Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dates Aren't Absolute, but They Matter

I am just back from the Great Ideas Conference, and I can report that the issue of generations is alive and well. Even before the conference started I was at the Executive Management Section Council meeting, and generational differences was the subject of a lengthy discussion that wasn't even on the agenda. I also noticed that ASAE's recent research about the economy frequently broke down answers to their questions by generation.

I haven't read the report fully, but when I glanced at it, I noticed that they described Millennials as those born after 1977. This was the same definition that I saw in the William E. Smith report on generations from a few years ago. The Smith report (if I remember correctly) had Baby Boomers as 1946-64 (18 years), Generation X 1965-76 (11 years) and Millennials as 1977-forever (currently up to 32 years!). 

These definitions root the generations in demographic data. That is, Boomers are people born literally during the boom in birth rates after World War Two, Generation X are born during the dip in birth rates after that, and Millennials are people born any time after that. I get that this is an objective justification for the cutoff dates (and I imagine quantitative researchers like objective parameters), but I don't think it really has anything to do with generations.

Generation X is different from Baby Boomers NOT simply because fewer babies were born during their birth years. That is one factor, but the primary difference is the fact that Generation X grew up in the late 1970s and 1980s, as opposed to the 1960s and early 1970s. If you were born in 1964, you pretty much missed "the sixties." You'll have early memories of them, of course, but your real coming of age was later. That's why you're Generation X (even if your birth year is part of the Boom). Of course don't forget that no matter what year a specific individual is born, it doesn't mean they MUST be like their generation.

I would love to see the quantitative research use generational dividing lines that are rooted in historical theory, rather than birth rates. I know it's not objective, but wouldn't it be interesting to see whether or not the data matched up with the theory?


Anonymous said...


I'm sure you're aware of this, but the Strauss & Howe generational research takes more of this "shared life experiences" approach in breaking down generations.


JessieX said...

Actually, GenX are the largest gen. 81.3 million in 2005 US Census. That is, using Strauss & Howe's def of birth years. Millennials, 79.1 million. Boomers, 64.6 million.

The perpetuation of the cultural myth about their size -- even by credible media sources -- comes in part because Boomers are culturally dominant and, by virtue of being in the "Prophet Gen" archetype, has them orienting toward a belief system in which they think they are the ONLY AUTHENTIC GENeration.

GenXers, while almost 30% larger in the US population, accept an off-the-radar, fragmented, isolated societal view of their gen and themselves because, well, that's what they are. It'll be most intersting to watch how the skills and capacities developed by being fragmented transform into the perfect skills needed in a Crisis Era. All of this is perfectly timed, of course, with GenX ascendancy into midlife and a deeply powerful life phase to occupy. My sense is many GenX now need to step into the next natural phase of leadership by bringing their survival skills into systems, organizations, etc. Or by creating brand new systems and organizations. One way or the other, GenX leadership, at this point in time, is much about transitioning out of isolation and into larger systems. That's my two cents ... with a whole lot of background in the Strauss & Howe work on generational theory.

Eric Lanke said...

I think Jessie just shattered the Hourglass. GenX is larger than Boomers and Millenials? Is that why I'm starting to bulge in the middle?

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