baby boom generation

A Theory of the Generations: Debunking “Baby Boomer” and “Millennials” Memes

Does it make sense to talk about people in terms of generations? I think so, if we avoid simplistic characterizations like “Gen X” and “millennials.” For concepts to be useful, they need to define tangible phenomena. I’m going to insert some philosophy into how we talk about generations and uncover a way to define them in a useful way. This will lead to a more useful description of how the various generations of people experience and perceive their worlds.

Deflating the Baby Boom Generation

The “baby boom” was a tangible phenomenon, but the concept has become overused and overextended to the point of losing meaning. It is unclear who started it, but the dates of the Baby Boom Generation is set as containing those people born 1946 to 1964. Other than the charm of interposing the digits 4 and 6, the year 1964 makes little sense. Someone born in 1946 turned 18 in 1964, so they just finished high school. How much would that person have in common with someone born in 1964? It makes no sense to consider these people to be of the same generation

The baby boom was a tangible phenomenon, but the concept has become overused and overextended to the point of losing meaning. It is unclear who started it, but the dates of the baby boom generation are from 1946 to 1964. Other than the charm of interposing the digits 4 and 6, the year 1964 makes little sense. Someone born in 1946 turned 18 in 1964, so they just finished high school. How much would that person have in common with someone born in 1964? It makes no sense to consider these people to be of the same generation.

We all belong to a generation, and we share with our generation a series of world events and cultural references like books, music, films, TV, and fashion. We also share similar political attitudes as this fascinating interactive graph shows. We will always have individual differences as we express our free will, but we share a set of influences and experiences with people our age and a few years younger and older than us.

How much older and younger depends on world events. The events of our formative years have a significant influence on our attitudes. People who are 10 to 18 years different in age have experienced quite different influences. Someone graduating from high school in 1964 has a very different set of influences than someone graduating in 1982. There is no rational reason to say they are of the same generation.

Nevertheless, the meme that the baby boom generation is defined by those born 1946 to 1964 is repeated without question. That the baby boom generation started in 1946 is obvious; the number of births skyrocketed that year. When to call an end to the baby boom generation is the question. The birth rate has never returned to the pre-1946 level in the United States. If we went by when the baby boom peaked, that would be 1961, not 1964. My objections still apply to lumping in 1946 with 1961 as the same generation. It is difficult to find a good cutoff, but I will offer my theory.

Defining the Baby Boom Generation

On the basis of my premise that events during our formative years define a generation, I tag the end of the baby boom generation at 1957. The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 is one of the most defining events of the 20th century. America changed that day, and if you were old enough to understand that something important had happened, you were affected by it. I take 6 years old as an age when you can at least start to understand that an event is significant, even if you don’t fully understand why. If you born after 1957, the Kennedy assassination had less effect on you. If you were in the formative ages of 6 to 17 in 1963, you were affected by the assassination differently than were older people. From this perspective, those born between 1946 and 1957 can be said to be of the same generation, the baby boom generation. Obviously, the Kennedy assassination was not the only event this generation shared, just the most significant one.

baby boom generationAll of these people were in K-12 school at the time of the Kennedy assassination and during the resulting changes in how America viewed itself. A certain loss of innocence affected how this generation looked at their future. There are certainly still differences between those born in 1946 and those born in 1957, but I think there are enough similarities to place them in the same generation. This leaves us with a more sensible 11-year range, rather than 18, for the baby boom generation, bookended by World War II and the assassination.

Defining Other Generations

Does this approach work for any other generations? Not as perfectly, because the birth explosion beginning in 1946 is singular, but it can help us understand generational similarities. The 9/11 attacks of 2001 are also defining events. If we apply the same criterion of being 6 to 17 years old to 9/11, then those born between 1984 and 1995 could be said to be of the same generation. A similar loss of innocence occurred, and the new “War on Terror” defined a new way of looking at the world and our place in it. The attacks of 9/11 affected how this generation looked at their future more than it affected older Americans.

The years 1984 to 1995 roughly correspond to the range given for the so-called millennial generation, which is usually associated with graduating high school in the new millennium. “Millennials” is a term now so overused it has lost all meaning. It is now the cliché term in the media to refer to young adults. The world did not change at the turn of the millennium, but the world did change on September 11, 2001. Call the generation born between 1984 and 1995 what you will (yes, I hate the term “millennial”), but their coming of age was defined by the fear and loathing of the post-9/11 world. I will call them the “9/11 generation.”

To extend the thought experiment, what about other birth years? The two generations before the baby boomers are easier to sort out. In general parlance, the generation born before 1946, roughly 1928 to 1945, has been called the “silent generation.” This is because this generation supposedly focused on their careers not social activism. Those coining this label were either willfully or irresponsibly ignorant about the American Civil Rights Movement that this generation spearheaded. Calling this generation the “Lucky Few,” as does the Population Reference Bureau, makes more sense because these people graduated high school between 1946 and 1962 and benefited from the expanded opportunities of the postwar socialism-stimulated boom without most of them having to go to war.

