GenX, the cultural generation I consider myself part of, wasn’t defined for decades. We were just “post-Boomers” or worse, and subject to the same derogatory attitude which has pervaded many headline references to “Millennials”.
But here’s the thing, what even is a “Millennial”? As Pew Research Center defines it, Generation X ended with kids born in 1980. Various lines have been drawn to create a subsequent group, sometimes weakly referred to as “Post-Millennial” or “Generation Y”. But those ‘damn you kids and your selfies and avocado toast’ articles tend to lump everyone under age 40 all together.
The concept of a generational cohort is fuzzy—history draws with blurry lines—but it is useful and points to the forces of cultural change. The breakpoints between the generations indicate our sense of when significant change occurred. We can use someone’s personal connectedness to that marker as a way of measuring how much they will “belong” to that generation. For example, my cousin is only two months older than I am, but because our different life paths (nurse vs. all the many hats I’ve worn) led us to different levels of engagement with internet culture and technology, I think she’s more like a Baby Boomer and I’m more typically Generation X.
So what are the breakpoints we need to be paying attention to after the end of the Baby Boomer generation? To my thinking, GenX is “early years in or after the tumult of ‘the 60s’ but before the fall of the USSR”, thus growing up in the shadow of potential nuclear annihilation plus the political disillusionment from assassinations and Watergate. GenXers were (at oldest) 3 years old when Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated—a major cultural pivot point—and experienced their formative childhood years in an era when the same worldwide sociopolitical framework the Baby Boomers experienced was being seriously challenged but had not yet transformed.
I disagree with Pew and think GenX should end two years later, in 1982. I draw the line there because it’s the pivot point when the home computer begins to arise. A kid born in 1982 is fairly likely to reach high school without a home computer or an internet connection (1997: 36.6% and 18% of households respectively). A kid born a year later is part of the rapid wave of both those numbers climbing fast.
The big cultural dividers of the generations after GenX are “doesn’t remember the world before the World Wide Web” and “doesn’t remember the world before pervasive smartphones”. (I am using ‘smartphone’ here as shorthand for ‘pocket-sized computer connected to the internet constantly at hand’.)
Note that this generational signifier shifts from being geopolitical or tied to birthrate, and is instead tied to probability of access to technology. It is thus bound up with economic class and other factors of privilege such as race. That observation goes a long way toward explaining why polling by age group is unlikely to be sufficient to predict probable behavior. Generational boundaries are becoming blurrier with increased lifespan, more personal choice over childbearing, and a host of other changes enabling individuals to self-select their group. That said, there are overall cultural trends which make it still useful to discuss generational cohorts.
If the cohort which Pew calls Millennials and I will call the Computer Generation starts in 1983, where does it end? I could pin it purely based on the rise of the smartphone, but there is another big change to take into account. What else makes the current generation distinct? I think it is growing up under the shadow of impending climate catastrophe, plus the cultural disillusionment of the recognition of how America is tangled up with white supremacy. Climate warnings have been raised repeatedly for decades and it is tough to identify a turning point, so when did the American conversation about race begin to change in the 21st century? Jay Smooth’s vitally important video “How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist” from the summer of 2008 is a good indicator of when it was all over the media (accelerated by Barack Obama’s consideration and nomination as the Democratic candidate). If the generation after the Computer Generation is about 3 years old when that pivot point hits, that would start them in 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina.
The Computer Generation 1983 to 2004 then. And after them, our current generation, which I call The Awoken Generation begins in 2005.
We should look back as well as ahead, because there are some similar problems with lumping cohorts together and ignoring major pivots in earlier generational breaks. The term “Silent Generation” for those who survived the Great Depression and formed the core of the major social changes of the 1950s and 1960s is particularly bizarre. The Civil Rights Movement and Rock & Roll weren’t ‘silent’, and it’s unfair to label an entire generation with an epithet about not speaking up against McCarthyism.
