The greater generation ?

by John Q on February 4, 2006

One of the lazy journalistic tropes I most dislike is the generation game. It’s essentially a young person’s game, so lately we’ve mostly seen people under 45 (the so-called generations X and Y) putting the boot into those aged between 45 and 60 (Boomers). The results have been reliably silly, and also repetitious – the complaints and responses are little changed from 30 to 40 years ago, when boomers were mouthing slogans like “Never trust anyone over 30” .

But the game is even sillier when played by those old enough to know better, like Richard Neville. In Salon, Gary Kamiya gently skewers the latest of the genre, a book claiming that the Boomers are a “Greater Generation” than the one that fought World War II by virtue of their struggles for civil rights, equality and so on. Crucial quote

Leaving aside the obvious definitional and chronological difficulties — many of the boomers’ achievements were set in motion by men and women from the Greatest Generation — is it really fair to say that a group consisting of millions of people “did” anything?

I look forward to a time when the idea that you can classify a person by the date on their birth certificate is accepted only in the astrology columns.



Chris Bertram 02.04.06 at 6:38 am

Very odd how these boundaries are drawn too. I’m now 47 and never thought of myself as a boomer. After all, I was way too young for 1968, the seminal musical moment of my youth was punk (a revolt against the bloated aesthetics of the boomers, or so I thought), I’d barely started copulating when free love gave way to AIDS-anxiety, and when I finally arrived on the job market Mrs T had ensured that there weren’t any jobs. Imagine my surprise when someone only about 4 years younger than me described me as a “late boomer”.

All the stigma and none of the benefits!


david tiley 02.04.06 at 7:45 am

Doesn’t that squarely make you Generation Jones?


Aidan Kehoe 02.04.06 at 10:36 am

Chris, you’re not from the US. (Nor is John.) “Boomer” is a US phenomenon; I’m not sure how Britain or Australia’s birth rates looked at that time.

While it may not be fair to say that groups of millions of people “did” anything, there are details of group psychology that do indicate pretty big differences between generations. And, look at France–the political classes seem to have moved from the generation with experience in World War II to those who graduated from the ENA at the end of the seventies; no-one considered voting for the local equivalents of the boomers.


Semanticleo 02.04.06 at 11:05 am

Although generalizations leave pot-holes aplenty for those who wish
to debunk, there is some merit in making leaps. Neville’s point is from
far too small a sample to have scientific credibility.

Here is more unscientific data from my own archival bin of bias.

The Depression generation often speaks of the hardships that molded
their youngest years, and wished for their offspring to have more time
to be kids. So they aspired to achieve more economic affluence
which they saw as a means to provide leisure time for their kids.

They perhaps did too good a job of it. The successive generations seem
to have taken the surplus of time and possessions and turned it into
an entitlement. It has been infused genetically in each subsequent
layer born, and in turn, exponentially grown in appetite. In other
words, the youngsters have been spoiled interminably. This is not
to say there is less character,(as youngsters in Iraq have proven)
it’s just that hardship, in general builds greater character than does
easy living. Being a Boomer and a parent, I believe I have some
perspective on what must, in the end, be a speculative observation


save_the_rustbelt 02.04.06 at 11:19 am

The boomers (US) did some good but the heroes were still in the Greatest Generation.

Civil Rights? LBJ and Hubert Humprhey did the heavy political lifting, along with King, Evers, Marshall, etc.

Boomers gave us rampant divorce, rampant drugs, rampant STDs, along with doing some good.

Gen X and Y are different,and will do fine. My only concern is that some of them seemed to have inherited their Me-first ethics, whic is likely to continue the cultural divide.


derek 02.04.06 at 11:34 am

As someone who only got the vote after Thatcher had been elected, I resent superior old hippies telling me what a disappointment “my” selfish eighties generation were compared to “their” love-and-peace sixties generation. I always like pointing out that demographically, Reagan/Thatcher voters are just the Flower Children after they got older.


