framing them as the dumbest generation?!

    And the evidence you use to try to make this case makes my jaw drop. Take the SAT comparison you make as one example; how could you write this with a straight face? I find it hard to believe that you are not aware that: students now do all kinds of SAT prep that they didn’t do in the 70s/80s, that SAT scores were re-normed in the 1990s which significantly inflated the scores, making any comparisons obvious apples to oranges, the relevant varying admission standards (including the 1970s admissions de-emphasis of SAT’s) affecting SAT scores, the fact that it was the ACT, rather than the SAT, that “smart” teens took in the 70s/80s, and all the other reasons why your SAT comparisons are completely absurd.

    In addition to your faulty SAT comparison, this article is filled with similarly ridiculous “evidence”. Are you so desperate to diss Generation Jones lest it hurt your business, that it’s worth cheapening your name this way?

    And given the dire situation our nation now finds itself in, and given that it is primarily GenJones, starting with Obama and most of his main appointments, who we are looking to lead us through these difficulties, do you really need to use the platform which you’ve built to try to position this new generation of leadership as the Dumbest Generation? Couldn’t you at least wait until they are sworn in and have a little time to try to lead before you launch this kind of attack?

    With all respect, Neil, it feels to me like you are putting your own selfish personal goals ahead of the country’s interests at a dangerous moment in our national history. William Strauss deserved better than this, Neil.”

  2. I really want to comment on this, but it’s either going to get really long or really angry…so perhaps i should demure. Odd that i’m having a hard time finding out what Howe’s date of birth is without going to the library to check out a biography…his site only lists when he received graduate degrees.

    But let me say this…if it is time for Gen X to put up or shut up, then it is well past time for the boomers to shut up and get the hell out of the way. I know a good number of solid boomers personally, but as a generation they’ve seriously screwed up this country and i cannot think of a single, actual result from all the big talk of their youth. Maybe i’m the wrong guy to ask about it, having been born at the tail end of 73 and thoroughly indoctrinated with the ideals of the late 60’s/early 70’s. I don’t see much greatness in my generation either. And other than the Obama hero worship, i haven’t seen much from Gen Y to suggest that great things are just around the corner.

    Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train…

    I see a continuum here (regardless of our collective desire to place blame). America has been getting stupider and more self-absorbed for a long time now. And let’s face it, we’re all teets on the same sow, are we not?

  3. I’ve always referred to those of us born between the boomers and the Xers as the Lost Generation. Certainly not the dumbest though! Just caught between a rock and a hard place. As you say the boomers are finally moving on but the problem is that the Xers are moving into their places leaving us lost between the cracks. Hell I could see this coming 20 years ago.

  4. I know it sounds crazy, but you need to take astrology into account. Pluto placements do a lot to determine generational differences (it takes more than 20 years to go through a sign). Xers are Libra Plutos who just don’t give a crap. It’s not that they’re stupid, they simply don’t care. Libra is the symbol not of balance but of “I’ll be the judge of that.” They have a mulishness that is sometimes advantageous. They mess with the wheels of capitalism by their lack of interest in working for the Man.

  5. I’m a bit younger than you (born early-mid-70s) so maybe I don’t hang around enough parents of late adolescents and teens to know what you’re talking about, but I’m having understanding why you are so “disturbed” and “not proud” of the fact that early X-ers are (at least per Howe) “. . . ultra-protective of their own teenage kids and ultra-demanding of their kids’ schools, as if to make double-certain it won’t happen again.”

    Unless I’m missing the context, isn’t it a GOOD thing that parents are demanding that educational institutions live up to certain expectations?

    (And maybe the context I’m missing is that “ultra-demanding” could mean either (1) “You had damn well better make sure the next generation, my children included, emerges from high school equipped to deal with the myriad of challenges the human race is going to face in the early- to mid- 21st centure,” or (2) “You had damn well better make sure that my boy Jonny makes varsity starting lineup and that he gets good grades (whether he actually understands the material or not) so that he stands a chance of edging out all the other Janes and Jonnies who are benefitting from similar grade-inflation elsewhere when it comes to college application time…”, and I’m supposing what you’re witness and cringing about is more along the lines of #2 than #1?)

  6. Late Xer: It would be good if these parents were holding institutions accountable to productive goals, yes. That isn’t what’s happening. They’re hanging schools and systems up on “accountability” that’s nothing more than statistics rage. This is why their children are being taught to take tests and little more.

    The result, sadly, is that their passionate helicoptering is producing more or less the opposite of what they really want and need.

  7. Let me begin by stating that it is ironic for the boomers, the most hypocritical generation in history, to judge those who came after them. Instead of hackneyed “history” provided for the X-ers, let me begin with a dose of reality. (BTW – I am an early X-er with 4 degrees including a MA & PhD).

    Here is why my generation seems so dumb to our privileged predecessors:
    1. We graduated into the poverty induced by Reaganomics. Any kid who graduated in the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic region in the early 1980s entered a society that was collapsing. Unions were busted, the rust-belt closed for business and we were the first generation to have to leave our homes to secure substandard employment since those who came of age in the Great Depression.