The GI generation, born between 1909 and 1927, served in World War II, and they benefited even more from that boom cycle (at least those fortunate enough to survive the war benefited). That generation came home from the war aged 19 to 37 and received all of the socialist GI benefits granted by the government. They also gave birth to the baby boom generation.

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The generation born between the end of the baby boom generation, 1957, and the beginning of the 9/11 generation, 1984, is more difficult to describe. We have all endlessly heard this group called “Generation X” after the Douglas Coupland novel. It is a catchy but empty phrase that fits with the mass media culture of the last few decades. The range of years, even if we accept the untenable date of 1964 for the end of the baby boomers, is too large to be one generation. Again, I claim that 15+ years of a gap in age means people are not of the same generation. Adjusting the baby boom generation end date to 1957 leaves a 27- year gap to the beginning of the 9/11 generation.

Pursuing the idea of significant world events, I look to 1977 as a rough date to define a generation. The year 1977 was the arguable beginning of the home computer revolution with the release of the Apple II. The next few years saw releases of the Atari 400/800 (1979), the IBM PC (1981), and the Commodore 64 (1982). The world changed over those 3 years, solidified by the advent of Lotus 1-2-3 in 1983 and dBase II in 1984, which changed the working world. Many people who reached high school and the working world in the early 1980s were affected greatly by the personal computer. If I want to coin catchy phrases, I can call those people, born between 1958 and 1970, the “PC generation” (with apologies to Mac users). The PC generation grew up in an analog world but entered adulthood as that world shifted into the digital.

Similarly, the coming of the World Wide Web to the general public in 1994 (when the PC generation was aged 24 to 36 and baby boomers 37 to 47) marked another significant shift in how people did things and thought of themselves. The digitized generation is, for me, anyone who was born after 1996—those who have never known a world without the Internet, the War on Terror, 100+ cable TV channels, and cell phones (smartphones since 2007). This generation’s existence has been thoroughly digitized with entertainment on demand requiring very little effort. They are the digitized generation, their lives a constantly repeating loop of audio/video experiences and text app communications. Now, this generation is reaching adulthood—the first generation with fewer real-life opportunities than previous generations.

Then there’s the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a hugely significant event that changes how people do things and think about their future. Like the Kennedy assassination and the 9/11 attacks, the pandemic will be the defining event of a generation. Using the concept that the formative ages are 6 to 17 years old, we would define the Covid generation as people born between 2003 and 2014. There is notable overlap between the Covid generation and the digitized generation, with the pandemic lockdowns reinforcing the digital side of life and communication. We will see over the next 2 decades how these people, in 2021 under the age of 25, respond to the pandemic’s aftereffects.

Delineating the Generations

All of these thoughts lead me to these loose definitions of generations. This formulation is not perfect, but it’s a large improvement over the haphazard terms common currently:

A Table of Generations

1909 – 1927 – G.I. Generation
1928 – 1945 – The Lucky Few
1946 – 1957 – Baby Boom Generation
1958 – 1970 – PC Generation
1971 – 1983 – The In-Between Generation
1984 – 1995 – 9/11 Generation
1996 – 2002 and later – Digitized Generation
2003 – 2014 – Covid Generation

That leaves us with the in between generation. These children of baby boomers came of age came after the PC revolution and before 9/11. Not quite a lost generation but one caught between recognized cultural trends. They are 27 to 38 years old now, the prime advertising demographic that few can define and few listen to. Nevertheless, the In-Betweeners are becoming political power brokers.

What I like about this table of generations is that since 1946 we can think of the generations in roughly equal periods delineated by significant cultural shifts as the generations came of age. No doubt, I am not putting an end to arguments over defining generations. If nothing else, though, I can lay to rest the empty “millennials” label, the even emptier “Gen Y” and “Gen Z” labels, and the absurdity that someone born in 1963 is a baby boomer.

Some Other Views:

The idea of a micro-generation between Gen X and millennials called Xennials. I think the description given better describes the PC Generation.

Author Jonathan Pontell coined Generation Jones to describe those born from approximately 1954 to 1965. This group is essentially the latter half of the traditional baby boomers.

There has also been bandied about “Generation Y” and “Generation Z,” which is not only derivative, it also means the end of generations unless we go On Beyond Zebra.

2 comments

  1. Interesting take on this. I guess I am from the 9/11 Generation. You are right that that attack affected us a lot. If we looked at things in this way it may solve some problems

  2. Good info and straight to the point. Interesting new way to think about the generations.

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