So back to technology. I think about conversations I’ve had with my mother, her mother, and her mother’s father. He was born in the last decade of the 19th century and lived into the last decade of the 20th. I recall talking with his daughter, my grandmother, about all the technologies he and she witnessed transforming from innovations to everyday essentials within their lifetimes. Among these the telephone, the automobile, the radio, and the television stand out as extremely culturally significant. (You can see the growth of those along with other household technologies in the “Consumption Spreads Faster Today” chart from the New York Times.) If we want to peg a one-third of households tipping point for these as I did for home computers above (starting our cohort three years before it), we might see generational groups as follows: 1918–1929 (tv, electricity, auto, radio); 1930–1948 (the Great Depression and WWII, radio and the refrigerator); 1949–1965 (TV and the clothes washer).
So, bringing it all together, and filling in a little at the start:
The Breakthrough Generation born ?1880s?–1903
Electricity, the internal combustion engine, sanitation systems, photography, and the airplane all were realized in the late 19th century and the Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk took place at the end of 1903. What a time to be alive! Anything is possible!
The Suffrage Generation born 1904–1917
This cohort grew up during the fight for the rights of women and workers, surrounded by the optimistic trends of the generations on either side of them but in a world full of disasters, massacres, bigotry, and military expansionism.
The Modern Generation born 1918–1929
The 1920s and 1930s saw massive change in American households and their connection to the rest of the world. Sometime around 1925 over a third of them had a car, and by 1929 between 35-40% of households had a radio. In this same period, and several years ahead of automobile purchases, the telephone and electricity reached around a third of households. This is also the generation that saw the conversion of a craft-based economy into a mass-market one.
The Survivor Generation born 1930–1948
1933, as one of the worst years of the the Great Depression, is a key pivot point because those hard years massively impacted people’s access to technology. Take a look at the telephone and automobile adoption rates in the NY Times chart linked above to see the impact. Until after World War II, only the inexpensive radio and (in the early 1940s) the life-transforming refrigerator could break through and grow in adoption rates by a large percentage of American households. Many of the later portion of this cohort, who experienced the impact of the Great Depression less directly, and the countercultural elements of the next generation might together be termed The Breakaways for their role in instigating social change in the 1950s and 1960s. (Thanks to my Mum for her suggestion of that name and the reminder of voices raised in protest and song.)
The TV Boom Generation born 1949–1964
There’s a reason the 1950s are associated with television; household ownership of TVs in the U.S. rose from 9% to 90% in that decade, with a big chunk of the growth occurring in the first two years. By 1952, a third of U.S. homes had TV. [Tons of charts on this history can be found, unsurprisingly, on tvhistory.tv] The impact of the shared culture of television in this generation’s lifetime cannot be ignored; even the atypical Americans of this cohort who watched relatively little felt its effects throughout their daily lives. (And that remains true today for a large percentage of Americans, even those more likely to focus on online activities.) The clothes washer deserves a shout-out in changing domestic life for this generation’s childhood too, reaching about half of households by the end of the period.
Generation X born 1965–1982
Kids of this generation had their early years in or after the tumult of ‘the 60s’ but before the fall of the USSR. They grew up in the shadow of potential nuclear annihilation and the political disillusionment from assassinations and Watergate. The younger part of this cohort likely was further shaken by the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. For all that, they often had very free childhoods with space and time for imagination and play.
The Computer Generation born 1983–2004
This cohort is likely to have grown up in a household with a home computer and unlikely to remember much about the world before the World Wide Web. The Cold War was over before they could understand the concept and even the youngest had a good chance of getting well into middle school before the magnitude of global warming’s impacts was inescapably evident. For them, school shootings like Columbine in 1999 and the endlessly repeated footage of the 9/11 World Trade Center terrorist attack in 2001 are more likely to be the source of their childhood nightmares.
The Awoken Generation born 2005–?
The current generation doesn’t remember a world before people had pocket-sized computers connected to the internet constantly at hand. They don’t remember a world when mass shootings weren’t a regular occurrence in the United States. They don’t remember a world that isn’t experiencing climate change and the various types of natural disasters it amplifies. They’re going to start coming of age soon, but we don’t have to wait until then to hear them beginning to raise their voices in protest of the world we’ve brought them into. It is a good, righteous anger.