Brendan 02.04.06 at 11:36 am

Neville should look into the phrase ‘never trust a hippy’. Particularly he should look at why it was coined, and against whom it was mainly used.


Carlos 02.04.06 at 11:40 am

Actually, JQ, in the US it was promoted by Strauss and Howe back in the early 1990s. Strauss self-identifies as a Baby Boomer, and the pictures of Howe I have been able to find on the Net suggest that he’s also not of Generation X nor Y.

Also, by claiming that making generational claims is “essentially a young person’s game,” aren’t you, well, making a generational claim?

(Me, I make claims about subcultures. Odd how they tend to be age-aggregated.)


Walt Pohl 02.04.06 at 11:42 am

John: You don’t think we should pigeonhole people based on their generation? What are you, a goddamned hippie?

Aidan: Your link is evidence against the notion of generational psychology. As the link would have it, once upon a time everyone, regardless of generation, thought you could overcome trauma by forgetting it. Now everyone, regardless of generation, thinks that trauma permanently scars you.

I predict that this thread will show that everyone is deeply attached to generational analysis, and that such analysis is self-perpetuating. I never really thought of myself as a member of a generation until I started reading articles about how my generation sucked. Already I’ve seen articles about how the current generation of young adults suck.


abb1 02.04.06 at 12:23 pm

‘Generation’ is defined by an instance of pop-culture. Pop-culture takes different forms but they are mostly superficial, thus ‘generation’ is a superficial characteristic.


Henry 02.04.06 at 12:34 pm

John – there is a more serious version of this – the way that social scientists study cohort effects – which suggests that generation does have a significant impact on political and social views (if not one that approximates the popular version of this of course).


Jim Harrison 02.04.06 at 12:37 pm

The generation bit works best when a major event like WWII; a baby boom; or, for Europeans, 1968 punctuates what Moretti calls the biological continuum. Gen x, y, z are knocks offs like the umpteen -gates that followed Watergate; and we all know that the third sequel is direct to tape.


abb1 02.04.06 at 12:47 pm

…significant impact on political and social views…

Sure, the ideas, dogmas and taboos that are popular at the time when your worldview is being formed do have somewhat greater impact; but I’m sure most people manage to stay open minded; not to mention that a significant minority probably don’t buy those popular dogmas in the first place.


Ben Alpers 02.04.06 at 12:47 pm

A couple thoughts…

1) Calling something a “young person’s game” is very much not generational analysis. Everyone is young at some time, and then (if we’re lucky enough to outlive our youth) not young. The generational view posits that we’re each born into a single generation that we stay with over the course of our lives, and that distinguishes us from those not born around the same time as we were.

2) No discussion of generational analysis should exclude a discussion of niche marketing, which has driven much of this line of “thought.”


dp 02.04.06 at 1:44 pm

The idea that one can safely and cogently aggregate ideological preferences according to a trimmed and shrink-wrapped period of time is pretty silly. Partly because some of these generational notions draw inspiration from people of ‘earlier’ gnerations. Take surf punk for example, the 80s phenomena that drew extensive inspiration from 50s figures like Duane Eddy, Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis. Even regular punk looked back to the Trashmen and 13th Floor Elevators. Louie Louie, anyone?

As Ben says above, it’s a lot about niche marketing. And the number of willing suckers.


Hootsbuddy 02.04.06 at 2:03 pm

Those of us who took part in the movements of the Sixties know well that we were by no means a representative majority. Most of us were criticized roundly and publically for a range of character disorders at the time. Only in the aftermath of the Kennedy assasination, the end of Vietnam (which cost LBJ his job) and subsequent public shame of the Nixon administration did any great number of people jump on the wagon, suggesting that they were there all along.

