What is Generation X? Maybe our last, best hope for change.
by Sara Robinson
You can’t blame Gen X for having had eee-freaking-nuff of the whole generational identification thing.
Americans born between 1960 and 1980 (give or take a couple years on either end) have spent their lives squeezed in between two over-hyped cohorts who have consistently hogged the spotlight, the jobs, the money, the social concern, and all the other cultural goodies that matter. To the temporal north, there are the Boomers — idealistic, moralizing, hyper-creative visionaries who still can’t entirely let go of their youthful golden years when they were so determined to Save The World. To the south, X looks down on the Millennials, the over-coddled, over-hyped, over-connected Indigo Children whose future is vanishing before their eyes — and who are now being held up at the next generation that just might Save The World.
Gen X just gets tired looking at both sets of overachievers. X doesn’t want to save the world. It just wants a decent job with benefits, some health insurance, and a reasonable place to live. Now that it’s hitting middle age, it wonders how it’s going to get its kids through college, let alone scrape together enough money to retire. Also: it’s not too keen on this whole generational thing in the first place. The Boomers may see themselves as some kind of epic history-changing wave, and the Millennials are permanently wired directly into their whole generation’s collective consciousness via their online social networks; but X has always had to go it alone. The idea that there’s some kind of coherent, unified group interest to be discerned from the arc of their lives so far is dismissed with a shrug. It’s just some Boomer marketeer’s sick way of making us look bad. Again. So what’s new?
But that dismissive attitude just might be a mistake. Because these stories that we tell about the character and fate of generations are rooted in a far larger and more complicated historical story. And in this story, time and again at history’s biggest crisis points, the generations that are most like Gen X have been the ones who’ve stepped in — quietly, competently, expertly, without much in the way of fuss or heroics, at exactly the right moment in time — and actually did save the world.
Let me explain.
Generation X In The Grand Scheme Of Things
Contrary to the suspicion of a lot of skeptical Xers, these generational identities — Boom, X, Millennial — weren’t just conjured out of some deranged marketer’s trend-addled head. They’re actually artifacts of a much broader theory of change that was laid out by historian William Strauss and economist Neil Howe. In their 1991 book, Generations, they argued that American history (and English history before that) has been governed by a recurring 80- to 100-year cycle of Renewal, Awakening, Unraveling, and transformative Crisis — and that this four-phase cycle was driven by four distinct generational archetypes, whose unique characters, choices, priorities, and interactions each exert a strong tidal influence on how history unfolds. Briefly, these four archetypes are:
> A Civic generation (for example, the Millennials, and also their GI grandparents). Civic generations are raised to play as a team, sacrifice individual rights for the greater good of the collective, and self-organize quickly into effective tribes. These generations are children during an Unraveling, and are called to remake the entire world anew when the Crisis hits in their early adulthood. They usually rise heroically to the task, branding themselves forever after as history’s golden children. After the crisis, they are the supremely confident midlife managers of the post-Crisis Renewal — a confidence that is shaken when their own Prophet children rebel against the world they made come the Awakening.
> An Artist generation (for example, the Silent retirees of today, and also the post-Millennial Homeland generation, which includes the kids now under the age of 15). Artists are the sheltered children of the Crisis, the conforming young adults of the Renewal, and the midlife enablers who open the doors to the next Awakening. They are sensitive, thoughtful, committed to justice and social improvement, and very invested in building and improving strong systems of every kind. Mad Men is, more than anything, the story of the Silent Generation in their grey-flannel-suited heyday. Bill Moyers and Martin Luther King revealed the Silents at their wonky, hopeful best; Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld showed them at their technocratic worst. The Artists put forward a powerful social critique that inspires their younger siblings to question the old order, and to affirm the rights of the individual against the smothering collectivism of the aging Civics.
> A Prophet generation (for example, the Boomers — but also the Missionary generation that produced FDR, Jane Addams, Winston Churchill; and the Transcendental Generation of Whitman, Lincoln, and Alcott before that). These generations, raised in the bright optimism of the Renewal, are visionary, idealistic, individualistic, and typically aggressively confrontational and uncompromising in their politics. In their youth, they always experiment with new religions, unconventional sexual arrangements, and drugs. More importantly: even as they begin actively dismantling the old social, political, and economic order brought about by their Civic parents — a task they will begin in young adulthood, and finish in late midlife — they also create original and compelling new visions for the world that will be shaped in the next Crisis.
> A Nomad generation (for example, Generation X, the Lost Generation of the early 20th Century, and the Gilded Generation of the mid-1800s). Nomads are the children of the Awakening — a time of huge social ferment and laissez-faire parenting. Since they (more than any other generation) pretty much raise themselves, they learn early to question big utopian visions and distrust authority (both parents and government). They enter adulthood during the Unraveling, when society’s institutions are being actively torn apart by the two generations ahead of them. Immensely practical and deeply skeptical of institutions of any kind — because they come of age never seeing any of them function properly — Nomad generations prefer real results to high-flown theory, and tend to rely most heavily on themselves and a few close friends.
Nomad generations have produced our greatest novelists (including Hawthorne, Twain, and Hemingway) and also our greatest generals (Washington, Grant, Lee, Eisenhower, and Patton). They don’t open frontiers — Prophet generations generally do that — but they’re almost always the first ones to move out onto the new territory to create permanent settlements, build communities, raise families, and establish civilization where none existed before. Whether it’s the American West or the World Wide Web, the first barns and schools and businesses in any new wilderness have historically raised by intrepid, self-sufficient Nomads.
A Coming Season of Change
In their 1997 book, The Fourth Turning (the most concise book to read if you want to understand more about this theory), Strauss and Howe explain that every 80 years or so, we come to a moment where a certain constellation of generational types stacks up in a way that’s ideally suited to massive, long-range change on a scale that’s possible at no other time. When it does, a Crisis era begins — an era in which a new order comes into being, transforming the entire world in a matter of 15 to 20 years. This moment can happen only when the generations line up just like so:
A Prophet generation — in this case, the Boomers — approaches elderhood. This cohort has spent 40 years dismantling the old system (in our case, the postwar world that rose out of the ashes of the Depression and WWII, which defined the last Crisis era), and sketching out the blueprints for what a new and better order might look like. They are are sure of their visions — and as age overtakes them, they become increasingly determined to launch one last crusade before they pass.
A Nomad generation — in this case, X — slouches into middle age. This group has lived their entire lives in a country where nothing has ever worked right — in fact, things have been breaking down year over year since they were born. Learning to survive in an environment of accelerating social and economic decay has made them intensely pragmatic realists who, more than any other generation, know how to kick ass, take names, and get things done. While the Boomers talk, Xers do. As they get older, they become increasingly determined to restore accountability, rebuild what they can, and leave something better for their kids. And to a greater degree than either of the other generations, they both understand what needs to be done, and possess the practical skills required to do it.
A Civic generation — in this case, the Millennials — arrives at adulthood. They have no allegiance to a dead past that has nothing to offer them; all their hopes lie in a future that will not come to pass unless they are willing to fight for it with everything they have. They’re not big on philosophy (and a bit too cavalier with rights and liberties, which is their dark side), and they’re too young to have much in the way of skills; but with Prophets to guide them toward the goal and Nomads to offer them solid, trustworthy management, they’ll self-organize and deliver in a way that the other two generations find absolutely incredible to watch.
This unique generational arrangement arrives only once in most people’s lifetimes. And when it does, it creates a top-to-bottom national commitment in favor of massive, rapid change. Out of decades of fragmented politics, a solid consensus forms over what the true existential threat is, and what must be done to resolve it. We must rebel against England. We must abolish slavery. We must defeat fascism. We must end the oligarchy of the 1% and stop destroying the planet. The imperative becomes all-consuming: once the generations agree on the central problem, nothing will ever be the same. And we are approaching such a moment right now.
