The Generational Constellation

Last Updated: Jun. 7, 2012

Nineteen generations have lived on American soil since the 1620s. Of these, six are alive today.

The G.I. Generation (born 1901–24) was born after the “Third Great Awakening” of the late 19th century. They enjoyed a “good kid” reputation as the beneficiaries of new playgrounds, scouting clubs, vitamins, and child-labor restrictions. They came of age with the sharpest rise in school achievement ever recorded. As young adults, they were the first Miss Americas and All-American athletes. Their various uniformed corps (CCC, WPA) patiently endured the Depression, after which they conquered more oceans and continents than any other fighting generation in world history. In midlife, they were subsidized by the G.I. Bill and built up the postwar economic system, facilitating upward mobility, erecting suburbs, inventing vaccines, plugging missile gaps, and launching moon rockets. Their gaps in family wealth and income were relatively small.

They reveled in the strength of the family as a stable institution, but no generation in the history of polling has gotten along worse with its children. They were greatly invested in civic life, institutions, and community and focused more on actions and behavior than on values and beliefs. Their unprecedented grip on the Presidency (1961 through ‘92) began with the New Frontier, Great Society, and Model Cities but wore down through Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and budget deficits. As senior citizens, they have safeguarded their “entitlements” but have had little influence over culture and values. Early in the 20th century, they were honored with memorials, films, and books.

The Silent Generation (born 1925–42) grew up as the seen-but-not-heard Li’l Rascals of the Great Depression and the Shirley Temples of World War II. They were the least immigrant generation in American history. They came of age just too late to be war heroes and just too early to be youthful free spirits. Instead, they became, like John Dean, “Rebels Without a Cause,” part of a “lonely crowd” of risk-averse technicians in an era in which conformity seemed to be a sure ticket to success. A vast new gap emerged between women’s and men’s education as this generation became the youngest mothers and fathers in American history, joining older G.I.s in gleaming new suburbs. They rode the wave of institutional civic life and conventional culture established by G.I.s as gray-flannel, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” corporate careerists.

Come the 1960s, the Silent stopped taking their cues from up the age ladder, and instead started looking at their Boomer juniors—following the lead of Bob Dylan (“I was older than that then, I’m younger than that now”). They became the leading civil rights activists, rock ‘n’ rollers, antiwar leaders, feminists, public interest lawyers, and mentors for young firebrands. They were America’s moms and dads during the divorce epidemic. They rose to political power after Watergate, with their Congressional leadership marked by a push toward institutional complexity and vast expansion in legal process. They are the first generation never to elect a U.S. President, and the first never to have a Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. As elders, they have focused on discussion, inclusion, and process, but not on decisive action. Having benefited from the collective upward mobility of the G.I. economic machine and institutional safety nets like defined-benefit pensions, they are spending elderhood with a hip style, generous benefits, and higher living standards relative to the young than any prior generation.

The Boom Generation (born 1943–60) grew up as indulged youth during the post-World War II era of community-spirited progress. Parents, educators, and leaders were determined to raise young people who would never follow a Hitler, Stalin, or Orwellian Big Brother. As kids, Boomers were the proud creation of postwar optimism, Dr. Spock rationalism, and Father Knows Best family order. Coming of age, they loudly proclaimed their contempt for the secular blueprints of their parents. They scorned institutions, civic participation, and team-playing while pushing towards inner-life, self-perfection, and personal meaning. There was quite a bit of screaming—on the streets, in dorms, and in families. Crime rates, substance abuse, and sexual risk-taking all surged, while academic achievement and SAT scores started to fall. The Consciousness Revolution climaxed with Vietnam War protests, the “summer of love,” the Chicago Democratic Convention, Woodstock, and Kent State.

