When I was born, the Baby Boom was an event – a post-World War II increase in births due to soldiers returning home. But when they grew up they were reading the works of people who felt ‘lost’ because they hadn’t been in World War II or the Depression, and dreary mopes like Kerouac and Ginsberg infected a whole lot of teenagers who wants to feel cheated too.
Marketing came to the rescue by declaring the Baby Boom a whole generation, and said “The Science” was on their side in the form of a claim by a sociologist, but the lines made no sense. If a generation was 20 years, okay, our ancestors may have agreed to that, but then it got messy. Picking an arbitrary generation as a starting point, like the Baby Boom, made me one of the last Baby Boomers. But then marketing needed a new approach for young people who had jobs so they had to scramble. That generation was the 13th born in America, but 13 was an unlucky number at a time when Princeton still promoted paranormal nonsense, so that wouldn’t work, so it was instead Generation X.
Generation X believes in climate change and wants mitigation – unless it impacts their vacations or work. Just like every celebrity in every generation. In 1880, people took pictures posing in their horse-drawn wagon.
This had its own logical inconsistency. The lead singer of the band named Generation X, Billy Idol, suddenly found himself a Baby Boomer. And then a few years later marketing departments ignored that X was just a placeholder for 13 and named the next Generation Y. Except then they were also Millennials. And generations were happening faster than ever even though the birth rate in developed countries had both slowed down and gotten older. Generation X is now only 15 years even as the average age of parenthood neared 30. Where to go after Generation Z? Hexadecimal?
Just get rid of the whole concept and go back to age cohorts.
Age cohorts allows us to compare young people now to young people to the past and it eliminates ridiculous ‘it was different when you were young’ thinking. Someone born in 1970 came into a world of moon landings but someone born in 1950 did not. Okay, that seems meaningful except it really isn’t. Someone born in 1858 came into a world of rationed candles for the poor and whale oil for the rich. Someone born a few years later came into a world where kerosene was the norm and we were about to have centralized electricity. Yet a young person today would scoff at the notion that someone born in 1850 or 1870 was that different from each other.
Age cohorts show they’d be right, just like today. Differences are entirely manufactured by marketing departments using fads as totems for generations. In 1970, young people dressed in ways that make young people laugh, just like young people laugh at Benetton clothes from the 1980s and Grunge from the 1990s. Just like their kids and grandkids will some day laugh at them.
Technology is moving fast but that doesn’t mean it creates a new generation, or even that the next generation will be more advanced. There are few in Generation Z who know more about how computers work than me, in Generation X. What does someone born in 1983, the year I went to college, have in common from a demography point of view? Not much, by the time they even went to college I owned my second house. Now ‘generation’ thinking has made such a mess of things we believe 30-year-olds are too immature to even know what interest on a student loan is.
Age cohort analyses would tell us whether or not young people really have a harder time buying a house than in most generations past, and the awkward answer would be…they don’t.