Last week, the Boston Globe published a letter from a reader who objected to a sentence in the editorial board's endorsement of Barack Obama. The 46-year-old Illinois senator was described as being, potentially, "the first post-baby-boom president." But since Obama was born in 1961, isn't he a boomer?
Here's an excerpt from the letter:
Once again, those of us born too late to enjoy the tumult and changes and vigor of the 1960s and early '70s -- those born in the second half of the boom -- are statistically and socially neglected. Sociologists don't know where to place us; historians neglect us; cultural critics focus on the other boomers and those born in Generations X and Y. Now, a major newspaper cannot even get our era right. The boom was from 1946 to 1964. Obama is a baby boomer, as am I, born in 1958.
It's a tricky question, one that goes to the heart of a recent, ongoing, and sometimes heated debate. Where do you draw the line between those Americans who came of age during the Vietnam War era and their immediate juniors, who had dramatically different formative experiences? More generally, are generations discovered or invented? Is identifying and naming a generation a science or an art?
At least one pundit insists that the answer to such questions is vital. Andrew Sullivan, a conservative senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly, claims in the current issue that a crippling "civil war" has prevailed in America since the late 1960s. Despite the ferocious political rhetoric of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, the nation's internal struggle isn't really over healthcare, abortion, gay marriage, terrorism, or Iraq, Sullivan claims. It's a "fight over how we define ourselves" -- i.e., in relation to the social and cultural upheavals of the Sixties. This deep, bitter divide can be traced to boomers "who fought in Vietnam and those who didn't, and between those who fought and dissented and those who fought but never dissented at all." *
According to Sullivan, the boomer-driven civil war was crystallized with the election of Clinton -- a draft-dodging, pot-smoking moderate conservative who tried, unsuccessfully, to have it both ways. The election of 2000 made matters worse: "Gore and Bush were almost designed to reflect the Boomers' and the country's divide, which deepened further." Obama to the rescue! Though he was born during the spike in US birth rates -- from 1946 to 1964 -- known as the baby boom, Sullivan insists that the senator "is not of it." In fact, Obama's mother is a boomer, only five years older than Hillary Clinton; and Obama himself says the Civil Rights and antiwar movements "sort of passed me by."
Demographics alone do not a generation make. A generation ought to be thought of as an algorithm, which is composed not only of input integers (birthdate) but input symbols (social, cultural, and economic formative experiences). Obama isn't a boomer. Q.E.D. **
Is Obama a "post-boomer," then? Yes, but that's not an informative moniker. In the interest of journalistic exactitude, not to mention ending our civil war, here's my own theory of American generations: each generation spans 10 years, from a "4" year to the next "3" year. For example: The vaunted
Greatest Generation New Gods Generation, which fought World War II, then rebuilt the nation's industries, was born between 1914 and 1923. (George H.W. Bush, born in '24 but at 18 the youngest naval aviator in US history to that date, is an honorary member.) The postmodern and Anti-Anti-Utopian Generations (frequently lumped together and mislabeled the Silent Generation) followed, then the Boomers were born between '44 and '53.
So what to call those Americans, including Obama and Oprah, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Jerry Seinfeld , Ellen DeGeneres, and the Brat Pack, born between '54 and '63? The cultural historian Jonathan Pontell has suggested the handle "Generation Jones," but I prefer to employ a phrase popularized by two post-boomers: punk musician Billy Idol ('55) and novelist Douglas Coupland ('61). If for no other reason than to free my own generation (1964-73) of the label, let's call them... Generation X.
BRAINIAC'S GUIDE TO AMERICA'S RECENT GENERATIONS
Lost Generation The New Kids
Lost Generation Hardboiled Generation
The Greatest Generation Partisans
The Greatest Generation The New Gods
The Silent Generation Postmodernist Generation
The Silent Generation Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation
1944-53: Baby Boomers
Baby Boomers OGX (Original Generation X)
Generation X PC Generation
Generations X/Y 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.
* Sullivan should have included a didn't-fight-but-didn't-dissent category, since both Rudy Giuliani (b. 1944) and the current president (b. 1946) avoided serving in Vietnam.
** The Globe was way ahead of Sullivan on this point, actually. Back in February, Peter Canellos, the paper's Washington bureau chief, argued that "much of what's striking about Obama's campaign ... can be better read in generational, rather than racial, terms." I applauded Canellos's perceptivity in a series of Brainiac posts.
Like Sullivan would do 10 months later, Canellos pointed out that although Obama is "technically a baby boomer, one of the last of the breed," his cultural "touchstones" are markedly different from the boomers'. "Just what these touchstones comprise in political values and impulses is still undefined," he acknowledged, "partly because so few politicians born after the first years of the baby boom have been on the national stage." That said, Canellos (who is a post-boomer himself) went on to suggest that post-boomers are post-ideological -- they're no longer interested in fighting the culture wars. Post-boomers sense that Americans aren't really as divided -- on questions of race, religion, and sex, for example -- as boomers would have us believe.
Sullivan (who is the same age as Canellos) feels exactly the same way. He concludes:
At a time when America's estrangement from the world risks tipping into dangerous imbalance, when a country at war with lethal enemies is also increasingly at war with itself, when humankind's spiritual yearnings veer between an excess of certainty and an inability to believe anything at all, and when sectarian and racial divides seem as intractable as ever, a man who is a bridge between these worlds may be indispensable. We may in fact have finally found that bridge to the 21st century that Bill Clinton told us about. Its name is Obama.
A ringing endorsement. (The Globe's Ellen Goodman doesn't buy it.) Generation Jones, or X, or Obama -- whatever tag those of us in the media end up saddling you with -- this may be your moment in the limelight!
MORE FROM BRAINIAC: Generation
Obama Jones | Generation Obama politicians | Generation Obama comedians | Generation Obama mailbag | Generation Obama: Music | Generation Obama sports stars | Generation Obama vs. the Boomers
UPDATE: I like what one blogger wrote in response to this Brainiac post about Obama: "If I allow myself to think of Obama, who is technically a little too old, as my generation, then I have to admit, his 'change' message feels substantial to me. Whereas if I think of him as just another boomer politician, it rings hollow."
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