On December 23, the Ideas section published my (half-serious) theory of American generational periodization, which first saw the light of day as a Brainiac blog entry. Need a reminder? Here's a handy chart:
BRAINIAC'S GUIDE TO AMERICA'S RECENT GENERATIONS
The Greatest Generation The New Gods
1924-33: postmodern Generation
1934-43: Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation
1954-63: OGX (Original Generation X)
1964-73: PC Generation
1974-83: Net Generation
Please credit Brainiac/Joshua Glenn whenever you use this guide. Got a beef with my periodization, or different generational name suggestions? Leave a comment on this post or email me. Born between 1954 and 1993 and still unsure about whether you're a Boomer, Xer, Yer, or Millennial? Here's a handy guide.
I urge readers to take a look at the frequently insightful comments that some of you have attached to the original post. I've also received a few dozen emails, and I've excerpted some of them below.
I'd hoped to elaborate on and justify my generational theory, but last week I was busy with the holidays... and with yet another theory, about the dark side of Scrabble. (A version of this post was published in today's Ideas section.) I should have time later this afternoon to add more fuel to the generational-theory fire.
Scott M writes:
The reality is that people born in the late 1950s and early 1960s were never treated or addressed as a distinct generation.
We fell between the cracks, or rather were subjected to quite a bit of media discourse about both the Boomers (which we simply called the yuppies) and your cohort (Generation X) without ever being interpellated as consumers of whatever identity was on offer. The few people of that age segment I've ever discussed this with tend to regard "generation-speak" as bullshit. A friend of mine calls it "social astrology" -- the idea that when you were born somehow says something important about your fate and character.
The periodization you've drawn up seems contrived to make sure you somehow escape being called Generation X. And the idea that people born between '54 and '63 are "the original Generation X" seems like an additional layer of reaction-formation. Just because some of the marketing geniuses who helped come up with the label were born during that interval doesn't mean much. Nobody who was 30 years old in 1993 would accept the term "Generation X" as a label.
It's true that determining where one generation ends and the next begins is more of an art than a science; anyone who makes a confident statement about the matter is bullshitting, in the philosophical sense of the term. But where facts can't be pinned down, if we're not allowed to bullshit, then we can only be silent. And that means allowing the professional bullshitters -- pop demographers, for example, and reporters for Time Magazine; not to mention business consultants -- to do all the talking. Which is why Americans are so confused about whether Obama is a boomer.
Bullshitters aren't liars -- they're simply more interested in entertaining and persuading than they are in being truthful. Well, I for one am entertained by my generational scheme. And as for whether all generation-talk is as bogus as astrology, although I tend to agree that knowing what year someone was born might not tell us anything about their fate or character, I'm semi-persuaded that it can tell us something about their worldview, their political and artistic instincts, that sort of thing.
Finally, regarding the term "Generation X," it's important to disregard how the term was bandied about by the media and pop demographers during the 1990s -- it became a pejorative, and a synonym for "apathetic slackers" -- and think about who popularized it first, and why. Thanks for agreeing with me that a cohort of Americans was born between 1954 and 1963, one that was never treated as generation by pop demographers and the media. Instead, this cohort was lumped in with the Boomers. That's exactly why two influential members of that generation -- a rocker and a novelist -- labeled their cohort "Generation X," to signal their unwillingness to be lumped in with the Boomers... or to be labeled in any way. Your letter demonstrates that you share these key characteristics with Billy Idol and Douglas Coupland: You don't want your cohort to be called anything, and you certainly don't want to be associated with the Boomers. What to call the cohort that feels so strongly about these matters? Generation X. Sorry!
Tom N. writes:
Greatest Generation - Model T Generation
postmodern - Radio Generation
Anti-Anti-Utopian - The Television Generation
Baby Boomers - The Color Television Generation
Generation X - This is tough, maybe just Generation X, the only generation without a signature invention
Hey don't... - Atari Generation
Net - MTV Generation (the first to grow up with MTV as a thing and not remember its awkward and charming infancy)
Millenials - Internet or Dotcom Generation (same sort of argument as above)
Not bad! I agree about the TV Generation -- I'll say more about that later.
Jay H. writes:
I too am a proud member of the 64-73 generation (1965 to be exact) and your generational scale is the first I've seen that breaks down the generational scale into smaller chunks. By most scales, I'm at the very tail end of the boomers and the very beginning of Generation X (1966-1980 is what I most often see). I have to admit that I agree with your thinking that smaller chunks are probably more appropriate but by your scale we now have a multigenerational workforce of 5 generations colliding in the workplace. No wonder managers are stressed out!
There has got to be some type of label for our generation? Maybe the faithless generation? Since we saw so many institutions fail us?
Hopefully my foray into generational periodization will prove more helpful to stressed-out managers than all those books about Managing Gen X/Millennials.
Surya D writes:
I have been referring to the new generation as the Text Gen (for Text Message Generation) or GenText ( acronymn GenTM) for the last year.
Tom P. writes:
My cohorts (born 1941-1945) were called the War Babies even before the Second World War was over. The baby boom didn't begin until 1946. I don't know if there was an accepted name for the cohort just before ours, but surely the defining trait of the 1930s was the great depression. We were different. (I was one of the 670 members of the class of 1961 at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.) The depression was hugely influential in the life of our parents but by the time of our births was referred to in the past tense. Most of our fathers were in military service or war-related civilian jobs. (Both were true of my father.) Many of our mothers worked outside the home. (Mine included; she was a doctor.) Some of our fathers were killed in the war, and very few families, I suspect, felt completely secure. Housing was tight (in Washington, at least), and many goods were rationed. But I never heard my parents, or my friends' parents, complain about the war. Their lives, even if hectic, had been purposeful then. Was there something special about the group of babies plunked down in middle of wartime Washington? I think we were treated that way and that it colors our lives even now.Yes! As you know, I agree that although the boomer generation overlaps with the baby boom, the boom itself is only one part of the equation. So even though the boom officially begins in '46, I stand by my theory that the Boomer Generation starts in '44.
Finally, Ruth H. writes about my Scrabble item:
My very short play, A Play On Words, was produced at Boston Playwright's in their marathon of short plays, several years ago. My play involves a game of scrabble between husband and wife. As they put down the letters, the infidelity of the wife is revealed through language, the choice of "words". Yes, we do use the term, fighting words.
Now there is something about crossword puzzles and the delight so many of us take in word games. Why? Perhaps there is something about words, meaning, we do tell our stories with words and how easy it is to bring up the unconscious when searching for winning words in a game of Scrabble. Now cross words do often emerge and at times, we are certainly at cross purposes with the other players. I do know that my sister invariably wins a game with me and so I am always determined somehow to dethrone her with something great.
One other thing. In the deepest of spiritual writings, in Sufi literature and in Jewish mysticism, or Kabala, there is written that the universe itself was created with "letters" and that meditating on the letters themselves opens a whole world of experience. Perhaps in world, truly is the "word". Maybe it is true, in this alchemy we experience with language, something that is profound.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.