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Let's Revise the "Generations" Business

I've been complaining for a long time--yeah, I know, this sentence could end right there, but I'll continue anyway--I've been complaining for a long time about the "generations" construct which is a sort of pop sociology thing that sometimes seems barely a step up from astrology. This chart, harvested from Wikipedia, sums up the system, if we can call it that:

1024px-Generation_timeline.svgAnd I think it borders on crazy. I guess it started with the "lost generation" of the 1920s. But that term was just an observation that Gertrude Stein made about a particular set of extremely atypical artists. I don't know whether it was ever applied to an entire cohort of people who just happened to have been born around the same time. It certainly wouldn't have made much sense to classify my wife's grandmother, born ca. 1900 in rural Mississippi and growing up in circumstances more 19th than 20th century, more frontier than suburbia, with Ernest Hemingway's crowd.

I think, or rather I speculate, that prior to arrival of the baby boomers the term "generation" was not used so broadly. If someone spoke of "my father's generation," it was probably understood that the reference was limited in other ways: class, ethnicity, and such. "My father's generation plowed with mules" obviously applied only to farmers. "Baby boom" was first only a factual description of a demographic phenomenon: the striking increase in the number of births in the ten years or so following the end of World War II. Later on, as those babies became by their sheer numbers a social force, they naturally were referred to as "baby boomers."

Well, okay, that was reasonable. But then generalizations of a more questionable sort began to be applied to them. They (we) were "idealistic," "rebellious," "questioning," "free-spirited," and so on, in mostly admiring terms, which I often came to see as a sort of envy on the part of older liberals who wished they could be doing what we were doing. For a long time in fact "baby boomer" came pretty close to being synonymous with "hippie," and it's still not unusual to hear that equivalence. But it was wildly inaccurate, because most baby boomers were pretty conventional and unrebellious; hippies were a very small minority.

In practice "baby boomers" was almost a synonym for "young people." Then somewhere along the line, as baby boomers moved into middle age and beyond, and their children became "the young," the sort of people who like this sort of thing needed a new tag. At that point most of the people doing the tagging were baby boomers, and so they apparently said "Gosh, there are now young people who are not us. Isn't that weird?!? They're an unknown quantity--let's call them 'X'."

Since then it has gotten completely out of hand, as is clear from that chart. Generation Y, or, more commonly, "millenials"; generation Z, "zoomers"; and now, apparently, the attempt to label today's children as "generation Alpha." These classifications seem somewhat arbitrary to me, and as far as I can tell generalizations based on them are not especially accurate. You even hear people saying "As a millenial, I am...." (or "you are"). And insofar as this is just a statement of what it's like to be that age in this time, something valid may follow. But when what follows is something like "I'm more intuitive than analytical," it starts to sound like "As a Capricorn, I am...."

A few years ago (probably at least ten rather than "a few") I had to sit through an afternoon of training for supervisors on how to deal with millenial employees. It struck me about halfway through that the traits they were attributing, somewhat worshipfully, to millenials were for the most part simply those of youth. I suppose it's an American propensity to idealize youth as such. Cynic that I am, I always want to say, "Yes, young people tend to be more open and so on. But they also tend to be, like, stupid" (to adopt one of their verbal habits). "Foolish" is a better word, of course--I certainly was when I was young--but sometimes the result is indistinguishable.

I've always been unhappy with the use of "baby boomers" to refer to the actors in what we typically refer to as "the Sixties." Aside from the fact, noted above, that most of them weren't part of that phenomenon, there is the more important one that the boomers (I give in) weren't the primary force in it. Most of the most influential figures in that movement were not boomers, but were born five to ten years before the start of the boom. Dylan: b. 1941. Lennon: b. 1940. McCartney: b. 1942. Ken Kesey: b. 1935. Timothy Leary: b. 1920 (!--a real outlier). Most of the people who shaped and led the counterculture were young adults in the mid-1960s, while most boomers were still teenagers, and were followers rather than leaders in the movement.

But the two groups had one major thing in common: the culture in which they grew up was that of the U.S. and the U.K. in the ten to twenty years after the end of World War II. It was an extremely unusual period, in ways which have been discussed so exhaustively that I won't bother discussing them. What makes generations--groups of people united only by the times into which they were born --differ is not some mysterious change to their basic nature, but the experiences given to them by the culture in which they are formed.

So I say we drop "baby boomers" as a description of the cohort which was predominant in instigating the profound changes of the 1960s, and instead call them something like the mid-century generation. Or the post-war generation. Maybe Generation What The Hell Just Happened. Whatever we call it, it begins around 1940 and ends around 1960. People born after that period came of age in a culture which had already been dramatically reshaped by the mid-century generation.

I don't care what you call the others. You know how self-centered we boomers are.

This change shall be effective immediately.


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Your astrology comment made me chuckle. Less exact than astrology really, since it is many years and the planets are not considered at all! :-)

"Mid-century." I'm not sure I want to be named after ugly furniture. You know, we really grew up with some ugly furniture. I have to laugh at the hipster craze for kitchen tables with those little boomerang outlines on them.

Otherwise, I agree completely, as you may have suspected.


Oh, I didn't know "mid-century" was in use as a name. But now that you tell me, it actually seems kind of appropriate, as representative of the times.

Okay, Mid-century.

Also as representative of our (boomers') current position in the culture: tacky old stuff from a bygone day. Except not retro-hip.

I like my tacky old stuff. I am of a piece with it. It is grandmother stuff, and the stuff of three generations of grandmothers.

It's comfortable.


This is funny. And I have always disliked this stupid naming of “generations”.

Re Gertrude Stein and her "lost generation", there's this in Hemingway's A Moveable Feast:

It was when we had come back from Canada and were living in the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs and Miss Stein and I were still good friends that Miss Stein made the remark about the lost generation. She had some ignition trouble with the old Model T Ford she then drove and the young man who worked in the garage and had served in the last year of the war had not been adept, or perhaps had not broken the priority of other vehicles, in repairing Miss Stein’s Ford. Anyway he had not been sérieux and had been corrected severely by the patron of the garage after Miss Stein’s protest. The patron had said to him, “You are all a génération perdue.”

“That’s what you are. That’s what you all are,” Miss Stein said. “All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”

You are missing the "marketing" backdrop of all this generation stuff. Divide and conquer.

That's us, too. That's when the idea of a youth market really took hold. There were so many of us and our parents had so much money compared to the years before the war. The marketing of consumer goods as emblems of independent thinking has long since gone beyond parody, but I guess it still works.

That's fascinating, Marianne. I guess I was in high school when I first saw that quote but never in context. Now that I think about it, isn't it the epigraph for one of Hemingway's novels? The Sun Also Rises, maybe?

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