Now that I have described how I graduated into Generation X, I have a secret to confess: I’m starting to think that that might not be entirely wrong.
Let’s stick to cohort effects here, since it’s supposed to be a cohort term. And I should add that this is all very trivial stuff, I’m focussing on media, pop culture and technology experiences.
One of the major temptations of identifying as Generation Y had to do with pop culture. My teenage years were just past the wave of slackers and grunge and Seattle. I probably heard Nirvana’s music during Kurt Cobain’s lifetime, but I didn’t know of them as a thing until about a year after he died. I’ve never even seen Reality Bites, but Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder are both 10 years older than I am, and their movies weren’t about my cohort.
I am, frankly, Spice Girls age: not the pre-teen thrilled girls waving things to be signed, but the teenagers who actually paid for the albums with their own money. (I didn’t, for reference. We were a Garbage family.) Britney Spears was born in the same year as me, and her biggest year career-wise was my first year of university. And obviously, when the term “Generation Y” was coined, the stereotypes of late university/early career certainly fit my friends better than the Generation X tags with managerial aspirations. The return of cool people listening to cheesy pop: Y-ish. So that was where I felt I fell. (In case anyone I knew at high school drops by: I realise I wasn’t cool. But you may have been, and don’t think I didn’t notice you danced to the Spice Girls.)
But then, there’s certainly a few small societal boundaries between me and people who were born in 1986. (I have a sister born in 1986, and thinking about the five years between us is often telling.) Starting at a global level, I was reading Tony Judt’s Postwar recently (recommended, I’ll come back to it here at some point), and I was struck because I remember 1989.
To be fair, that’s more important if one lives in Europe, which I never have, but most of my first detailed memories of newsworthy events have to do with the revolutions of 1989 and the 1990 Gulf War. I remember the USSR, again, from the perspective of a young child who was growing up in Australia, but still. I can read the science fiction people smirk about now, the fiction with the USA and USSR facing off in 2150, and remember, a little bit, what that was actually about. This is, well, frankly, more than a little X-ish.
While we’re talking about defining events, I recall that quite a lot of people talked about the children who won’t remember 9/11. (And by children, I now mean 15 year olds, of course.) Obviously this is more important in the USA, perhaps a little like the European children (by which I mean 25 year olds) who don’t remember 1989 in Europe. I obviously remember 2001, and moreover remember the geopolitical situation in the years before it quite vividly too, and that latter is again, more than a touch X-ish.
Turning to technology, which is fairly defining for me, we’ll start with Douglas Adams:
Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
Leaving aside the age effect where shortly everything cool will be against the natural order of things, it’s noticeable to me that the Web and email and so on fall in the “can probably get a career in it” bracket for me. Well, obviously not truly (the first version of the SMTP specification, which still more or less describes how email works today, was published in 1982), but my late teenage years were exactly the years when suddenly a lot of Australian consumers were on the ‘net. Hotmail was founded when I was 15 and I got an address there the following year. (icekween@, the address has been gone since 1999 and I’ve never used that handle since, partly because even in 98/99 it was always taken. But, actually, for a 16 year old’s user name I still think that was fairly OK considering some of the alternatives.)
In short, it was all happening in prime “get a career in it” time for me, and not coincidentally I am at the tail end of the huge boom in computer science enrolments and graduates that came to a giant sudden stop about two years after I finished. Frankly, X-ish. My youngest sister and her friends didn’t get excited about how they were going to become IT managers and have luxury yachts as a matter of course. (Well, partly age and partly not being jerks, there.) It’s a lot harder to get the “just a natural part of the way the world works” people excited about it.
Diagnosis: tailing X.02.15.12
In my next novel (the one I’m going to write for publication in 2014), I’m planning on tackling the future of politics circa 2030-2040. Today’s front-rank politicians, aged 45-70 and children of the Boomer generation and their immediate predecessors and successors, will be elderly and retired or dead by that time; the pre-occupations of politics will revolve around the issues and preoccupations of Generation X and Generation Y, those born between 1965-1985, and 1986-2000.
The shifting in the definition of “Generation Y” has been noticable to all my university friends (born, roughly, 1980 and 1981). The term was coined when I was at the type of age that needed a generation tag, I was probably 20 at the time. People born in 1965 were in their mid-thirties at the time, and “Generation X” seemed to cover the age range of roughly 25 to 40 year olds at that time, the people who were waiting (are waiting?) for Baby Boomers to move out of management positions for them, the people whose issues were kids and mortgages and such.
