08 April 2018

Demographers Define the Differences Between Generations

Focus talk given on 29th March 2018 on the topic of "The Millennials: New Approaches to Old Problems"
—Barbara Villandry

     You know I’m interested in how demographers and advertising researchers like to define generations of Americans.  Each of these generations is different from their parents, but also similar.  “Cohort” is the term social scientists prefer to “generations” to indicate “people within a delineated population who experience the same significant events within a given time period.  Sociologist Karl Mannheim emphasized that the rapidity of social change in youth was crucial to the formation of generations, and that not every generation would come to see itself as distinct.  In periods of rapid social change, a generation would be much more likely to develop a cohesive character.  But this isn’t an exact science.  There are as many differences in attitudes, values, behaviors and lifestyles within a generation as there are between generations.
     I remember my grandmother telling me that during the depression, she had to visit her banker to beg for one more month to get current on the mortgage of the family home.  She never got over that experience.  The family owned a jewelry store, so you can imagine how difficult a luxury business was to keep afloat during the Depression, but they managed to do it, and they were able to keep the family homestead. 
     But coming of age during the Great Depression didn’t impact my mom and my aunt the same way.  My Aunt Eleanor became thrifty beyond reason.  In 1940 at the age of 19, she went to Manhattan to try to break into the entertainment business as a dancer and a singer. She learned to make a dime stretch a long way.  After five years in Manhattan, she joined my mom working for my grandfather in the jewelry store.  When my grandparents died, my mom and her sister inherited the store, and kept it going for a few years, but they had very different philosophies about how to run the business.  My aunt didn’t want to buy new merchandise, and my mom said customers wouldn’t keep coming in without new stock.  They sold the store.  My aunt retired in her 50’s, and mom went to work for another local jewelry store. In her retirement, my aunt developed a real interest in investing in the stock market, and mom became the ultimate American consumer.
     Both mom and my aunt were part of what Tom Brokow coined as “The Greatest Generation.”  This includes people born between 1901 and 1925.  They survived the Great Depression and lived through WW II.  They were the first generation to have telephones, and a radio in the home, and were said to have a strong sense of right and wrong.
     Folks born between the mid 1920’s and the mid-1940s are called the “Silent Generation;“ they focused on their careers rather than on activism, and this cohort was encouraged to conform to social norms.  As young adults during the McCarthy Era, many members of the Silent Generation felt it was dangerous to speak out.  Elwood Carlson, a professor of Sociology at Florida State labeled them “The Lucky Few” because even though they were born during the depression and WW II, they moved into adulthood during the relatively prosperous 1950’s and early 1960’s.  This generation had higher employment rates than the generations before and after them.
       I missed being a Baby Boomer by three months, but I’m this close to being one.  Generally, Baby Boomers are born between 1946 and 1964.  This generation was the wealthiest, most active, and most physically fit generation up to the time they arrived on the scene.  They were among the first to grow up expecting the world to improve with time.  This cohort gets its name because of the phenomenal increase in births during this period:  76 million.
     In the U.S., this generation can be segmented into two broadly defined cohorts:  The Leading-Edge Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1955, who came of age during the Vietnam War, and the other half of the generation born between 1956 and 1964 called Late Boomers or Trailing-Edge Boomers.
     Boomers grew up at a time of dramatic change.  In school, we were taught to “duck and cover,” as the response to air raid sirens that could predict a nuclear attack.  Some of our neighbors were building fallout shelters and stocking them with dehydrated food and bottled water.  President Kennedy led us through the Cuban Missile crisis, NASA put a man on the moon, a wall divided Germany into Communist-controlled East Germany and independent West Germany.  Young men could be drafted and sent to Vietnam, and the number of male students on campus seeking educational deferments was high.  So were the numbers of men crossing the border to Canada to avoid the draft.  Students were protesting the Vietnam War.  Flower power became a term.  Folks were living together in communes.  Some were touting free love, others open marriages.  Haight-Ashbury became the center for the counter culture.  The women’s movement was marked by women burning their bras and demanding to be heard.  Desegregation was a movement.  Baby Boomers were the first generation to grow up with television and rock and roll. Have I left anything out?   President Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated.
