February 13, 2023

Generational Gobbledygook: Astrology for MBAs

As we are constantly lectured, race does not exist. Yet, almost nobody points out that the conventional wisdom that races are wholly arbitrary social constructs is actually far truer for the popular concept of “generations,” such as baby boomers, millennials, and Alphas.

For instance, it’s argued that races aren’t scientific because nobody can determine precisely where one ends and the next begins. Of course, before 1492 the Atlantic Ocean was a virtually impenetrable barrier to gene flow from Europe and Africa to the Americas, with the Pacific, Sahara, and Himalayas also standing out as blockades.

In contrast, the generations so beloved by marketing consultants (I call generational thinking “astrology for MBAs”) are far more arbitrary. Our definitions are anchored around a single historical fact: The number of births in the United States suddenly leaped upward in 1946 by almost 20 percent, kicking off the famous baby boom in which births remained high into the 1960s.

“There is an obvious alternative to our current system of generational gobbledygook: unpretentiously label birth cohorts by their decade of birth.”

In truth, life wasn’t all that different for a child born in 1946 who was retroactively assigned to the “baby boom generation” (a term that only began being used in books in the later 1970s) than for one born in the Silent Generation year of 1945. The most concrete disparity was that the 1946 baby would typically experience slightly more crowded classrooms in school.

Eventually, though, the sheer weight of numbers of boomers induced sizable social changes, such as the emergence of entrepreneurs catering to their adolescent tastes. For example, in Joan Didion’s classic 1967 article on Haight-Ashbury hippies, “Slouching Toward Babylon,” a legendary San Francisco concert promoter explains:

“There are only three significant pieces of data in the world today,” is another thing Chet Helms told me one night. “The first is,” he said, “God died last year and was obited by the press. The second is, 50 percent of the population is or will be under 25…. The third,” he said, “is that they got 20 billion irresponsible dollars to spend.”

Note that Helms was thinking of the beginning date for his target generation as not 1946 but instead the early WWII period, when births grew 23 percent from 1940 to 1943.

Indeed, the most ambitious generational theory, that of William Strauss and Neil Howe, defines the baby boom generation as 1943–1960.

This illustrates that the generational gurus seldom agree on the exact beginning and ending of their generations. But eventually, journalists on deadlines tend to congregate around one pair of dates rather than the other proposals. After all, there’s very little reality to debate.

For instance, there isn’t even a nonarbitrary date for when the baby boom petered out. Births started dropping steadily after 1961, with most definitions in use today choosing, pretty much at random, 1964 as the end year.

How different was life for children born in the baby boom year of 1964 and the Generation X year of 1965? Not very, but the generation sages have to draw the line somewhere. Defining generations is an extremely arbitrary exercise in lumping vs. splitting.

But this decision created a template of an awkward 19-year-long generation.

Of course, 19 years is not the length of real human generations, as in grandparents-parents-children. Genealogists have calculated that the average number of years between fathers and sons has been about 29 down through history. Instead, baby boomers are more properly termed a “birth cohort.”

But it’s an inconvenient one. Not only is a 19-year-period stressful to do mental arithmetic with (quick, how long are 1.5 generations of 19 years each?), but it’s too long for many cultural purposes. People born in 1946 tended to have quite different lives from those born in 1964. These days, critics who specialize in popular cultural history such as rock critics Chuck Klosterman and Simon Reynolds are simply too well informed about the recent past to make much use of that long of a period.

What about politics? White baby boomers born around 1950, who worried about being drafted into the Vietnam War, tended to grow up to be liberal Democrats, while late boomers trended toward Reagan Republicans. A 19-year stretch is a long time to generalize about.

The next cohort to be given a label, Generation X, has now been deemed to have run, more or less, from 1965 to 1980, or 16 years.

Lately, generational commentators seem to be tending toward thinking of generations as being 16 years long. Why 16? Well, it’s like the boomers’ 19, but easier to work with. (Quick, what’s three-fourths of 16 years? Oh…yeah, you are right, it is 12 years.)

And 16 years is at least a little less sprawling than 19.

Granted, settling upon a standard 16-year length reveals that generations aren’t based on historical events but instead exist for the expediency of the analyst.

Of course, even after massive publicity, virtually nobody remembers the precise dates of these purported generations. What years were millennials born? Generation Z? The Greatest Generation? Only marketing majors can remember.

Another issue is that the dominant generational terminology is driven by an American event, the baby boom, that didn’t much happen in the rest of the world (other than maybe in Canada and Australia). But America is so dominant in pop culture that our ways of thinking get adopted by much of the globe, even when they don’t apply locally, such as in Britain.

Consider the most central figures in boomer legend, the Beatles. Yet, in Britain there was no 1946–1964 baby boom. Instead, there was a brief spike in the birth rate in 1947, followed by a depressed period. Then births finally started to climb again in 1956. (British boomers weren’t hippies, they were punks.)

And, of course, even when applying the American dates to the four Liverpudlians, the Beatles were all born before 1946.

Similarly, Billy Idol’s punk band Generation X, whose 1977 song “Your Generation” snarled back at the Who’s baby boomer anthem “My Generation” (“Your generation don’t mean a thing to me”), provided the name for the next generation via Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel Generation X.

Of course, Billy Idol, born 1955, was a baby boomer, while Pete Townshend, born 1945, was a very loud member of the Silent Generation. It’s typical that a generation’s most famous exemplars tend to be born before that generation. Joe Biden, for instance, is a classic boomer, but he was born four years before 1946.

Three more presidents (Trump, Bush, and Clinton) were born in the first year of the baby boom, while four losing nominees were born in the 1940s. In contrast, no major-party presidential candidates, winner or loser, have been born in the 1950s.

As this simple example suggests, there is an obvious alternative to our current system of generational gobbledygook: unpretentiously label birth cohorts by their decade of birth. Rather than Biden being a Silent while Trump is a boomer, they are both 1940s Babies.

This makes mental calculations much simpler. For instance, 2000s Babies will be in college at age 20 in the 2020s, while the smaller set of 2010s Babies will be in college in the 2030s, suggesting that there will likely be a big shakeout in the number of colleges that survive the next decade.

Also, decades are more narrowly focused than our current 16- to 19-year generations.

And it’s far easier to think about part of a decade (e.g., late-1980s babies are those born from 1985 to 1989, obviously) than it is to think about part of a 16- to 19-year-long generation. (Quick, what years were early Generation Z born?).

Best of all, using decades to designate birth cohorts makes clear how arbitrary our labels really are. There’s no assertion of underlying gnostic wisdom behind decades. We’re just using them because they are simple and convenient.

And, of course, that’s why this idea will never catch on: because people prefer words that aren’t self-explanatory. It’s more fun to confuse the bumpkins with baffling terms like “jump the shark” or “motte and bailey.” Knowing how to use phrases like “Generation Alpha” marks you out as one of the elect.

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