In retrospect the criminal activity of Spiro Agnew, which led to his resignation and subsequent appointment of Gerald Ford as Vice President, has been largely overlooked as one of the more benign stains of the time. No, ours was by no means a “Greater” generation. Many may want to lay claim to that misrepresentation after the fact, but at the time it was happening the struggles of the Sixties — many of which continue to this day in an even less popular form — were never common currency.


harry b 02.04.06 at 2:17 pm

Chris, the UK boom peaked in 1964, the year after I was born (it was one of the justifications of ROSLA (raising of the school leaving age) in the seventies — fat lot of good that did). Because Britain was bancrupt after the war, and lost a much higher proportion of its child-producing population during it, the boom was later, and, I think, steeper. You would count as an American boomer (I would, in fact, bizarrely) but I think you’re technically pre-boom for a Brit. Correct me, someone.


mark s 02.04.06 at 3:02 pm

this is very unfair to newspaper astrology, which in its analyses declines to distinguish (eg) between geminis born in 1906 and geminis born in 1956 — it is a radical ATTACK on generationalism


John Quiggin 02.04.06 at 3:09 pm

“Civil Rights? LBJ and Hubert Humprhey did the heavy political lifting, along with King, Evers, Marshall, etc.

Boomers gave us rampant divorce, rampant drugs, rampant STDs, along with doing some good.”

Umm, Timothy Leary was a member of the greatest generation, as were most of the legislators who liberalised divorce laws. Most of the people who led most social changes (for good or ill) in the 1960s were, not surprisingly when you think about, born before 1945.


John Quiggin 02.04.06 at 3:14 pm

Henry, I talk a little about cohort effects in one of the pieces I link to. My general view is that age, class and gender effects are almost always more significant than cohort effects.


Bro. Bartleby 02.04.06 at 5:10 pm

Ode to Boomers



I was born under the screams of a mushroom filled sky

to the hiss of a thousand locomotives

to the reek of Buchenwald ovens

to the wild-eyed estacy of skeletons dancing in the streets

to the cooing girls gracing aluminum-nosed superfortresses

to the crackling radios and the comforting hum of white refrigerators

to the roar of hot rods and roadsters and coupes

to the ribboned crossbones with skulls donning pink Easter bonnets

to the raised stigmata hands before a heedless world

to the aspen glow of a bonfire in a cowering Berlin

to the fluttering flag on a volcanic isle caught by a gritty Speed Graflex

to the Kilroy that was here and there and everywhere

to the lightning punches of Graziano

and I awoke from the warm watery world to a cry

from lungs invaded by the gasps of a million years.

–Bro. Bartleby


jayann 02.04.06 at 8:25 pm

Harry, there were two UK “booms”: immediately post-WWII, and 64.


bad Jim 02.05.06 at 5:47 am

I recall reading a piece, possibly by John Perry Barlow, regarding the legacy of the hippies, contending that they were responsible for most of the computer culture that undergirds the modern world, and most particularly the Internet.

The first computers, and even the first microprocessors, were the products of earlier generations, but the great proportion of the programmers who made them useful were those who came of age when they were introduced.

Boomers like me have only started putting their hands on the levers of power in the last decade. The results so far, at least in the U.S., have veered between mediocre and disastrous, and the future looks grim.

Nevertheless, some remarkably useful work has been done, as demonstrated by the means by which you are reading this.


Peter 02.05.06 at 7:33 am

Bad Jim — whatever else one may say about Bill Gates, he was no hippy. I would say that most of “the computer culture that undergirds the modern world” was due to people with the same business or scientific ambitions as their organization-man fathers. And somehow I doubt that the US Military was employing hippies when it funded the early days of the Internet.

Well, apart from Herman Kahn, that is.


Daniel 02.05.06 at 7:53 am

Jayann is right about two booms. I’ll dig up a paper from SSRN which suggests that you can construct house price forecasts out of this fact, but it will be later this week.


Z 02.05.06 at 8:08 am

John #20
The importance of cohortal effects may differ from country to country. Louis Chauvel’s “Destin des générations” argues quite persuavisely that cohort had a crucial effect on social structures in France (perhaps the greater effect of cohort in France comes from the importance of the State in defining one’s opportunity to acces jobs like medical doctor or engineer). Of course, his study bears no ressemblance with the usual “generation game”.


