Gen X and Boomers? Sure. ‘Generation Jones’? Not so much.Posted: Sunday, November 9, 2008
I’m not so sure of this Generation Jones™ campaign, which I only became aware of from a comment the other day, and which I’ve responded to. It’s a term that now seems to be on some sort of viral marketing push to gain acceptance. In fact, there appears to be at least a small segment of folks born in the late Fifties and early Sixties that seem willing to buy into this concept — and who could blame them? Unless you were born in 1946 or 1947, and therefore really can’t deny it, it seems like no one wants to be associated with the Boomers these days.
I’m of the strong opinion that there are only two American Generations spanning the years when G.I.’s returned from World War II (beginning with the first soldiers coming home in 1943) through approximately 1980 — the Baby Boomers and what we often call Generation X.
From what I’ve studied, I believe Barack Obama’s birthyear of 1961 marks the start of Generation X, based primarily on the work of Strauss & Howe, and for at least two other reasons: JFK taking office that year, and the legalization of The Pill for birth control in June 1960, which would impact babies born starting in 1961. No, I’m not naïve enough to think that birth control didn’t begin until then, only that it was at long-last government sanctioned and kicked off the sexual revolution that lasted essentially until the early- to mid-1980s — impacting most of Gen X’s parents — and ending roughly when the tragedy of AIDS finally hit home with mainstream America following Rock Hudson’s death, and later, Magic Johnson’s stunning retirement press conference. Connected to this, American birth rates declined from a peak in 1957, with a little uptick in 1961, falling off dramatically, past Roe v. Wade and well on into the Seventies.
The Census Bureau puts the Baby Boom as lasting until 1964, and I admit that 1961 can seem like a pretty arbitrary date. Nevertheless, I don’t buy placing late Boomers and early X’ers into a separate generational category altogether — for one thing, it’s hard to justify squeezing three full generations into 37 years or so. Also, if you’re born around a dividing year, these first- and last-wavers are naturally going to exhibit traits of two generations, something Strauss & Howe have mentioned.
Thus, you have Obama’s Boomerish idealism (as they’d claim it) and Gen X’s pragmatism; in the end, I believe his pragmatism will carry the day, though the hope and idealism exhibited this week is nothing short of inspiring and transformational, and frankly surprising coming from our cynical generation, which, growing up under Reagan, had tended to be more conservative until the last eight years (surely, a blown opportunity for the Republicans). And note that our younger Millennial compatriots came out in droves for our new president.
Obama knows his special place in history already, but even in the last few days, he’s more prepared to get to work than dwell on his election’s significance — it’s an attitude of acknowledge, and then move on and get to work. On the other hand, even the “other” Boomer president, President Bush, fell in line with a Boomer sense of commenting on history with Obama’s accomplishment. Put another way, it’s how the Boomers (and Millennials, for that matter) see Obama’s victory vs. how Obama (and his age-related cohorts, once the euphoria wears off) see and act on it.
Furthermore, as Greg Sargent put it at Talking Points Memo, Obama’s victory represents a shift (finally) from 1960s cultural politics, something that dominated politics for the last four decades, impacting Boomer and Gen X’ers alike.
Let’s get back to semantics for a moment. Baby Boomerism is not solely limited to talk of the Summer of Love and the Vietnam War, as it is often popularly limited. It also includes their unique reactions to Watergate, the gas and financial crisis of the ’70s, the Iran hostages, the rise of Reaganism and the sell-outs of the 1980s, and putting Bill Clinton in the White House. To limit the Boomer experience to a concert in rural upstate New York and protesting the Vietnam War does a disservice to the Baby Boomers. To limit their experiences to solely the Sixties (always the Sixties) does a disservice to the rest of their membership.
I respect Jonathan Alter’s work, but the 1957-born writer missed the boat earlier this year in his Newsweek article, claiming Boomers did a good job of raising their children, but little else. I consider my own parents an exception, but Boomer narcissistic parenting produced a generation (mine) that now over-parents in response to the latch-key existence of their upbringing. And I also question Alter’s statement of “demographers concluded that generations are really 10 to 15 years, not 20” — since when, and for how long has this fad gone on?
Let’s face it, a generation’s traits are defined more by whether their members are predominantly Beatles, Sex Pistols or Nirvana fans — the defining moments for all of America’s generations are how they react to the challenges and crises they face at various stages of their lives, as well as how they were raised and how they raise their own children. On the point of crises, we’re in the middle of one now, perhaps the biggest we’ll face (and, scarily, perhaps not; the predicted coming Crisis of 2020 is still 12 years off). So I think it’s safe to say that history is still being written, and conclusions are bit premature (for all of us).
But if you’re going to base it mostly on pop culture, then, as I commented earlier, why not simply declare every few years a new generation? Because you missed Woodstock that your older brother attended and you had to “settle” for the punk explosion of 1977 and slightly less free love in the pre-AIDS days? (And note, I’m giving you credit for punk rock while not even mentioning disco, which was also popularized by this age cohort.) What, exactly, did you miss out on? Shit, why not split up Beatles and Stones fans? Because you’re devaluing the basis of generational studies (which, as I said, of course is no science, but on the whole, I think is sound; sound enough for this blog, anyway). Check out this New York Times article about the difficulties of pinning this down.
I think part of what’s in play here is our generation’s natural non-conformity. As Strauss & Howe write: “The term ‘Generation X’ was a self-label first popularized by young literati born between 1961 and 1964, and its central purpose was to deny Boomer membership.” But with Generation X long an accepted term (and barely remembered now as the title of a novel by Douglas Coupland (himself a 1961 birth who seemed to recently declare an affinity for the Generation Jones name; and even fewer remember it as a Billy Idol band named after a 1965 sociology book), it’s “hipness” as a name could likewise be seen as long on the wane, especially by those first-wavers (though not by me). In their natural non-conformity, they’d gladly jump ship for a new, more alternative name, even one that ostentatiously seems to be credited to one man (which smacks of someone wanting a book deal and has all the impact of Talk Like a Pirate Day).
In the end, what seems like a separate generation now, or even a sub-generation, will eventually be seen as part of one of both generations — of course, even the birthyear range may move, putting the president-elect in one of the two generations, because how he governs over the next eight (hopefully) years will influence all Americans, and thus history.
(That said, if this new late-Boomer, early-X’er theory is going to persist, can we please come up with a better term than Generation Jones™? Do you really think “jonesing,” “keeping up with the Jones,” etc. will gave any historical stamina? Is anyone going to remember those terms in 100 years, the way people remember the Gilded Age, the Liberty Generation, the Lost Generation, or even (I’d certainly argue) the Baby Boomers? (Of course, you could easily argue that for “Generation X,” too, and I’d agree. But I also digress.) Or, since some like to unimaginatively call the Millennials “Generation Y,” why not call this sub-group “Generation W” (though not for W. )? I’m even slightly OK with post-Boomer Generation, because I know it’s only a temporary situation and I am confident this supposed sub-group will merge with its proper generations once we have the benefit and hindsight of history.)
Without the benefit of history and hindsight, we can’t say any of this for sure, naturally. But I believe history will prove us correct that Obama is a Generation X’er and that there are only two American generations born between the end of World War II and the end of the 1970s.