In the 1970s, Boomer women began challenging the “glass ceiling” in the workplace. Both genders designated themselves the arbiters of the nation’s values, crowding into such “culture” careers as teaching, religion, journalism, law, marketing, and the arts. During the 1980s, they were the “yuppie” individualists in an era of deregulation, tax cuts, and entrepreneurial business. Ever since they came to power in the 1990s, Boomer political leaders have trumpeted a “culture war,” touted a divisive “politics of meaning,” and waged scorched-earth political battles. Their two Presidents (Clinton and Bush) each attracted powerful enmities among their peers. As family heads, Boomers have developed very close individual relationships with their children, to the point of hovering. From first-to-last cohort, they have been a generation of declining economic prosperity, on average, and of rising spread of economic outcomes, from rich to poor. Millions of Boomers are now being forced to put their retirement on hold in an “age of austerity” that none of them ever prepared for.

Generation X (born 1961–81) grew up as the children of the Consciousness Revolution, an era when the welfare of children was not a top social priority. They learned young to distrust institutions, starting with the family, as the adult world was rocked by the sexual revolution, divorce epidemic, and a shift to a more explicit pop culture. As women entered the workplace before childcare was widely available, many endured a latchkey childhood. Their school achievement leveled out, yet The Nation At Risk report accused them of being “a rising tide of mediocrity.” Come the 1980s, their new cultural statements—hip-hop, grunge, heavy metal, alt-rock—revealed a hardened edge. In the late 1980s, the crime rate surged.

As young adults navigating a sexual battlescape of AIDS and blighted courtship rituals, Xers dated cautiously and married late. Many of them have begun to reconstruct the institutional strength of family that they missed in their own childhood. In jobs, they embrace risk and prefer free agency over loyal corporatism. Through the ‘90s, they faced a Reality Bites economy of declining young-adult living standards—a consequence masked by the phenomenal wealth of young movie stars, athletes, and dot-com phenomes. They responded by becoming the greatest entrepreneurial generation in U.S. history. They have also emerged as the most immigrant generation born in the 20th century. Politically, they lean toward non-affiliation and tend to see volunteering as more effective than voting. They were slow to come to public office, but they are now arriving with a typical brand of get-it-done pragmatism, from President Obama’s “post-Boomer” politics to the “young guns” who entered Congress in 2011.

The Millennial Generation (born 1982–2004) arrived after the Consciousness Revolution, when “Baby on Board” signs first began to appear in car windows. As abortion and divorce rates ebbed, the popular culture began stigmatizing hands-off parenting styles and recasting babies as special. Child abuse and child safety became hot topics through the 1980s, while books preaching virtues and values became bestsellers. By the mid-‘90s, politicians were defining adult issues (from tax cuts to internet access) in terms of their effects on children. Hollywood replaced cinematic child devils with adorable children who made adults better people. The “Goals 2000” movement demanded improved student behavior and achievement from the high school Class of 2000. Educators spoke of standards, cooperative learning, and No Child Left Behind.

Millennials have become a generation of improving trends, with consistent decreases in high-risk behaviors. Rates of tobacco and alcohol use, violent crime, pregnancy, and suicide are all way down among today’s teenagers, while SAT and ACT scores have been rising. As they graduate into the workplace, record numbers are gravitating toward large institutions and government agencies, seeking teamwork, protection against risk, and solid work-life balance. The youth culture is becoming less edgy, with a new focus on upbeat messages and big brands, and more conventional, with a resurgence of “oldies” and “remakes.” Their close relationships with their parents and family members are carrying over into their young adult lives.

The Homeland Generation (born 2005–?) are arriving now in America’s nurseries. These will include the babies born between now and the mid 2020s. Their always-on-guard nurturing style will be set substantially by Gen-X parents, legislators, and media producers. Already gaining a reputation for extreme sheltering, Xer stay-at-home dads and “security moms” will not want to see their own children relive the Dazed and Confused childhood they recall from the 1960s and ‘70s. The protective rules initiated for Millennials will become customary, no longer controversial. Homelanders will receive “total situation” childcare, surveilled by digital-mobile technology, emotionally screened by psychological software, and guarded from inappropriate media through entertainment controls. At the same time, public attention to and celebration of children, which peaked with Millennials, will begin to drop. The adult world will turn its attention to larger public problems as structured methods and institutions point out the “easy way” to raise kids and keep them safe.

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