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July 8, 2008

talkin' 'bout generations

Ian Shapira has an article in the Washington Post about how to define today's younger generations. Are they "Millennials" or "Gen Y"? What year is the cutoff for each generation? What generalizations can we make about today's youngest group? Are they idealistic, pragmatic, anti-hierarchical?

People are born continuously, so generations are arbitrary constructs. The study of generations began in the 1920s (as far as I know), in response to perhaps the world's single most traumatic event, WWI. Both men and women who were born between 1884 and 1902 were affected by the war in dramatic ways that permanently distinguished them from those born before 1884. Not only did millions of them die, but the social and political structures that had formed them collapsed, especially if they lived in the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, or Ottoman Empires. They shaved their faces, raised their hemlines, and in every other way they could imagine, differentiated themselves from their Victorian parents.

That was a generation gap. All the other gaps since then have been subtler, and some have been imaginary--mere marketing hype. It's particularly dubious to define a whole generation on the basis of how its first members act when they are young adults. Conventionally, a generation extends over twenty years of births and then lasts throughout its members' lives. So it really makes no sense to generalize about the Millennials today when the youngest are four years old and may live as late as 2104. Do we imagine that they will be notably idealistic in 2090 just because their older siblings voted at high rates in 2008?

On the other hand, it is true that we are more malleable when we are young than later on. Therefore, major political events and social conditions that we experience before age 25 affect us and turn us into permanent groups or cohorts. Therefore, the analysis of generations is not mere hype, although one has to be careful about it.

July 8, 2008 1:56 PM | category: none


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