Aidan Kehoe 02.05.06 at 9:23 am

Walt Pohl, #9

Aidan: Your link is evidence against the notion of generational psychology. As the link would have it, once upon a time everyone, regardless of generation, thought you could overcome trauma by forgetting it. Now everyone, regardless of generation, thinks that trauma permanently scars you.

Where “everyone” is the chattering classes, and if they don’t vary with time, I do wonder how any social change happens.


garymar 02.05.06 at 10:27 am

George W Bush, Tom Delay, and Jack Abramhoff are all part of MY cohort, and God I wish it wasn’t true. Their values seem to be the exact opposite of mine.

‘Hippies’ and computers: it’s true that Bill Gates started at a very high level, and then took off from there into the stratosphere. His parents were part of the local Seattle elite, and as a boy he was comfortable around the prominent businessmen and politicians who showed up at his parents’ parties. That’s also why he got an early exposure to computers: through the pull of influential parents, his private school got a connection to a local mainframe, something very unlikely to happen in a public school.

But didn’t the ‘hippie’ generation have something to do with fueling the computer homebrew culture out of which microcomputers arose? Apple Computer and other companies rose out of that culture, which was not at all commercially oriented. Gates saw the business opportunities this presented, and jumped on it with both hands. Does anyone know of any solid research done on this?


JS Narins 02.05.06 at 11:09 am

Way Off Topic:

I missed the deadline to post on the Discworld novels.

“Going Postal” is, as neil said, an attack on libertarianism.

“Jingo” is a great attack on, well, unilateral militarism.

“Guards, Guards” includes some great stuff on a police state (including the amazing quote by the dictator to “never build a prison you wouldn’t want to be thrown in.”)


jayann 02.05.06 at 3:26 pm

I know I’m right, Daniel :) — but thanks — I was born in 1946, so follow this stuff avidly… I’d be interested in the paper; the first house price surge I know of — when prices doubled in 1 year — was around 1970, wasn’t it? I was still a student then. (I’m assuming a link between forecasts and prices, yes.)


jayann 02.05.06 at 8:57 pm

John, I’d say cohort effects etc. interact; also that changes in voting behaviour here strongly support (provisionally, anyway…) a political-generational effect rather than an age one.


Dons Blog 02.05.06 at 9:30 pm

At 46 I would be a Joneser, not a boomer. We were those that graduated to the despair of the oil shortages and commodity market crash. If you see an ad that starts “You deserve this credit card” it’s aimed at us, we’ve always felt unfulfilled. And I’ve got to think those graduating now must feel the same way after the promise of the boom and the excess of the 90s.

Other than in marketing and sociology, these labels mean little other than to label and allegedly predict behavior, just as we use jew, mick, chinese, Indian, and a lot of other biased and bigoted labels.


mss 02.05.06 at 10:10 pm

It almost goes without saying that we cannot separately identify age, period, and cohort effects, so which we think are important is often a matter of interpretation.


Martin James 02.05.06 at 11:21 pm

I take it that John Quiggin doesn’t find dancing to be a very serious part of his worldview.

Although there are certainly age, class and gender components to the types of dancing, in the USA at least, the generational effect is overwhelming.

My silent generation father and mother would describe to me (a tail end Joneser or late baby-boomer) 20 years later how deeply they felt the change they saw from their generation when chaperoning a dance in California in 1962.

Needless to say…they have never recovered.

Quiggan’s critique sloopy social science seems to apply to all of soical science: that is: it sucks at predicting change.


jayann 02.06.06 at 4:34 pm

It almost goes without saying that we cannot separately identify age, period, and cohort effects,

I think we can (sometimes) distinguish between age (life-cycle) effects and political generational (one kind of cohort) effects; I’d say changes in voting behaviour among older people in the UK speak to a political generational effect.

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