Generation What?

December 4, 2008 | By William Safire

Welcome to the socio-literary parlor game of "Name That Generation."

It all began in a quotation Ernest Hemingway attributed to his Paris patron, the poet and salonkeeper Gertrude Stein. On the title page of his novel "The Sun Also Rises," published in 1926, he quoted her saying to her circle of creatively disaffected writers, artists and intellectuals in the aftermath of World War I, "You are all a lost generation."

In the cultural nomenclature after that, the noun generation was applied to those "coming of age" in an era. Anne Soukhanov, U.S. editor of the excellent Encarta dictionary, observes, "Young people's attitudes, behavior and contributions, while being shaped by the ethos of, and major events during, their time, came in turn to represent the tenor of the time."

Taking that complex sense of generation as insightful, we can focus on its modifier as the decisive word in the phrases built upon it. The group after the lost generation did not find its adjective until long after its youthful members turned gray. Belatedly given a title in a 1998 book by Tom Brokaw, the Greatest Generation (which had previously been called the G.I. Generation) defined "those American men and women who came of age in the Great Depression, served at home and abroad during World War II and then built the nation we have today."

That period, remembered as one characterized by gallantry and sacrifice, was followed by another time that was described in a sharply critical sobriquet: in 1951, people in their 20s were put down as the Silent Generation. That adjective was chosen, according to Neil Howe, author of the 1991 book "Generations," because of "how quiescent they were during the McCarthy era . . . they were famously risk-averse." The historian William Manchester castigated the tenor of youth in that era as "withdrawn, cautious, unimaginative, indifferent, unadventurous and silent." Overlapping that pejorative label in time was the Beat Generation, so named by the writer Jack Kerouac in the '50s. Though the author later claimed his word was rooted in religious Beatitudes, it was described by a Times writer as "more than mere weariness, it implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw . . . a sort of nakedness of mind."

Now we're up to the '70s, dubbed by Tom Wolfe in New York magazine in 1976 as the "me decade." That coinage led to the general castigation of young adults by their elders in that indulgent era as the Me Generation, preoccupied with material gain and "obsessed with self." It was not so silent, far from beat, but still, in its own grasping way, a generation lost.

Then came the title denoting mystery of the demographically huge generation born from roughly 1946 to 1964 - begun as the Baby-Boom Generation, but in its later years its younger members took on a separate identity: Generation X. That is the title of a 1991 book by Douglas Coupland; "It is an identity-hiding label," the generationist Howe tells my researcher Caitlin Wall, "of what is the generation with probably the weakest middle class of any of the other generations born in the 20th century." While most boomers proudly asserted their generational identity, "Xers" at first did not; now, however, most feel more comfortable with the label. It has been followed by Y and Z, but those are too obviously derivative, and the Millennial Generation - if narrowly defined as those beginning to come of age since 2000 - has members still in knee pants. (And why have most major dictionaries banished the term knee pants? There is no such expression as "since I was in shorts." But I digress.)


U.S. presidents like to identify themselves with the zeitgeist inspiriting their electorate. "This generation of Americans," F.D.R. told the 1936 Democratic convention, "has a rendezvous with destiny," the final three words later evoked by both Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. John F. Kennedy, in his 1961 inaugural address, said, "The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans - tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage."

Speaking in March 2007 at a chapel in Selma, Ala., in commemoration of a bloody march for voting rights, Senator Barack Obama put forward a name for a new generation of African-Americans. After acknowledging "a certain presumptuousness" (a long but not incorrect form of "presumption") in running for president after such a short time in Washington, Obama credited the Rev. Otis Moss Jr. for writing him "to look at the story of Joshua because you're part of the Joshua generation."

He noted that the "Moses generation" had led his people out of bondage but was not permitted by God to cross the river from the wilderness to the Promised Land. In the Hebrew Bible, it was Joshua, chosen by Moses to be his successor, who led the people across, won the battle of Jericho (aided by the miracle of daylight saving time) and established the nation. "It was left to the Joshuas to finish the journey Moses had begun," Obama said to the youthful successors to the aging leaders of the civil rights movement, "and today we're called to be the Joshuas of our time, to be the generation that finds our way across the river."

Another new moniker - Generation O - has surfaced in headlines and on T-shirts; it seems too leader-specific as well as imitative of the short-lived Y and Z. But the Mosaic-Joshuan biblical metaphor, although popularized by Obama specifically about the successors to civil rights pioneers, was helped along in a broader context, post-election, as the title of an article by David Remnick in The New Yorker and in a reference to the president-elect by Jonathan Alter in Newsweek as "the beneficiary of the spirit of the '60s by white baby boomers." Though the spirit of an age is best defined in retrospect, and religious allusion is not currently considered cool, the Joshua Generation - unlike all its era-naming predecessors - does have alliteration going for it.


  • Facebook LinkedIn