This constellation is so potent that you can even see it spangled across our mythic literature. The old Prophet, the canny and hard-bitten veteran, and the wide-eyed young hero figure in every great story of transformation. Merlin, Uther, and Arthur. Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo. Obi-Wan Kenobi, Han Solo, and Luke Skywalker. Our founding myths tell of old Ben Franklin, cunning midlifers George Washington and John Adams, and young firebrand Thomas Jefferson. Even those old WWII movies showed the spirit of FDR motivating the grizzled Old Sarge, and inspiring the new recruits under his wing.
No one of these cohorts can bring us through this on their own. They all need each other if we’re going to succeed.
Why Gen X Matters
And this is why Gen X will save the world. There are things that X brings to the party in quantities that neither of the other two groups can muster — things that are absolutely non-negotiable if we’re going to pull through this dark season and move the world onto a better, more sustainable footing. We need Generation X because:
1. Gen X knows how to get things done. Neil Howe notes that Boomers love to talk — in fact, they believe so strongly in the power of words that they think that if they say things just right, to the right people, in the right way, then the change will magically just follow. But, stubborn individualists that they are, they’re not great when it comes to action — especially any action that requires teamwork on any kind of scale. Their track record bears this out: they’ve been trying to implement change for 40 years already. If they had the skills, they’d have done it by now.
The Millennials don’t have this issue. They’re already getting locked, loaded, and ready to roll. Their problem is aim. They understand the challenges and the stakes; but they’re young and untried, and lack the wisdom and perspective that come with life experience. And they’re still too young to reach the levers of power — levers that X is now finally just getting old enough to get a good, solid grip on.
As the current Crisis intensifies, X’s job will be to translate those utopian Boomer visions into something that will actually work on the ground — and to make sure it all works right the first time, because there will be no second chances. Generation X is just now beginning to provide the calm, collected management that will take us through to the next America. And to implement all of this, they’ll form an enduring partnership with the Millennials that — if the theory holds — will turn out to be the most satisfying and rewarding collaboration of their lives.
2. X understands risk. The Boomers were children and young adults during the fattest, richest season in human history. That’s why they could take all those big cultural and political flyers back in the day: the country’s stored-up layers of social and economic capital were so thick under their butts that they were virtually guaranteed a soft and easy landing, no matter what they did. The Millennials were raised in much tougher times, but have been carefully protected and sheltered by their Boomer and Xer helicopter parents (Nomad generations are, hands down, the most attentive parents of any of the four cohorts, in compensation for their own lack of parenting), who’ve done their best to keep them from taking big risks and experiencing consequences too harshly. As a result, they’re not at their best in unfamiliar situations, and don’t act without consulting endlessly with each other. And because of this, they’re prone to dither.
Gen X, on the other hand, came of age in an era of jarring and dangerous contradictions. On one hand, all that lovely social capital that had once protected the Boomers’ backsides was evaporating all around them (and their parents never were all that much help, either). On the other hand, at the same time, the personal price they paid for screw-ups just kept getting higher. Bad sexual choices meant herpes and AIDS. Drug experiments were sanctioned by increasingly draconian prohibitions. Three-strikes laws came into vogue just as they hit adulthood. Health insurance prices soared, discouraging physical risk-taking. Over the course of their lives, there have been smaller and smaller margins — and bigger and bigger penalties — for getting it wrong.
Ironically, one effect of this was to made X the biggest go-to-hell risk-takers on the scene. If everything damn thing you do is a risk, well, then, screw it — go big, or go home. Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse. This is the generation that gave us first-person shooters, action movies, rap music, extreme sports, and Sid Vicious: it’s tended to embrace anything that’s loud, dangerous, and scary. But, at the same time, this experience has made them canny assessors of risk — especially as they round the bend into middle age. They know in their aging bones — far better than the other generations — that some risks really are worth taking, and some sacrifices are absolutely worth making. And they’re pretty good at figuring out which ones aren’t worth the skin, too. When an Xer says, “I wouldn’t do that…” the rest of us would do well to stop and hear her out.
3. X trusts their own ingenuity. An old sign in a hardware store in my hometown read: “We the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much for so long with so little that we are now qualified to anything with nothing.”
This is where Generation X finds itself now. There’s a good reason that young Xers loved both MacGyver and Indiana Jones (who was a member of the Lost Generation — the previous Nomad cohort). As Indy put it: “Plan? I don’t have a plan. I’m making it up as I go along.” A lifetime of making it up, making a go, and sheer making do have made this generation preternaturally resourceful. If the car breaks down or the computer crashes, a Boomer will reflect on the existential meaning of the event. A Millennial will text her friends for suggestions. But the odds are good that the person who finally opens up the hood, grabs a flashlight, and takes a screwdriver to the problem with be an Xer. The tougher things get, the more we’re going to appreciate this about them.
4. X believes in competence and accountability. One of the things that always happens through the Awakening and Unraveling phases of the cycle is a slow erosion in institutional accountability. Both Artist and Prophet generations, each for their own reasons, aren’t really big on holding people or organizations responsible for their actions, or ensuring that there are consequences for failure. The Silents and Boomers have been letting things slide for decades (probably starting with Richard Nixon’s Watergate pardon), letting people get away with things that no functional society should tolerate — to the point where nobody in this country now seems to get what they deserve, no matter how good or bad their behavior might be.
A big piece of Generation X’s vaunted cynicism is tied up in their resentment over what looks, to them, like a massive and wretched double standard. All their lives, they’ve been subjected to harsh judgments and punishments that nobody else in society had to bear. And what they learned from this was to hold each other and everybody else responsible for their own actions — a trait that’s going to raise the overall level of accountability throughout American society as they age into more and more social control. Goldman Sachs may have gotten away with their dastardly deeds in 2008. Don’t count on it going down that way again if we see another crash in 2020, when the Xers will own Congress. Slowly, over the next decade, we’re going to see ever-greater calls for institutional competence, with real consequences for failure. Just like the Lost Generation’s Harry Truman starting the redemption of public accountability in 1937 with the Pecora Commission, Gen X will soon be the ones most loudly insisting that we get serious again about actually rewarding success and punishing failure.
5. X isn’t afraid to make the call. Boomers talk the problem to death. Millennials confer for hours. Xers weigh the risks and rewards, apply their ingenuity, and act — and don’t waste much time looking back to see if they got it wrong. It is what it is, and they did what they had to do. And they’re perfectly willing to live with the consequences, no matter what they turn out to be.
We’re going to rely on them to do a lot of that in the years ahead.
Generation X’s life so far has been rough, mean, and hard. So those of us now between 36 and 53 might be surprised to learn that, after all the crap we’ve endured, we’re only just now coming up on our truest days of glory — the moment we will be remembered for by history. The Boomers are finally start letting go of the reins. And though we find the Millennials’ willingness to trust authority frankly terrifying when we think about it, it won’t actually be so bad when we realize that the authorities they’re looking to are…us.
And for the very first time in our entire lives, we won’t be facing the challenges alone. We’ll be calling the shots, but the Boomers will be out front holding up the flag and the vision; and the Millennials will be marching solidly behind, covering our backs. It’ll be unfamiliar and strange for a generation that’s always done everything on its own. But it will also be the best time we are ever likely to know.
Sara Robinson, MS, APF is a consulting futurist and writer. She’s been a Senior Editor at Alternet.org; a Senior Fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future; and a longtime blogger covering change cycles and change resistance movements. Her work has been published by HuffPo, Alternet, Salon, The New Republic, New York Magazine, DailyKos, and many other places both online and off. She lives in Seattle, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Categories: American Culture, Generations, Politics/Law/Government
Very good, glad you sent this for S&R to publish. I’ve always been glad to be in kinship with Washington, Twain, Patton, and Bogart as fellow Nomads.
