I have a theory that we only started thinking seriously about generations after World War II when – in Western countries at least – it became rarer for multiple generations to inhabit the same household. Instead of being divided roughly into “young” and “old” we became obsessed with the small differences between discrete age cohorts simply because families were no longer living in close, constant proximity.
It was also when the Baby Boom emerged – an unexpectedly large, influential demographic who came of age when there was enough spare money for them to influence cultures and economies. Understanding just what this generation wanted – and would do, as it aged – made it imperative to delineate the generations that preceded it, and even more the ones that would follow. This is where author Jean M. Twenge and her new book, Generations, comes in.
Twenge, a psychologist who has written books about Generation X and the Millennials (Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before) and subsequent Gen Z (iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us), has taken on the whole range of living generations with her new book which, like her others, contains its thesis in its own title, (in this case, The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents—and What They Mean for America’s Future).
For the purposes of Twenge’s book, she divides the generations by birth dates: Silents (1925-1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Gen X (1965-1979), Millennials (1980-1994), Gen Z (1995-2012) and one tentatively dubbed “Polar” (2013-today), though I suspect their name is still up for grabs.
Twenge admits that membership is provisional if you’re born in transitional years. Her breakdown identifies me as a late Boomer, though I adamantly deny the affiliation; I am the child of Boomers, for one, (although raised by members of the generation preceding the Silents – the so-called Greatest Generation), and I identify with none of the economic or cultural markers that defined Boomers – no postwar economic miracle, abundant employment or social idealism. My childhood and youth saw the return of rampant inflation (and its theoretically improbable cousin, stagflation), a growing scarcity of jobs and affordable housing, and a bred-in-the-bone cynicism about politics and activism that earned Gen X the pejorative “Slackers” for at least a decade while we entered adulthood.
According to Twenge, my generation “learned from their Silent and Boomer parents that the self came first. Gen X’ers didn’t have to march in a protest or attend a group session to realize that their own needs and desires were paramount. They just knew it.” With this in mind, I rushed through the chapters on the Silents and Boomers, skimmed the ones on Millennials and Gen Z and went straight to the one about my own.
We were the TV generation, the children of divorce, the latchkey kids, primed to reject the performative rebellion of their Boomer parents, and older siblings. “With the idealism of the 1960s ground to dust by the time they came along, there was nothing to sell out from. To all but a fringe segment of Gen X, getting a good job and making money wasn’t selling out – it was just what everyone wanted to do.”
(I must belong to that fringe segment, otherwise I would have chosen a career other than journalism and photography; I respect Twenge’s generalizations, but I acknowledge that I don’t have a tidy place in them.)
We didn’t invent computers or the internet, but ours was the generation that invented the software, websites, and apps that made it a more user-friendly, profitable experience; our cohort includes Peter Thiel and Elon Musk (co-founders of PayPal, with Musk recently and controversially buying Twitter), Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, Google creators Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Sheryl Sandberg (executive at Google and Facebook), and Napster founder Sean Parker.
But we’re also the generation who lived to see the internet evolve beyond our understanding before we were close to retirement age. Twenge frequently quotes journalist Meghan Daum (born in 1970) to help explain Gen X. “Young people don’t want to be us because they’re not even the same species as us,” Daum writes. “The world has changed so much between my time and theirs that someone just ten years younger might as well belong to a different geological epoch.”
“To a young person, someone like me is not so much an elder as an extinction,” writes Daum. “My generation will be the last to have known the world in its analog form…As a result, we’ve grown old before actually getting old. We’ve become dinosaurs before we’re even fifty.”
Our biggest flaw is obvious: there are fewer of us, especially compared to the generations that bracket us, with the result that we’re underrepresented in important places like the boardroom and government. There hasn’t been a Gen X president in the US yet; indeed, instead of getting our turn after Silent and Boomer presidents, the post has gone back to a Silent. (Though if you take Canada as an object lesson, our first Gen X prime minister is a warning, not a precedent.)
“Boomers are still filling the top leadership roles,” Twenge writes. “Boomers’ continued dominance in leadership is also due to technology and the slower life it affords: With people living longer, healthier lives, Boomers are working later in life and taking longer to retire. Until they do, Gen X’ers will not have as many opportunities to be leaders.”
