Deflating the “Baby Boom Generation” and “Millennials” Memes

No one knows exactly how it started, but the dates of the Baby Boom Generation was set as containing those people born 1946 to 1964. Other than the charm of interposing the digits 4 and 6, the year 1964 makes little sense. Someone born in 1946 turned 18 in 1964, so they are graduating or have graduated high school. How much would that person have in common with someone born in 1964?

We all belong to a generation and we share with our generation a series of world events and cultural references like books, music, films, TV, and fashion. We also share similar political attitudes as this fascinating interactive graph shows. We share these with people our age and a few years younger and older than us. How much older and younger depends, I think, on world events. The events of our formative years have a significant influence on our attitudes. People who are 12-18 years different in age have quite different influences. Someone graduating from high school in 1964 has a very different set of influences than those graduating in 1982. There is no rational way we could say they are of the same generation.

Nevertheless, the meme that the Baby Boom Generation is defined by those born 1946 to 1964 is repeated without question. That the Baby Boom generation started in 1946 is obvious; the number of births skyrocketed that year. When to call an end to the Baby Boom generation is the question. The birth rate has never returned to the pre-1946 level in the U.S. If we went by when the baby boom peaked that would be 1961, not 1964. My objections would still apply to lumping 1946 with 1961 as the same generation. It is difficult to find a good cut off but I will offer my theory.

Based on my premise that events during our formative years go a long way to defining a generation, I tag the end of the Baby Boom generation at 1958. The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 is one of the most defining events of the 20th century. America changed that day and if you were old enough to understand what had happened, you were affected by it. I take five years old as a reasonable age for when you can start to understand the significance of events. If you born after 1958, the Kennedy assassination had less effect on you. If you were in the formative ages of 5 to 17 in 1963, you were affected by the  assassination differently than were older people. From this perspective, those born between 1946 and 1958 can be said to be of the same generation, the Baby Boom Generation.

baby boom generationAll of these people were in K-12 school at the time of the Kennedy assassination and the resulting change in how America viewed itself. A certain loss of innocence affected how this generation looked at their futures more than it affected older Americans. There are certainly still differences between those born in 1946 and those born in 1958, but I think there are enough similarities to place them in the same generation. This leaves us with a more sensible 12 year range for the Baby Boom Generation, book-ended by World War II and the assassination.

Does this approach work for any other generations? A bit less because the birth explosion of 1946 is singular, but it can help us understand generational similarities. The 9/11 attacks are also defining events. If we apply the same 5 to 17 years old criterion to 9/11, then those born between 1984 and 1996 could be said to be of the same generation. A similar loss of innocence occurred and the new “War On Terror” defined a new way of looking at the world. 9/11 affected how this generation looked at their futures more than it affected older Americans. The years 1984 to 1996 roughly correspond to the range given for the so-called “millennials” generation, the beginning of which is usually associated with graduating high school at the turn of the millennium. “Millennials” is a term now so overused it has little meaning, often in the media referring in general to young adults. The world did not change at the turn of the millennia, but the world did change on September 11, 2001. Call the generation born between 1984 and 1996 what you will, but their coming of age was defined by the fear and loathing of the post-9/11 world.

To extend the thought experiment, what about other birth years? The two generations before the baby boomers are easier to sort out. In general parlance, the generation born before 1946, roughly 1928 to 1945, has been called the “silent generation.” This is because supposedly this generation focused on their careers not social activism. Those coining the term were either willfully or irresponsibly ignorant about the American civil rights movement that this generation spearheaded. Calling this generation the “Lucky Few” as does the Population Reference Bureau makes more sense because these people graduated high school between 1946 and 1963 and benefited from the expanded opportunities of the post-war boom without having to go to war. Those benefiting even more from that boom cycle was the G.I. Generation, born 1909 to 1927 and served in World War II; at least, those fortunate enough to survive the war benefited. That generation came home from the war aged 19 to 37 and received all of the G.I. benefits granted by the government. They of course gave birth to the Baby Boom Generation.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit Those born between the Baby Boom Generation and whatever we call the “millennials” (yes, I hate that term.) is more difficult to describe. We have all heard of this group being endlessly called “Generation X” after the Douglas Coupland novel. It is a catchy but empty phrase that fits with the mass media culture of the last few decades. The range of years, even if we accept the untenable date of 1964 for the end of the baby boomers, is too large to be one generation. Again, I claim that 15+ years of a gap in age means people are not of the same generation. Adjusting the Baby Boom Generation end date to 1958 leaves a 25+ year gap to beginning of the “millennials,” which I will call the “9/11 Generation.”

Based on the idea of significant world events, I look to 1982 as a rough date to define a generation. 1977 was the arguable beginning of the home computer revolution with the release of the Apple II. The next few years saw releases of the Atari 400/800 (1979) the IBM PC (1981), and the Commodore 64 (1982). The world changed over those five years, solidified by the advent of Lotus 1-2-3 in 1983 and dBase II in 1984 which changed the working world. Many people who reached high school and the working world in the 1980s were greatly affected by the personal computer. I would, if I want to coin catchy phrases, call those people, born between 1959 and 1971 the “PC Generation,” with apologies to Mac users. The PC Generation grew up in an analog world but entered adulthood as that world shifted into a digital world.

Similarly, the coming of the World Wide Web to the general public in 1994 (when the PC Generation was aged 23 to 35 and baby boomers 36 to 48) marked another significant shift in how people did things and thought of themselves. The Internet Generation is, for me, anyone who was born after 1996, who have never known a world without the Internet, the War On Terror, 100+ cable TV channels, and cell phones (smartphones since 2007). Their existence has been thoroughly digitized with entertainment on demand requiring very little effort. They are the Digitized Generation, their lives a constantly repeating loop of audio/video experiences and text app communications. Now, this generation is reaching adulthood the first generation with fewer real-life opportunities than previous generations.

So all of this thought leads me to these as loose definitions of generations:

1909 – 1927 – G.I. Generation
1928 – 1945 – The Lucky Few
1946 – 1958 – Baby Boom Generation
1959 – 1971 – PC Generation
1972 – 1983 – The In-Betweeners (Generation X)
1984 – 1996 – 9/11 Generation
1997 on –  Digitized Generation

That leaves us with the in between “Generation X.” These children of baby boomers came of age came after the PC revolution and before 9/11. Not quite a lost generation but one caught between recognized cultural trends. They are 24 to 35 years old now, the prime advertising demographic that few can define and few listen to.

What I like about this table of generations is that since 1946 we can think of the generations in roughly 12 year periods delineated by significant cultural shifts as the generations came of age. No doubt, I do not end arguments over defining generations. If nothing else, I can lay to rest both the “millennials” label and the absurdity that I, born in 1963, am a frelling baby boomer.


Some Other Views:

The idea of a micro-generation between Gen X and millennials called Xennials. I think the description given better describes the PC Generation.

Author Jonathan Pontell coined Generation Jones to describe those born from approximately 1954 to 1965. This group is essentially the latter half of the traditional baby boomers.

There has also been bandied about “Generation Y” and “Generation Z,” which is not only derivative, it also means the end of generations unless we go On Beyond Zebra.

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