I’m not convinced that it will be something with the one percent that will be the galvanizing event. I can see the environment degrading to a point of crisis and forcing activity that will need to be lead by Xers, and perhaps the 1% will play into that, but I don’t think enough people care deeply enough a few rich people without some other factor playing in.
Great analysis, Sara. And I desperately want it to be true. If possible, I’d love to be a part of the revolution, as it were, although you know how beaten down I have gotten in the last couple of years.
The thing that frustrates me, and worries me, is that we’ve now had 5+ years of Gen X presidency and Obama has hardly been a game changer. I’d like to think that an Xer Congress would be an upgrade, but I’m really in wait-and-see mode, I suppose.
Obama is actually a young Boomer. That being said, his Presidency will ultimately be realized as a game changer- just not enough was changed
Obama is a front-edge Xer. The Boom was ’43-’60. Not that it necessarily matters, but he was born on the X side of the line.
Nope definitely a boomer. He was in high school during the end of the Vietnam War. 1964-1966, depending on the sociologist, starts gen x; folks who cannot remember the Vietnam war because they were too young.
Boom ended in 1960. Go read your Howe & Strauss.
Nomand presidents are seldom game-changers. Our best ones have always been Prophets — Lincoln, FDR. S&H talk about the “Grey Champion” — a Gandalf-like old figure, always a Prophet, who rises up to lead us to the next Promised Land.
Our two Boomer presidents so far have not been that. Clinton was ahead of his moment. Bush had no idea what the moment required. Al Gore had all the makings of a great Champion, but the fact that didn’t get the job may be one of the biggest failures of his generation. Our last, best hope on this front is almost certainly Hillary, unless the fates conspire to make Elizabeth Warren available for the job. You need someone who is a virtuoso visionary — and usually, that’s not a Nomad.
After the Crisis, we get Nomad presidents who come along behind and get the new order firmly established during the Renewal. Washington and Adams; also Truman and Eisenhower, and U.S. Grant. They are remembered fondly, but they’re not game-changers.
If Hillary is our last hope, I’m not hopeful. She’s part of the damned machine.
If we get Warren, on the other hand…
I’ll hold my mind open about Hillary. FDR wasn’t particularly promising, either. You need somebody who can put their hands on ALL the levers — as both Lincoln and FDR did — to steer through the Crisis. The fact that Hillary is so connected may be critical to her ability to bring us through — though, like FDR, she will no doubt have to cut plenty of deals with the PTB to get their cooperation to make that happen.
Obama and Clinton couldn’t do that. They were poor boys who got where they are because of rich patrons, so their ability to cross those patrons when the national interest required it was very limited. FDR, as a lifelong member of that elite, could tell them to go straight to hell when necessary. He could afford to “welcome their hatred”, and still expect that they would return his calls when needed.
Now that the Clintons are a settled part of that same elite, Hillary is going to have credibility and freedom to behave likewise. Whether or not she’ll do that is an open question. Her lifelong hero has been Eleanor, and this suggests at least the possibility of someone who understands transformative change.
I’d certainly love to be proven wrong about Clinton, but I think you can understand my skepticism. The entire Democratic Party has been in me-too mode, aiding and abetting every idea the GOP has trotted out, since 9/11 (if not before). As a senator she voted for the Patriot Act, right? And she voted to help Dubya send us into Iraq. To name a couple.
People can change, so maybe you’re right. But I have historically gotten myself into less mischief when I paid more attention to what people have done and less to what I hope they’ll do.
I would vote for Warren. I would vote for Bernie Sanders. I’m not sure there’s another major name out there that I’d vote for right now if you put a gun to my head.
It’s a shame, too, because Bill and Hillary both have the brains and charisma you’d need to change the course of history.
I wonder if we should be limiting our perspective on who the next “Gandalf-like” figure is to just politicians, and just to ostensibly progressive politicians at that.
The global changes from the last cycle to this one are far greater than anything the world has ever seen, and while there may not be more levers of power, the number and type of people who have access to them has broadened. While I can’t immediately think of a name who I’m confident would fit this bill, I could see a sufficiently respected and connected business leader filling in for a political leader in this role.
I’m also concerned that this cycle is so much different from the last that we risk seeing a backlash Prophet – a Saruman-like figure rather than a Gandalf-like one. Unlike the last cycle, we have advanced technologies and sciences (cognitive, neuro, psych) that enable micro-targeting of politics, turned manipulation of people into an actual science, and that have siloed neighbors from each other in ways not usually experienced outside police states and conflict zones. As such, forces who can see the crisis coming and understand that they’ve historically lost have a far greater ability to resist change than ever before.
Brian, that’s a definite possibility. Our friend Robert Cruickshank — who is on the leading edge of the Millennials age-wise — points out that this is exactly what happened in Germany. The generational alignment arrived, and the young Civic generation gathered in behind a crew of Lost Generation psychopaths led by Adolf Hitler.
I did mention that a nearly total disregard for individual liberties is too often the Civic dark side. Other traits that could go sour on them include their tribalism, and their accompanying penchant for creating in- and out-groups (and then going murderous on the Outs). In the last cycle, it was a combo of Lost and rising GIs who thought interning the Japanese was a good idea. In the one before that, the same two groups conspired to finish off the Native American genocide. It’s not pretty, and it’s really up to X to make sure that the Millennials don’t run away with themselves this way.
These example also suggest that if a Saruman rises, it will more likely be an Xer than a Boomer. Nomads very pragmatic about their goals, and willing to do almost anything to accomplish them — which, in their worst moments, can lead them to create things like Andersonville Prison and the Final Solution. It’s something y’all will need to watch in each other, and yourselves — though it’s probably only likely to happen if the Boomers totally fail to supply an appropriate leader for the times
I also agree that just because our Grey Champions have always been kings and presidents, they don’t always have to be. Power flows differently now, and perhaps this time around, that leader will come from some other quarter. But it’s still hard to imagine how anybody who’s not a US president could aggregate enough power to create the needed level of change.
I was originally thinking of a sufficiently wealthy business leader that he or she could play political kingmaker. You know, someone like Bloomberg, but on a national scale instead of merely NYC. Or Gates, but with more direct interest in politics. Folks like that. I’m not tied into that world well enough to suggest real possibilities, however.
In other words, how can we get Warren Buffet behind Elizabeth Warren?
I think Lincoln saying “no more slavery, I’m willing to go to war to end it” and Washington saying “No more colonial bullshit” was game changing. And both men were deeply flawed individuals
I’ve had this view since I read Strauss and Howe back when GENERATIONS was first edition. Good timely update.
One quibble. Very very minor. HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and HSV (herpes simplex virus) really shouldn’t be so casually associated as similarly consequences of “poor sexual choices” because HIV causes AIDS which a) emerged recently and b) has killed millions, while HSV which mostly only causes cold sores, has b) been around forever and b) almost never kills anybody directly.
Gen X is eminently practical. We know AIDS kills and cold sores are a nuisance by comparison. Turns out there are good drug treatments for both viruses that cut down on transmission, and that’s great. But we also remember the AIDS epidemic a lot differently than the freak-out over Herpes.
I was talking about genital herpes, not simplex. Which emerged in the late 70s, a few years ahead of AIDS. It was the first STD that had no cure, and it was the first real brake on the freewheeling sexual atmosphere that had prevailed for the previous 15 years. It scared us good at the time…though we had no idea that even worse was soon to come.
S &H’s arguments are, like all cyclical history arguments, patently nonsense, with about as much intellectual rigor as horoscopes. Notwithstanding that, this is a splendid piece–interesting, well written, witty. Look forward to reading more of your stuff at S&R.