This could, she writes, have dangerous results for issues such as free speech, digital privacy, and AI, which opened up a deep generational divide between X’ers and Millennials. She quotes journalist Matthew Hennessey: “If you don’t want behemoth tech firms spying on you in your home and your car…if open debate is important to you and the chill winds of speech codes and political correctness on our college campuses have already sent a shiver up your spine…if drone deliveries and sex robots give you the creeps…then this is the time to make a stand.”
But the interval where Gen X could take the commanding heights, at least briefly, might have already passed. “In the 2020s,” Twenge writes, “they have a unique role to play as ambassadors between the pre-digital Boomers and the post-digital Millennials and Gen Z’ers. But Gen X’ers may protest that they would like to be seen as more than the middle child wedged in between two larger generations.” A nice thought, but you can’t argue with numbers.
We were the generation who embodied distrust in governments and institutions and made it a trend that has continued in political and social life, so it’s hardly surprising that we didn’t bother to show up – or send our best people. (See: Canada, 2015-present.) In the end, our political epitaph might ultimately read “Slackers.”
At the beginning of Generations, Twenge says that her new book draws from larger, more comprehensive datasets than her previous ones, so it’s not surprising that subsequent research has overturned some of her previous assertions. It turns out, for instance, that Baby Boomers have suffered a crisis in mental health (notably in white and especially male Boomers) that puts subsequent generations in the shade.
While Gen X did show an alarming rise in teen suicide, the trend waned as we matured, while it persisted with Boomers as they aged. Millennials, Twenge tells us, were raised as monsters of self-esteem, which became a crisis for them when adulthood didn’t confirm that they were as fabulous or as special as they had been told.
But statistics don’t bear out the story that Millennials are lagging notably behind in wages or home ownership compared to previous generations. (Gen X was, in fact, notably poorer at the same age, though Millennials are dogged by much higher student debt.) But they are a generation who spend a lot of time online, where pity party stories about impoverished members of their cohort postponing a family, and watching their first home slip further out of their grasp get more clicks than good news.
“The end result: More Millennials believe they got screwed economically,” Twenge writes, “which has downstream consequences for their political attitudes.” Much of Twenge’s chapter on Gen Z talks about transgender and LGBTQ+ issues but follows it up with data saying that this generation is actually having less sex than previous ones.
For young men, this is because cancel culture and 24/7 social media have made relationships a potential minefield. Twenge quotes a 20-year-old junior at Penn State who tells her that, “A lot of my anxiety ties back to the openness and honesty that people have on the internet…It shows me that there is a lot to be worried about. People aren’t so forgiving all the time.”
“And he’s right –” Twenge says, “many of the cruel and negative things people say online would likely never be uttered to someone’s face.” If you’re the parent of children just entering adulthood, this section of her book is sobering.
While we were talking about Twenge’s book, my youngest told my wife and I that we always talk about generations, and that it was mystifying since they never thought about the subject at all. Anxiety and loneliness are, at least right now, skyrocketing in Gen Z, which might be a sign that the trends that have been atomizing us into ever-smaller groups of self-interest, pitted against each other, are reaching critical mass.
“Is Gen Z depressed because the world is a harsh place?” Twenge asks. “Or do they think the world is a harsh place because they are depressed? By definition, depression involves perceiving the world around you in a more negative light.”
Ironically, one sign of hope is social media. X, formerly Twitter, preferred by older generations, is “a giant complaint machine,” while TikTok – the platform preferred by Gen Z – “seems more positive with its cool dances, but it often features dark humour.” Concise if slangy social commentary is interspersed with baffling stunts that make the app Kryptonite for older generations, but it does offer a refuge from the nonstop bear-baiting of Twitter/X.
The bad news is that Twenge’s data shows how highly vocal minorities within generations can cause social changes that weren’t asked for or welcomed by the majority of their cohort. Social media has, of course, amplified this dynamic, and with birth rates falling, it’s likely that ever-smaller fringes can have outsized influence on issues that affect a majority. Not a healthy trend in a democracy.
Twenge hopes that books like hers will help calm the waters. “Instead of debating which generation is to blame, we can realize that the generations influence each other as they navigate cultural change,” she writes at her conclusion. “The more we understand the perspective of different generations, the easier it is to see we’re all in this together.”
Or perhaps, like my youngest, we might come to care a lot less about generations and return to the perspective we had on them a century ago. If current trends in housing continue, at least like they have in Canada, we all might end up living together under one roof again. Perhaps that’s what it will take to make us all less mysterious to each other.