The Folly of Our Generations
Gen X? Millennials? Zoomers and Boomers? Where'd this all come from?
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This week, I want to discuss the concept of “Generations.”
First, some background: I am an elder-ish millennial born in 1987, meaning I was one of the first kids on the internet at age 6 and one of the last kids to be told “come home when it’s dark.”
I was close enough to Gen X that I briefly owned a pager before I owned a cell phone, collected cassettes and CDs, and understood the eternal wisdom of “be kind, rewind.” I can beat just about any SNES game without cheat codes if given an afternoon. I rode my bike everywhere, every day. I liked bands like Weezer, films like Clerks, and TV shows like Loveline. This was my Gen X artistic taste and sensibility developing.
I also coded my first website in 4th grade, discovered internet porn in 5th grade, participated in one of the first cyberbullying rings when I was in 6th grade, and nearly got abducted by an internet stranger in 7th grade. I had AIM on my Sidekick, I went on my first online date when I was 21, and spent most of my career working on websites. In this sense, I have adopted a technological stance that is much closer to the Zoomers than the Boomers, in that I have been extremely online for as long as I can remember.
My parents are Baby Boomers, raised by members of The Greatest Generation, flanked by siblings from The Silent Generation, and connected to elders of The Lost Generation. One of these generations started giving names to all the other generations around them…can you guess which one it was? Answer forthcoming!
But this is all to say: These generational delineations we make are bullshit. They’ve always been bullshit, but they’re more bullshit now than they’ve ever been before. Let me explain.
Before the 19th century, the term generation only referred to individual families (that is, generations were literally relative). As the industrial revolution began to accelerate and the ideas espoused in western enlightenment philosophy began to spread, the “social order” within those families began to experience upheaval. Prior to this age of rapid technological advancement, it was broadly believed that old people were wise because they understood how the world worked.
As technology reshaped the economic, social, and artistic mores of the time, young people found themselves at a rare advantage for once. All of a sudden, a younger person educated in modern thought and technology could reshape the world to be better than the world they were born into.
The scientific revolution’s idea of “progress” was finally embraced broadly, and this was a fundamental shift for a social structure that had been relatively stable and fixed for hundreds of years prior. Furthermore, the proliferation of mass media…newspapers, books, radio, television…led to something of a cultural monolith. Everyone getting the same news and entertainment from the same sources, ultimately influencing the whole of society in broad, expected ways.
For the first time in history, you have social scientists looking at young people and determining that, despite growing up in separate families, young people of the era had some uniform shared principles, goals, and stylistic preferences that set them apart from the previous cohort. The first modern “generation” was identified.
I won’t go too far down the pipes on the various sociologists who helped cobble this theory together, it includes some heavy hitter names like Comte (who basically invented sociology in the 1850’s), Mill (who was one of the first sociologists to argue for gender equality despite being an executive of Britain’s colonial East India Company), and Mannheim (who introduced a widely cited but simplistic theory of generations in 1928).
But the prevailing, modern generational theory that most of us in the western world accept (pictured above) is called the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory. It was introduced in a 1991 book called “Generations” and has since attempted to map American social history to a series of cycles, going all the way back to the 1500’s. There are numerous issues with this, as you can imagine.
Firstly, it tends to boil human history down to these pivotal crisis moments that occur in imperfect cycles. I would call these “collective traumas,” but that term wasn’t introduced until the 1970’s, and efforts to heal collective traumas only started in the last decade or so thanks to the work of Thomas Hübl. While it’s unquestionable that society is shaped by its experiences, it’s hard to quantify how any individual experiences any particular trauma at any given time. Consider this:
You’ll see this is effectively the same chart as the previous one, except now the generations on the left are linked to these pivotal “turnings” or collective traumas on the right.
According to this chart, my defining moments were the Berlin Wall falling (I was 2 and wouldn’t learn about this until middle school history class), the AIDS crisis (while still deadly and undercovered, it was fairly normalized by the time I was old enough to learn about it), and the “culture wars,” a term for the splintering of mass media from a few channels to many.
That last one definitely had an impact on me, but the first two? Barely hit my radar as a kid, sorry for my ignorance. Instead, growing up on Long Island with a dad who worked on Wall Street, I’d argue 9/11 and the first WTC bombing were far more impactful to my psyche than “tear down this wall.”
But that’s just me, and that’s my point.
While the whole of society experiences these moments, our experiences of those moments always differ. Perhaps a defining sound, look, or style is produced after one of these events, making it easier to define a generation by its culture. The sound of rock and roll in post-9/11 New York…The Strokes, Taking Back Sunday, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem…that noise worked because we all wanted to scream.
But those were Gen Xers playing modified grunge to millennials who were most defined by Gen Z’s generational crisis. Similarly, while millennials were quick to claim Obama as “our guy” in 2008, my father was wise to remind me, “he’s actually a boomer…he’s my generation, not yours.” Social media was created by millennials looking to hook up with other millennials, it got ruined when our parents, siblings, and kids started signing up, and now Gen Z centers their entire existence around it.
If you experienced 9/11 as a millennial in Nebraska, the pro-Americuh country music is probably what you and your friends most remember of the post-9/11 years. You probably had a lot more friends than me go on to enlist, and you probably liked Bush a lot more than I did. One event, two different cultural outputs, and thus two different cultural identities tied to a singular trauma.
Same generation though? Hardly.
See, generational theory requires the broadest possible assumptions to make any sense, and by zooming in at any one point you’ll likely find a full spread of generational participants feeding the zeitgeist from their own unique perspective. The truth is, most of the assumptions we make about the various generations aren’t based in hard data science as much as they’re based in anecdotes masking poorly correlated data.
Watch, I’ll fuckin’ do it myself.
The Barney-Millennial Fault Line Theory
Thesis: The Millennial Generation (born 1981/4-1996) can be split into two sub-generations, segmented by whether or not Barney was watched in earnest or in spite.
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