I don’t know what Howe and Strauss you’ve read, but 13th Gen was one of the most insightful, dead-on analyses I have read in my entire life. Not sure what you mean by intellectual rigor, but their work is hellishly researched. So you’re seeing something I don’t. I may be missing something, I guess – I mean, they have their blind spots. Their work on Millennials was nigh-on worshipful. To their credit, they admit that they’re parents of Millennials and that they really like the generation a lot, so they’re honest about this particular criticism. But for every place I’ve found them a little off they’ve been really accurate about a hundred more.
That said, the value of 13th Gen and Millennials Rising were probably more a function of the hard research on those generations per se than it was the broader four-gen cycle theory.
Jeez, I am like so there. My horoscope is so dead on, too. I mean, I’m like a Virgo, and I’m super neat about some stuff, the stuff that matters, but even though I;m sloppy about some other stuff, but still, it’s like so true.
And I’m like totally an ENTJ. Really, totally.
In other words, you haven’t read it. Go read Generations. Seriously. I would say read 13th Gen, but my guess is most of that wouldn’t be familiar to you. You have Millennial kids, right? Go read Millennials Rising and get back to me.
You’re right, I did not construct my sentence well. Let me try again, “All cyclical history arguments are patently nonsense. S&H is a cyclical history argument.” So there.
As we’ve discussed, humans are designed to spot patterns. It’s what we do. When presented with a time series of events, we see cycles that don’t exist. Entire industries (e.g. day trading) exist on the back of hallucinatory cycles. There’s an old statistician’s trick. If you think you see a cyclical pattern, cover the right side of the page with a piece of paper and predict the next inflection point. Most of the time it quickly becomes obvious you’ve spotten an illusion rather than an insight.
Also as we’ve discussed, sociological research is pure horseshit. It’s not math, it’s words, and we wordsmith types should just admit that Lord Kelvin was right. “If you cannot express a thing in numbers, then your knowledge is of a meager and insufficient kind.”
It’s always possible to construct things that sound plausible, again because humans love narratives. We want a story that assembles all the pieces into a continuous and neat series. “For every human problem, there is a solution that is neat, plausible, and wrong.” That’s approximately a Mencken quote. I’m too lazy to look it up.
We find what we want to find in such arguments. As humans we glom onto what we think is true and ignore the contradictory data. My comparison with horoscopes or the Jungian archetype stuff was not misplaced. There used to be a guy on public access cable in NYC who presented these unbelievably bizarrely detailed horoscope charts with hundreds of criss crossed lines. He’d spend the entire program making ridiculous predictions then qualifying them with a hundred “unlesses” based on the intersection of one line with another.
Generational arguments are intriguing and compelling, and probably, like most such things, have some rear view mirror truth in them. Certainly the “Lost Generation” and “The Greatest Generation” feel right, and it surely makes sense that world circumstances at any given time will have a common shaping effect on the behaviors of the people in that time. However, to take them from observational anecdotes to predictive as this post does is just foolish.
I can agree with you in principle and still tell you you’re wrong about Howe and Strauss. You say it isn’t math, it’s words. Well, a good part of what their analyses is based in very numerical, as in solid demographic and economic research.
I don’t kid myself that I’m going to convince you, but I’m no dummy. If you recall, I spent a few years some time back learning in detail how to unravel bad academic arguments, and while there are moments where H&S do things I don’t buy, I’m more than comfortable telling you that they’re damned right about a lot of things.
Forget the “cyclical history” thing and go read Millennials Rising, then get back to me.
I dont doubt that H&S have any number of trenchant observations on the behavior of certain demographic groups, some of which are likely true enough and wonderfully entertaining. I do doubt that they have the causality right, however compelling, because it’s just too hard to get that right. And I am absolutely certain that they cannot predict in advance the likely impacts of any demographic group. No, I wont read it. What makes you think I lack things to keep me busy?
I spent the afternoon researching sheep stations in New South Wales. Surely you wouldnt suggest I put that aside for pop sociology.
Let’s get back to the main point. I’d like to see more of Ms. Robinson’s writing, but on meatier and more important topics.
1: Careful – ain’t nobody using the word “causality.” They’re observing that, in the absence of major disruptive factors, certain dynamics tend to recur in a pattern. And there are disrupting dynamics. Back in the 1800s there was a three-cycle turn. Civil War killed a generation, pretty much. I know you don’t think I’m suitably skeptical at times, but my doc program didn’t hand out PhDs to uncritical yokels. Just saying.
2: As for meaty, I can’t stress to you how meaty this subject is for a lot of us Xers. However, I also get – fully – why it doesn’t necessarily look that way from outside the generational cohort. Millennials get Xers even less than Boomers.
If they say this happened because it’s part of a cycle, then by definition that is causality. In this case the forcing function is historical cycles and the dependent variable is generational dynamics. Score–Math 1, Weasel words 0.
Again, the parallel is horoscopes. People find them compelling, and there’s enough truth in them to make them interesting. Humans do tend to have certain traits and all of us have some of those traits and can recognize ourselves. Same with Jungian archetypes like Briggs-Meyer. Same with stuff like “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” etc, etc.
Yes, I believe you recognize yourself in H&S description and it emotionally resonates. I stronly suspect I’d recognize myself, too, just like I recognize parts of me in astrological signs that aren’t mine.
It’s possible that some set of external pressures created similar conditions at some previous time in history and thus other generations have looked like this one. I doubt it–too many things happening at once, definition of generations is too arbitrary, etc, etc, but it’s possible.
However, saying that these repeat with regularity or that such and such a generation is like the generation of 1743 or whatever and they accomplished great things so this one will accomplish great things is just foolishness.
Yes, I get that many people born in the seventies and later have managed to convince themselves of a collective victimhood created by following a selfish boomer generation. I know some Gen Xers feel the need for some sort of historical affirmation. (So does everyone by the way) OK, then, you’re a great generation and you’re going to do great things because it’s ordained by history.
Now here’s a participation medal and an orange slice. Go wait for us in the minivan of history.
“Ordained”? Okay, are you sure you read the post and the follow-up comments? We’ve talked rather specifically about how generations have failed and how this one might.
youre quibbling. the key word is “predictive”
and shame on you for not giving me props for the minivan of hstory line. that’s poetry dude.
Okay, the minivan line was funny.
But I’m not quibbling. I’m getting to the nut of what’s driving your comments here, which is, in short, attitude and preconceived bias. You keep comparing H&S to astrology because in your view – the view of a guy who has not read a word a of it – their writing is an example of some kind of cyclical hoodoo. Anything that suggests anything cyclical is hoodoo because it’s cyclical, like astrology, which is hoodoo. We don’t have to read it to know that it’s hoodoo because it’s cyclical.
Except that the really smart guy with the PhD, the one who doesn’t believe in astrology even a little bit, the one who HAS read it, is telling you that H&S are describing something with some merit. I’m not telling you that it is perfect, and I’d never go so far as to argue that social research of even the most rigorous sort is science. In fact, I’m the guy who has said the very opposite.
H&S are more like demographers and journalists who have researched the hell out of a subject and noticed a pattern. Not clockwork with anything like 100% predictive capacity, but a set of parameters. And really, it’s fairly in line with the things I know you’d buy.
For instance, if I described a child to you, and explained the conditions in which it was raised in great detail, you could hypothesize how that child might grow up. A kid from a terrible, broken home with lousy parents, for instance – in my experience, people like that tend to either a) become GREAT parents because they don’t want to be like their parents, or b) they replicate the failures of their own parents.
Great. Now say we round up a million such kids and do a longitudinal study of their lives. We might discover that both a and b happen, but a happens a lot more often. This would allow us to describe the more common trajectory and also the “dark side” alternative. At this point we can’t predict with any certainty, but we do know the dominant and minority tendencies, and those dynamics, writ large over the course of a 50-million-strong cohort, would certainly describe a significant social trend.
Fast forward a few decades. This cohort’s children are now becoming parents. Many of them were raised by the great parents whose parents were terribe parents. Again, they react in X number of ways. And so on.