Thus, to the extent that they cared, people born in 1980 or so were first labelled, and came to identify with, Generation Y.
Then a change in rhetoric happened, because a catchy term for “16 to 25 year olds” was needed, and Generation Y was right there. (Stross is using it for people currently aged 11 to 26, in his entry.) So for about half a decade now, the leading edge of Generation Y has been stuck at 25 years of age, and anyone over 25 is Generation X. Thus, quite a lot of people have suddenly found themselves “promoted” to Generation X in the last five years or so. (For that matter, I suspect that people who were born in 1960 to 1965 are a bit surprised to suddenly find out that they’re now considered Baby Boomers, after being fed a steady diet of “the Boomers are keeping you down!” fluff in their own twenties.)
Really, if you want to seriously analyse this, John Quiggin had the final word in the Australian Financial Review in 2000 (and I imagine the inspiration for it was the coining of the term “Generation Y”, which certainly was not used at the time to refer to children then being born):
One of the standard ploys in journalism, marketing and political commentary is the generation game. The basic idea is to label a generation ‘X’ or ‘Y’, then dissect its attitudes, culture, and relationship with other generations. The most famous generation, of course, is that of the Baby Boomers, born between the end of World War II and the early 1960s, and their most enduring contribution to the generation gap is the ‘Generation Gap’ between children and their parents…
At first sight, discussion of this kind can carry with it an air of fresh insight, but most of it stales rapidly. Much of what passes for discussion about the merits or otherwise of particular generations is little more than a repetition of unchanging formulas about different age groups: the moral degeneration of the young, the rigidity and hypocrisy of the old, and so on.
Demographers have a word (or rather two words) for this. They distinguish between age effects and cohort effects [my emphasis]. The group of people born in a given period, say a year or a decade, is called a cohort. Members of a cohort have things in common because they have shared common experiences through their lives. But, at any given point in time, when members of the cohort are at some particular age, they share things in common with the experience of earlier and later generations when they were at the same age.
Most of the time, age effects are more important than cohort effects. The primary schoolers of the 1960s were very like the primary schoolers of today and, of course, totally different from the middle-aged parents they have become. The grandparents of today are more like their own grandparents than the bodgies and widgies they may have been in the 1950s.
So, Generation Y was originally a cohort term referring to children born, very roughly, from 1980 to about 1990, very roughly the bulk of children of the Baby Boomers (that’s a pretty short generation, so I can see how it gets extended to 2000 readily enough). But all three of “Baby Boomer”, “Generation X” and “Generation Y” are now being used to describe age effects instead:
- Baby Boomers are perpetually pre-retirees: they have the bulk of the desirable jobs and the bulk of adult power. They are also perpetually a future liability in anticipated health costs and pensions. (In actual fact, many of the children born in the decade after World War I and quite a few born in the early 1950s are now retired or retiring.)
- Generation X are perpetually early- to mid-career: they have high debt burdens, they have young children, they have high stress levels, they don’t feel entirely settled in their career but they are invested in it.
- Generation Y are perpetually older youth: they spend a lot of time (“too much”) at university, they don’t take their jobs seriously, they nick off and travel at the least opportunity.
Incidentally, I assume the class aspect of these labels is apparent enough: these stereotypes all refer pretty much exclusively to managerial people (upper-middle) and their parents and children. This is often true of coverage of cohort effects: they describe the youth of journalists’ friends’ children.
I am that class, but the Gen Y stereotypes didn’t even describe my early 20s cohort that well, too many long term relationships and relatively young marriages. There was a lot of travelling and career-hopping though: my husband is one of the very few people I know who graduated with a Bachelor degree and has worked a full-time salaried job—not one individual job, mind you—in the same industry ever since. Stereotypes, eh?
However, since the coining of the terms, the confusion of age and cohort effects in the use of these terms means that people are surprised to find themselves aging out of them: you used to be Gen X, but now you’re a tailing Boomer. I used to be Gen Y for that matter, but I turned 30 and that was that. I graduated. I’m X.
I’ll be curious to see how long this effect lasts, if in five to ten years, as it should, the term Boomer is used to refer to people who actually have retired, rather than Boomers being perpetually on the cusp of retiring as they have been for seemingly my entire life.