    2. Reagan cut all college grants and aid to families making over $12,000/year which contributed to the low rates of college attendance. We were also the first generation to return to school as “non-traditional” students en masse to make up for our earlier inability to secure degrees.

    3. Self-righteous, materialistic, sell out boomers who were hired and promoted at a rapid clip in the 1980s did not hire or mentor the next generation to take over. They were buying McMansions and taking buy outs during the last three recessions while we on the lower rungs of serfdom had to “reinvent” our careers and change tracks two or three times just to stay employed.

    4. We have survived four horrific recessions during our adult lives that have racked our ability to earn during our peak years or provide any sort of financial stability for our kids. Many of us are entrepreneurs out of necessity because our regions have not produced living wage employment in over 30 years.

    5. With regards to education; drop out rates are higher for millenials than for our generation and we were the victims of early Boomers who wanted to experiment with our lives in their classrooms. Our education consisted of political indoctrination and no rigor, even for the scholarly.

    6. Our parents, who were displaced during the destruction of manufacturing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, also had low levels of education and many of us were the first generation in our families to go to college. Our fathers were canon fodder in Korea and came home to work 20 or so years in industry only to find themselves unemployed and undereducated in their 50s. They never made enough money to send us to college.

    As a consequence we do not trust social institutions, the “man” or anyone else who seems like an establishment type. We are content to live simply because we’ve been offered no opportunities to integrate into the great Boomer companies that are supposedly so progressive. We want better things for our children because our adult lives have been nothing but misery and struggle.

    In fact, the only thing that I can think that would qualify as “dumber” than any of the other generations would be the amazing number of X-ers who became Republicans and Limbaugh fans, given that Reaganomics and trickle down theory destroyed the economy throughout our working lives. Are we embarrassed by Sarah Palin? Yes. We’ll see how our man, President-elect Obama, does fixing the mess the so-called Boomer elites have left us….!

  8. I’m a mid-Xer (1970), and though I long to claim a higher rung on the ladder for the intellectual and cultural prowess of my generational brethren, I have to agree that early Xers miss the mark by a large margin. Those 4-8 years older than myself tended to spend their teenage years smoking pot, listening to Led Zeppelin, and being generally apathetic about the world around them and politics. I grew up in the Reagan years, saying “no” to drugs, listening to everything from new wave to Prince to the Beastie Boys and Nirvana, and being very intellectually curious about world politics, starting with my awareness of apartheid in South Africa to current situations in Darfur, China, Iraq, India, etc. I won’t say that most of my same-age friends are just as involved, but I will say that those older Xers tend to read less and rely more on the likes of Rush Limbaugh for where they get their information.

  9. I was born in the mid-60’s, but I caught the bottom end of the Hippie generation. So as they went from peace parties and give to live, and lets make the world a better place only to become the biggest hypocrites we will ever know. Buying up all the biggest gas guzzling cars, largest homes and big and wasteful everything, encouraging porn and extreme violence in movies, one must ask, where the hell are they now?

    They are probably so burned out from all that dope and acid they dropped that they don’t know what is going on outside.

    They are the perfect symbol of frauds. Like America’s claims to be the light of Freedom.

  10. Wait. Hold on. When was I moved from Baby Boomer to Xer? I was born in ’61, and I’ve always learned that ’64 and prior were Boomers.

    But, I guess I should be sanguine about it. I think this generational cohort stuff is largely crap. It would be more accurate to call it “Broad Generalizations About People Born In The Same Time Period Or Era Who May Or May Not Have Had Similar Experiences In Their Upbringing And Education And Experience, But Largely Discounting Individual, Class, Racial, Ethnic, Religious, Regional, Economic Differences”. I mean, are Boomers only US citizens, or do we count all of humanity in these generational cohorts? My brother was born in Germany in ’64, Does he figure into the math? What if you spent a large part of your youth in another country; are you counted? Do you really find the same generational differences in people born in Alaska during a particular period as you do with those from NYC, LA and Salinas, KS? Meta-Statistics, taking lots of inconclusive statistical crap and bundling it together to form one, warm wet pile…

  11. Gen X doesn’t hold a candle to the boomers in terms of stupidity.

    Boomers:
    1> Got suckered into fighting Vietnam
    2> Piled Enormous unpayable debts onto my generation
    3> Provided NO oversight of government yet trusted it to expand and regulate
    4> Saved all their money for retirement but were to myopic to realize the system was unsustainable and now they are screwed.
    5> Promoted the culture of lawsuits and victimhood which is draging the USA down
    6> Trusted Social Security
    7> They are allowing 8 trillion dollar bailouts for crooks

    Now they want me to pay for them????
    When this country seriously hits the wall, they will be the first to suffer because they are to old to do anything about it. I for one will have zero sympathy for them.

    Boomers are leaving the country bankrupt because they are greedy stupid sheeple.
    And some boomers have the audacity to call gen X dumb?

    The cynicism of Gen X is well deserved, they follow a generation of crooks
    And our institutions are untrustworthy and run by criminals
    I am cynical to and for good reasons. I am getting my future stolen from me.

    I was born in 1981 FYI

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