This is a variable in a grand equation. Political climate is a variable. Economic status is a variable. Religion is a variable. And so on. In a town of 100,000 you might play hell seeing a pattern because N is too small. But when the sample size is 300 million and you multiply that by 250 years…
You would never argue that patterns and trends don’t exist. The part you seem to be resisting is that some patterns might be reflexive or reactive. Frankly, that’s remarkable coming from a guy who’s so deeply convinced of the power of the market to drive equilibrium. Equilibrium is a series of logical actions and reactions around what Chaos calls an attractor.
H&S don’t articulate it in these terms, but the basic scientific fact is that we live in a universe dominated by patterns. That we humans sometimes take pattern recognition too far, imagining patterns that aren’t really there (astrology, the man in the moon), this doesn’t mean that human animals and the collectives into which they organize themselves aren’t given to patterns of behavior. And it doesn’t strike me as especially radical that some of these patterns might be reflexive or reactive to some degree.
I clearly did not put my point well.
The astrology point was intended not to bolster the argument against cyclicality, but rather to illustrate that certain types of arguments can “over-resonate” with people to the point where their perception becomes selective, and that an argument of the H&S type is such an argument. However, clearly the analogy is offensive to you, so let’s leave astrology aside for the moment.
I have no doubt that H&S is perceptive and very descriptive.
I have no doubt that patterns exist in science, in life, in all sorts of places. Stimulus-response. Stimulus-response. Sometimes these patterns exist in very complex environments, e.g., markets.
I also have no doubt that humans tend to impose patterns in places where they may or may not exist.
Such is the case with historical cycles. I think that finding cyclicality in time series (be it history or the stock market) has generally proven to be illusory and has not stood up to serious scrutiny. There have been any number of books written on historical cycles, business cycles, etc.
(BTW, as an aside, mathematically patterns like those that occur in the supply-demand situations occur in response to things like price. H&S-like cyclicality arguments say either that the independent variable is time or that time is highly correlated to a set of independent variables like economy, etc, etc. Both are problematic arguments.)
I doubt historical cycles exist because of the complexity of factors involved and because historians are generally historians because they got 200’s on the math portion of their SAT’s, the work on historical cycles isn’t subject to much real scrtutiny. Now the counter argument to that would be the whole chaos theory thing, which says that even different sets of variables can create similar outcomes in replicable ways.
And you can deny it all you want, but when the point of the piece is that Gen X is likely to have a lasting, significant and positive effect on the world, then that is PREDICTIVE, and when the supporting evidence is that is because we’re at that point in the cycle, that is CAUSAL. Weasel all you want, but that’s what this piece says.
Now having said that, I don’t care that much if people believe in cyclicality. It’s silly, but no less silly than many other things.
I hope you’re right Sara. I really, really do. But I’m not hopeful. I turned 41 in January, and right now I’m so beaten down by work, raising kids, and disgust with politics that it’s really hard for me to imagine that anyone else like me has any energy or opportunity to fix the system. The system is clearly rigged, getting more so, and as I alluded to above, the changes since the last cycle are so dramatic that I’m not convinced this one will be anything like any of the others that have come before.
That said, in 10 years I’ll probably be in a position of authority at work, where I can push through changes there. The kids will be in college (assuming they both want to go to college, of course) and while that means my budget will be hosed, the amount of time I’ll have available to work on things will skyrocket. And, assuming things continue on their current political trend, our political system will have hurt so many people that its failings will be obvious to all, not just to the people who are paying attention.
I’ve been saying it for a while now that there is no question that I could run the country better than 99.99999% of the politicians who are failing to run it today. But even if I chose to enter politics, I couldn’t possibly be elected. I actually have opinions that I’ve stated publicly and that I stand behind, so I can’t raise money. I’m not independently wealthy so I can’t fund my own campaign. And right now the system is so rigged against authentic public participation that I could never get elected even if I could somehow find the money (I don’t play Lotto).
Right now I don’t see how my generation can get past those barriers. And I’m not seeing anyone on the horizon who can motivate me to pull out a sledgehammer and smash them down. I keep hoping someone like that will appear, but I keep being disappointed.
As a leading edge boomer, born in 1946, I think the criticisms of boomers here are pretty on target. We’ve screwed up pretty royally–if the best we could do for political leadership is Bill Clinton (not bad as president, but, like many of us, entirely too self-indulgent), George Bush (reeking of self-entitlement, which led to the disasters we’ll be cleaning up for a generation), and Hilary Clinton (see above), we have squandered an opportunity to make the world a better place. In fact, we haven’t improved it much at all. So we messed up.
But sadly, I’m not as optimistic as Robinson about the Xers’ ability to improve on matters. Politically, we’ve got a bunch of crazy young repubs running around trashing the place (mostly Xers, as far as I can tell), and to balance that we’ve got–Cuomo? Emmanuel? Jeez. Thank god for Elizabeth Warren–but where’s the Xer equivalent? The thing that I’ve noticed is what I haven’t noticed–considerable Xer engagement. Whatever our faults, and these are manifold, Boomers weren’t shy about engagement when young–the Vietnam protests, Earth Day, the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s, all of that had really substantial Boomer engagement, if not leadership. Maybe I just haven’t been paying much attention, but where are the Xers? “Coming into their own”? Perhaps. But it helps to have some experiential base before assuming you can just step into the next round of leadership.
“Boomers talk, Xers do”? I’ll believe it when I see it. The Xers that I work with in the finance industry are more self-absorbed than the boomers, and they do a whole lot less outside of the office than either Boomers or Millennials–and this, sadly, is a pretty important industry. There is definitely a young/old split in the industry, but it’s not the Xers–it’s the Millennials. The Xers are as oblivious to climate change as the people my own age–in fact, they’re worse. The trading desks, mortgage lenders and financial engineers who brought the global financial system to near chaos a couple of years ago were Xers, not boomers or Millennials. If that’s “doing”, then perhaps a bit less of it would be in order. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal and Rand Paul are all Xers, right? Where are their Democratic counterparts? Bernie Sanders? Not exactly an Xer.
Of course, I’m going to be biased on this issue. I’m a boomer who looks at the political and economic landscape and often thinks that moving to the Shetland Islands and just getting the hell out of the way might not be a bad idea. Most days I feel like getting one of those “I may be old, but I got to see all the great bands” bumper stickers. So color me “waiting to be convinced.”
Gen X’ers are doers. They are the ones who gave us the modern internet, Iphones, Quantum computing, 3D printers, Drones, etc.. The thing you seem to miss is gen X’ers are individualists. They find Governments and other institutions to be corrupt and illegitimate. The only politcal party that has gained a legitimacy to them is the Libertarians. They don’t want to change or fix the system. Some have decided to build a new system and give others the choice to opt out of the current one. Bitcoin is the start of this. The rest just want to ignore the system and live their lives. The older generations are making this almost impossible at this point with all their collectivist policies and intrusions on personal liberties. When the X’ers get fed up enough to fight it will probably be alot like the French revolution with the Boomers under the guillotine.
Sorry, Boomers did that (Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are Boomers). But making the internet useful – Gen Xers did that (e.g., Google – Thanks Larry).
To answer the question of where the democratic X’er leaders are…well there are not that many of them. Most of the more obvious leaders as duly noted are republican/libertarian/moderate to conservative. Remember most Gen Xers came of age or were teens during the Regan-Daddy Bush era. Reagan was looked upon as a strong leader who defeated communism (if you are hard core lib-dem and despised Reagan for his politics then fine but just relaying a perception).
And the economy was booming pre Oct. 1987 crash. Mid 80’s were looked upon as good ol’ days by more than a few Gen Xers. Republican leadership was considered competent. Older X’ers remember the Carter years and his incompetence. Democrats were stereotyped as being bad leaders by older members of Gen X and younger Boomers of the Generation Jones (born late 50’s, early 60s).
Then we saw the pros and cons of Clinton administration. Clinton provided some level of competency but he did not inspire Xers. A whole generation of politically conscious folks born in 60’s and 70’s became neo-Cons and Libertarians in young adulthood. Hence, you get Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan etc. They looked upon Reagan as flawed but very competent and identified with his ideology due to his leadership. There is also an association with liberalism and the Democrats with the more negative stereotypes of the Boomers and their impractical view of their world. Not defending that view point. But, pointing out it’s existence.
I’m sure the books to read mentioned in the post and in the comments are worth reading but why is there so much under-the-surface hostility toward other generations. I will apologize, up front, in that I did not spend the time to read every word of the comments so forgive me if I missed some insightful point that would make me feel better about all of this generational friction (it’s really late here and I’m exhausted). I’m sure Sam will set me straight if I have gone off track.
As far as the ‘Boomer’s talk, and the Ex-er’s do’, I recall my silent generation parents and boomer siblings were not above taking action on things for which they had strong passion or equally strong fears. (I still have my POW bracelet that my normally shy, wallflower sister sold with intense dedication.)
My concern is the generalizations that result from research of generational differences. I am technically an ‘X-er’ but am much more in tune with boomer qualities (early X-er with older boomer siblings). I was not a latch-key kid. My parents sacrificed so my step-mother would be at home when we came in from school and provide the structure we needed to learn good study habits, prioritization, and even self-sacrifice. Sure they screwed up, especially my Dad who did so royally most of the time but they didn’t sit on the sidelines.
As I see it, my opinion only, ‘my’ generational group has been hell-bent on making money (he who dies with the most toys wins), care more about their pets than family (my turn to generalize), and are so scared of losing their security blankets that I don’t believe it will ‘rise up’ and ‘save the world’. While I participated in peaceful demonstrations against this country’s involvement in El Salvador in college I ended up being sold the ‘Promise Land of prosperity’ crap and spent far too many years focused on money, things, and the future instead of living for now. (Oh, and the generalization that Boomers were The generation that experimented with drugs I find pretty narrow – Silent generation’s dependence on Valium and/or alcohol; X’er’s dipping their toes in the marijuana scene – if not more. And when did Meth become so popular? According to this timeline during the X’er’s movement into early adulthood. (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/meth/etc/cron.html)
Our need to group and categorize people based on birth order, birth timing, astrological sign, (although I have my own theory on the astrology component), etc. divides instead of unites. If we ‘X-ers’ were more willing to listen to the Silents, Boomers, Millenials, etc.- and if these distinctions had not become so ingrained in our social and economic lives – we might be able to ALL work toward change. But then that’s a simple Southern girl’s – with only a Bachelor’s degree and her alleged innate discernment – point of view.
Based on when we were born, what happened to us and in the world around us during formative years (and our reactions to those events) and those with whom we interacted there may be enough similarities to herd us into these groups. But in doing so we might forget to look at other influences and how they just MIGHT defy generalization at the individual level. Don’t fence me in….
FDR was a tyrant. (And Lincoln isn’t that great either if you understand how he did what he did.) FDR did other terrible things, but I’ll focus on one: FDR signed an executive order that required everyone to turn their gold in to the government or risk big fines and prison time. Less than a year later, after having taken everyone’s gold by force, FDR signed a law raising the price of gold 70% — instantly devaluing the dollars previously traded for.
It’s bad enough when government uses its monopoly on force to steal your stuff, but a lot of people don’t understand how things like fiat money, inflation, and private central banks are hidden taxes and allow unlimited government money printing which continually increases the power of government and creates massive debt (paid for by you and your children) which is used to control your life and your freedoms.
If you think our last, best hope is Hillary, you’re really barking up the wrong tree there. Though I can’t wait to see the excuses that are made for her pro-military industrial complex and interventionism and corporatism and spying on you. I hope she can find the time to do presidential stuff between her $300,000 speeches for Goldman-Sachs.
dude the Great Depression. Was caused by the insane greed of the bankers and gilded age plutocrats. FDR did many good things to help everyday people get out of that. That’s what happens when private corporate greed takes and destroys everything. That’s government’s role to counter that. Don’t you understand?
FDR’s policies extended the Great Depression. You’re trying to find excuses for a tyrant who confiscated citizens’ gold and then increased the price to devalue the fiat dollars he had exchanged for it, instantly ripping all of those citizens off. He put Japanese-Americans in concentration camps. He planned to rig The Supreme Court since it had been throwing out his unconstitutional policies. His New Deal housing policies were racist and created segregation that formed the slums of today.
Government’s role is to let banks fail when they do the wrong thing. So many of the recent “too big to fails” would have failed like they deserved to, but the thing you are championing for — more government — bailed them out with your tax money. Government used your tax dollars to bail out Goldman Sachs. And now those banks are bigger and more powerful than ever. Government intervention destroyed competition and made things worse. More Democrats than Republicans voted for the TARP bailout btw.
Look at the housing crash. Housing prices finally came down after people who did the wrong thing (both banks and consumers) started paying for their greed. What did government do? It did everything it could to manipulate and prop up housing prices to save the banks. So then housing prices went back up, and poor people couldn’t afford a place to live anymore. Thanks to big government’s unholy alliance with big banks.
Your analysis is good. You have a major blind spot in what the cause will be. It wont be some social justice correction. It will not be furthering the utopian goals of the Boomers, there will be no fixing the 1%– there will be no 1%. It will be so much more terrible and bloody than the last turning. Deep down all the Xer’s know this; this is part of the grimness of the generation, part of why they’re so protective and nurturing of their children. They know what evil will come and want to protect them, and give them some normalcy while they can.
Lev – you literally took the words right out of my mouth… X’ers as children saw both the “old days” (1970s) and the “new days” (1980s and 90s)… we got to see up close and personal the human impacts of what happens when order is destroyed, integrity compromised and morality (something that was once never questions) now turned into something open to debate. I can’t speak for everyone my age – but I feel it in my bones… like the quiet before a major storm… our parents generation focus on change at any cost has succeeded in breaking most of us into factions – – but read this thread People have been divided into teams – and the central notions that have held us together – such as common belief in accountability, integrity and adherence to standards – have all been systematically torn down…. so much that very little exists to prevent social calamity… all that remains it the “spark event”
Reblogged this on goneamerican and commented:
This girl nails it on the head with a 5 pound sledge hammer. I have been sayin this for years. Nowhere near as calm cool and collect mind you, much more touch of the redneck thought process. Just the same, if I was a girl, and I was more concerned with grammer and more concerned with acceptance, and just a tad less dramatic in a burt renyolds in deliverence state of mind….it woulda been just like this.
Time is here and alot of individuals are gettin very upset with this geoup sheep theory that has left us with broken corrupted bullshit( federal govt, state govt, country govt) money laundering, scraping off the bottom and feeding off the top(welfare, corporate and lazy shiftless oh I am so depressed and my mommy spanked me welfare). The future is gonna be handed over one day to a class of individuals whose accomplishments are suspect yet have been told they are special none the less. My generation, well our accomplishemnts are suspect at best but we were called out on it, which is what brings us tothe present day future mess. Don’t get me started on thechildren of the greatest generation….fuckin hippies who were gonna change the world, and by God they did and look what we got. These fucks can’t even find their fuckin car keys.
I said all that so I could say this. THere are a few kinds of individuals in this world. the doers, the screwers and the dreamers. Now thedreamers cross over in both groups. dreamers that are does, save this world not just change it. Steve Jobs was a dreamer and a doer, Bill gates, Lee Iaccoca, ect ect…big dreams but they did it. the screwers(every politician of the last 50 years. like james brown said talkin loud and sayin notin’, lets not forget union bosses, injury lawyers, corporate welfare fucks who take cash for non performance, and then of course the group we should never speak of in a political correct conversation….fuck political correctness….the good for nothin white trash, Black trash, mexican trash, cuban, peurto rican,ect ect…did i leave anyone out. in the ghettos the trailer parks. havin babies, fuckin up a storm and add to the check they recieve. only to raise kids to do the same, LBJ and his great society ! Detroit fuckin Michigan was the model of the great society LBJ said….fuck yeah I guess so hahah. ya seen detroit lately. not much society left and it surely ain;t great.
Why do we have such a hard time admitting this, its easy try it say with me…..the policies that your federal govt, and state and county govt have implemented over the last 80 years have been the ruin of the best system that individuals could work in to achieve and not be punished. they have stolen off the backs of many generations. How’d they do this ? because we as a group of individuals became lazy. we wnated to be part of a group, part of the cool kids in class, to fit the fuck in and be included, we stopped fightin the authority and instead we coward to them.
like all things in life this is simple math…add it up
What Strauss and Howe were pointing out is general character traits of different generations. This is not any type of a “prophesy” of any kind. That the Gen Xers like myself are the get-‘er-done middle managers, and doers rather than talkers says zero about the morality of the choices to be made. It is just as likely (in the current case of America probably more so) that a Nomad generation will implement the plans of destruction as it is of implementing plans of salvation.
During World War 2 (our last crisis) all the other major participants were going through the exact same generational constellation. And while we had our nomads of Patton and Eisenhower, they had their nomads of Rommel, and Marshal Zhukov, and General Yamashita.
The constellation theory of generations simply tells us how generations are laid out over history. Gen-X may not save America. In fact, it may just lead the Millennials in following the idiot Boomers right off a cliff.
Lovely story to tell my children… cynical Gen X’er that I am, I’m not so sure it’ll be such a bumpyless ride, I don’t see boomers hading the keys, not to mention I’d fear for my life if I have to trust them to lead (look where that got us), and I certainly wouldn’t trust a millennial having anybody’s back while contemplating themself on the mirror!
Melissa, Gen Xers are the very next leaders. Our generation will have control of Congress by 2020, no later than 2024. The Speaker of the House is already a Gen Xer. There is a good chance the president just after Hillary or the Donald will be an Xer. Nothing Boomers can do much about that. They are handing over the keys as we speak.
In the workplace the Boomers won’t live forever. Last time I checked the fountain of youth has not been discovered, not all cancers or life ending diseases have been cured and I don’t believe there are many vampires out there in real life LOL! Regardless of pension and retirement situations the Boomers are going to have to retire and unfortunately depend a lot on their children to help them. Both of my parents were born in the 40’s and have retired. I help my Mom out even though she lives in our own house. Expect more Boomers to retire over the next five to seven years. Gen Xers will assume their positions and because of sheer numbers some of the more brighter Millennials will assume some management and decision making positions (those born in early part of 80’s who are on cusp of Gen X and Millennial time periods).
I found this story via Google – what prompted me to search for was the realization that 3 Gen X’rs (Cruz, Rubio & Paul) are stepping up on the national stage – there will likely be a few more… The words they speak resonate – don’t care what politics you are – but you have to admit that these three men stand in stark comparison to the Old Baby Boomer guard (BUSH-CLINTON) – – this feels like a unique sort of place in time where certain events have aligned and the “old-guard” in both parties seem to be in weakened positions, the Zietgiest is shifted away from Boomer driven social idealism and is changing to something else – – I have a strong interest in Generational differences, strengths and weakness. In that vein I did some Google-ing and found this story.
Congratulations to the author – because this is the absolute best analysis I have ever read on generational differences and how they impact our culture…. I will agree with a prior commenter tough – in a few areas it is obvious the writer has a liberal slant – but it does not have much impact on the overall thesis – I think it just colors how she defines what she considers the crisis and solutions are for our time. The problem is not climatic or economic – or even political…. IT IS SOCIAL – or “CIVIL”… the “Culture Wars” as they have been dubbed in the past – started by the Boomers in the 60’s and have been roiling ever since, seem to be coming to a head. Those of us in Gen-X have had a front row seat in this war for our entire lives – and yes – it has turned us into Survivors… It answer a Boomer comment earlier questioning our commitment to actions – – I think there is a misunderstanding… I think we Xer’s care about the world and saving it for our children and all that jazz – but make no mistake – we are pragmatic survivors first. Whatever that requires
Cruz, Jindal, Paul, and Rubio are four of the dumbest, most conservative, idiot Xers (Paul technically is a Boomer)
Rand Paul wants to stop government corruption and the unholy alliance of both sides not wanting spending for their programs cut so both sides basically agree to keep spending on everything. 18+ trillion dollars of debt on your children. Rand Paul wants to end the failed war on drugs, wants government to stop spying on you, wants to stop unconstitutional, never-ending wars, etc. And his voting record backs up his talk. I challenge everyone to watch his interviews on things like the failed interventionism in Syria and see if you can’t not agree.
Disagree. You may not like that their conservative but they are not dumb. Now, Jindal is too opportunistic and more of a out for their selves persona. Rand Paul is the better of the bunch (as a Libertarian myself I can see his side of things more clearly that the rest of them). And Paul is on the cusp and if someone uses the early 60’s (1961) as the start date for Gen X then he is one. I personally feel the years are off and it should be circa 1960 to pick some year in late 70’s. 1964 or 1965 is pushing the start date too forward as the starting point for Gen X. 1981 or even as some suggest as far ahead as 1984 is too forward for the ending of the generational time line.
I am a Boomer and my experience with GenXers is VERY different than what you just laid out. One good example of my point is the Iraq war. We fought and lost in Nam and tried to warn everyone but no. This time competence, a realistic attitude and some badass was going to show Boomers how it’s done. I rest my case.
In my own experience all I wanted to do is pass on my hard won expertise to a group of GenXers, and with no strings attached I might add. I longed for a mentor when I was their age but the Silents and the Civics didn’t mentor worth a damn. In an effort to prove their own genius all my suggestions were completely ignored by my GenX coworkers. The project was completed and revealed that if you want a real dreamer pick a GenXer who thinks he or she is a genius, especially a creative one. Their idea of creative integrity is apparently rebooting what has been done before without asking the original creator if he or she has any suggestions. My only consolation is that they failed on an epic level proving they could have used some mentoring. I don’t know who is to blame, them or their Silent parents. I often feel that the Silents secretly loathed the Boomers and the sixties and brought up their kids to do the exact opposite of whatever was Boomer. The problem is that although we were dreamers we also believed in education, love, mentoring, and art history, and if one is brought up to rebel against that list the outcome is what we have now – a whole pant load of badass to use their favorite word.
I think one of the greatest myths is that Boomers were actually responsible for the civil rights movement, Vietnam protests and fighting, great music of the sixties, and the idea that they changed the world. Most of the Vietnam protesting and fighting was done by Silent Generationals. In 1969 the oldest boomer would have been only 23, the youngest, 5. Civil rights during the Martin Luther King was done by Silent Generationals. In the lifetime of Boomer adults (1980s-current) civil rights have actually gotten much worse. Look at the Black lIves movement, with unarmed Black men getting shot down weekly. Great music of the sixties- Dylan, Hendrix, Joplin, were all Silents. Boomer’s inherited the Eisenhowesque post WW2 economic boom and infrastructure development, big cars and cheap gas, jobs even for high school graduates, cheap college, cheap houses. They gave us Reaganomics (elected during Boomer adult years), Clinton deregulation, Bush 911/unpaid wars and taxcuts, the Great Recession, endless military spending and campaigns, prisons exploding, a massively degraded environment, jobs sent overseas, a crappy economy, and the greatest wealth gap in human history. P.S. to author- Sid Vicious was a Boomer who made music during the Xer childhood era
Very true. The leaders of the Civil Rights movement were predominantly born during the Great Depression Years. So they would be Silents. But the older boomers were still active participants. And, they most certainly the majority of participants in the anti-war movement of the times.
And yeah Sid Vicious was born in mid-50’s. Many Gen Xer’s musical heroes were younger members of the Baby Boom generation or on the cusp between Gen X and Baby Boom. Virtually all of the heavy metal, punk rock acts, pop artists (Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson etc) of the 80’s were technically boomers. But Gen X’ers followed their music as much if not more than folks from their own generation.
It was not until mid to late 80’s when alternative rock and rap saw the first Gen X influence in pop culture and music. First true Gen X super rock band was Guns N’ Roses and the early rap artists (Beastie Boys, RUN DMC, Public Enemy etc.) were Gen Xers. Then of course came Grunge. Our generation took early electronic music and made techno. Just like what we did with idolizing music created by boomers, many of the Millennials music idols are Gen Xers. Where would they be with their musical tastes if they were not influenced by rap, 90’s rock, techno etc. Without Emminnem, NWA, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Chemical Brothers, Moby etc. the Millennials would have no ground to work off from as far as modern music.
Well you are a boomer who just don’t get our generation and that is fine. And not all of our parents came from the Silent generation. For example, my own mother was in the first batch of boomers born in late ’45. Our parents were a combination of younger Silent Generation folks and the first wave of boomers (born between ’45 to circa 1950 or so).
Absolutely fantastic article!
Yes generation X my generation yes we kick arse, im an Automotive technician I make money for myself got sick of all the incompetant dickheads in society and we get pissed of with people jerking themselves to inefficiency and being useless, im good with money, i studied carpentry, buisness, automotive, studied money, the system is all smoke and mirrors thats for sure, and the only way you will know is to challenge it for yourself and stop taking it in the arse from everyone, we are as a generation sick of stupid regulation that trys to turn innocent citizens into criminals, we are sick and tired of complainers and wingers and people who dibby dob because they are simple people with no other real purpose than getting jelous of others being productive, i am debt free, and i have assets which are growing exponentially, i am highly skilled and sought after as a mechanic, i am investing and invest hard, I paid for all my own education there were no free handouts, i continue to work hard and use all the technology available to get extrordinary results, i give the two fingured salute to working in a job these days jobs are controlled by contracts with too many stupid rules made by baby boomers, system is one big smoke screen you can do whatever you want in this world nothing stopping any of you from greatness except yourselves, the young people of today the millenials believe everythings free and are stupid, no other way of describing them and not to be trusted
Born in 1966,just turned 50 – I do see some of the trends of my life in this article. Well written!
OMG thank you! Brilliantly written. For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to decide whether I should go to Philadelphia to march at the DNC.
This clinched it for me. Tomorrow I’m going to polish the old X-wing (ahem, buying plane tickets) and will bring our 25-year-old millennial nanny (like a daughter to us) who is also feeling the bern. We are off to see the wizard, Obi Wan. May the Force be with us.
PS: Love the archetypes you listed (Merlin, Uther, and Arthur. Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo. Obi-Wan Kenobi, Han Solo, and Luke Skywalker.). I want to add the millennial’s favorite myth: Dumbledore, Hagrid, and Harry Potter)
I think the only thing good to come out of Strauss and Howe’s Generations, was an album called Generation 13 by Canadian Proggers Saga.
I tried to read the book but I found very little “science” and a whole lot of hand-waving.
If I never hear Boomer, Gen X, Gen Y or Millennial again, I’d be perfectly happy. I am technically a boomer, but as far as I’m concerned Boomers are people who got high and/or got laid during the Summer Of Love. I was in 7th grade and not many of us were doing either at that time.
I am unconvinced that there is much value in stereotyping “generations”.
“Boomers” are sometimes listed as those born from 1946 to 1964 or maybe 1960. And Gen X was defined here at 1960 to 1980. Is there really any logic to the boundaries? What if we defined Boomers at 1946 – 1970 and Gen X as 1971-2000? Would that make any more or less sense?
What I see is a continuum of gradual changes; segmenting it into “generations” is journalistic sloppiness, not wisdom. In particular, none of these journalistic “generations” are self defined – other people made & applied the labels.
And there is a LOT of diversity within even the loose windows. For example, I did go through the 60’s, and believe it or not – most young people were not stereotypical hippies! Only a small fraction went to Woodstock, took LSD, burned draft cards, wore tie die, participated in the Summer of Love, etc. So far example, I went to a middling university; where a large anti-war rally might involve 1/6 of the student body. Other campuses were higher and lower, but overall it was a minority. None of the shallow stereotypes really fit that “generation”. And I’m sure they don’t fit other “generations” either.
One could make a case for defining generations based on external events like the start and end of “the draft” which affected a cohort of young males. Of course, you would have to wait until those events happened to a particular age group, and could not segment people when they were born. Or perhaps the introduction of the Pill. The home internet? Drive-in theaters to make out in? Smart phones? The problems is that you’d find a lot of policy and technology changes which occurred somewhat gradual and at different, unsynchronized times, not during short transition periods between stable eras.
And those conceptual problems even if we were just looking at neutral or positive stereotypes; when we start labeling and stereotyping to put people down, it really gets dysfunctional.
Let’s just stop.the stereotyping, not to mention the insults.
It’s useless to stereotype millions of people. It sells books. “Otherwise” is right. The reality is that capitalism shapes worldview. The madmen find out what they can sell and to whom and it gets done. Then instead of connecting on a deep level, millions are personified by the products they use. Millenials are connected because the tech happened to be around. Xers had parents who were self obsessed. The comment about xers being non creative: you can’t make that generalization from a group of military personnel who take orders. Someone else here wonders why there aren’t many xers at their job. Maybe we don’t want to be around both old people and children who behave as though they know all the answers. And they try it their way and fail every day. Both old and young have problems listening. It’s not generational, but let’s go there for a sec. If you don’t see us around you it’s probably that your job sucks royally and life is too precious to endure that. OR: WE’RE JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU.
From A To Z generation X is me and I’m very proud of it. I was born in 1978 an only child and wouldn’t change being an X’er for the world
Love this article. Born inn1972 I am GenX to the core no doubt. My whole life I have identified with the Lost Generation and didn’t understand why. Today I stumbled onto a YouTube video of Howe explaining the Fourth Turning and immediately realized why Hemingway is one of my favorites and why I always wished I had lived during the turn of the 19th/20th century. I now know why the thought of economic collapse has always excited me and why I have always been good at figuring out how to fix things. Apparently I’ve been preparing for the next 20 years my whole life!
I read “Generations” and “The Fourth Turning” back in 2000. I was intrigued by the Greatest/Silent/Boomer/Gen-X/Millenial arc Strauss/Howe described but not persuaded. I figured the Fourth Turning was imminent then, especially after 9-11, but nothing much seemed to happen, so I forgot about it.
While web surfing I bounced into this website, read this page and thought more about Strauss/Howe. From there I discovered that perhaps the most prominent proponent of the Fourth Turning is Steve Bannon, one of the masterminds behind the Trump 2016 victory.
Of course Bannon is much reviled by liberals/progressives, who appear to be the main audience for this blog. Well, I wasn’t a Trump voter either, but I understand the Trump voter point of view.
See Bannon’s “Generation Zero” for an application of the Strauss/Howe theory, as well as a better understanding of what motivates conservatives beyond the cartoonish ridicule preferred by progressives.
Note that Neil Howe himself appears numerous times in this video, as well as many other conservative talking heads. I assume Howe was aware how his words were being used.
I love this article it is so spot on.
No lies detected. Making a major studio feature about this and us now. You nailed the problem.
The time has fucking come for revolution.