     The first Baby Boomer cohort are strongly Democratic, the second half strongly Republican.  The later Baby Boomers came of age during Watergate and Nixon’s resignation.  They remember the oil embargo and lines at the gas station, raging inflation, economic recession, lower employment, the Iran hostage crisis, Ronald Reagan and the AIDS crisis.  Their key characteristics are that they are less optimistic, they distrust government, and they are generally cynical.
     Generation Xers were born between the early to mid-1960s and the early 1980s.  Society was again changing, and these children were called the “latchkey generation,” because they had reduced adult supervision as children compared to the previous generations, a result of increasing divorce rates and increased maternal participation in the workforce prior to the availability of good childcare options outside of the home.  As adolescents and young adults, they were dubbed the “MTV Generation.”  In the 1990s, they were sometimes characterized as slackers, cynical and disaffected.  Some of the cultural influences on Gen X youth were the musical genres of grunge and hip-hop music, and indie films.  In midlife, research describes them as active, happy, and achieving a work-life balance.  This cohort has been credited with entrepreneurial tendencies. 
     The declining birth rate of this generation is attributed to the introduction of the birth control pill in the early 1960s.  Increased immigration partially offset these declining birth rates and contributed to making Generation X an ethically and culturally diverse demographic cohort.
     Politically, in the U.S. the Gen X childhood coincided with a time when government funding tended to be diverted away from programs for children.  One in five American children grew up in poverty during this period.  Gen Xers came of age or were children during the crack epidemic, which disproportionately impacted urban areas and the African American community. 
     The emergence of AIDS coincided with Gen X’s adolescence.  Some sex education programs in schools were adopted to address the AIDS epidemic, which taught Gen X students that sex could kill them.  Gen Xers were the first children to have access to computers in their homes and schools.
     Strauss & Howe wrote of Generation X: “They are already the greatest entrepreneurial generation in U.S. history; their high-tech savvy and marketplace resilience have helped America prosper in the era of globalization.”
     Finally, the millennials, born in the early 1980s, through the mid-1990s.  This generation is generally marked by an increased use and familiarity with communications, media, and digital technologies.  It was the generation negatively impacted by the Great Recession.  This is the generation that was born into the age of terrorism. 
     The experts differ in how they describe the Millennials.  Strauss and Howe ascribe seven basic traits to them:  special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, conventional, pressured, and achieving.  Psychologist Jean Twenge wrote a book calling them “Generation Me.”  She says they are confident and tolerant, be they also believe they are entitled and are narcissistic. 
     American sociologist Kathleen Shaputis has called millennials the “Boomerang Generation” or the “Peter Pan Generation” because they tend to delay some rites of passage into adulthood for longer periods than most generations before them.  They also tend to live with their parents for longer periods than previous generations.  This could be attributable to the high cost of housing and higher education, and the relative affluence of their parents. Data from a 2014 study of U.S. millennials revealed over 56% consider themselves as part of the working class, with only approximately 35% considering themselves as part of the middle class.  This class identity for people who believe themselves to be in the middle class is the lowest polling of any generation.
     Research by the Urban Institute conducted in 2014 projected that if current trends continue, millennials will have a lower marriage rate compared to previous generations, predicting that by age 40, 3.7% of millennial women will remain single, approximately twice the share of their single Gen X counterparts.  The data showed similar trends for males.
     According to a cross-generational study comparing millennials to Generation X conducted at the Wharton School of Business, more than half of Millennial undergraduates surveyed do not plan to have children.  The researchers compared surveys of the Wharton graduating classes of 1992 and 2012.  In 1992, 78% of women planned to eventually have children dropping to 42% in 2012.  The results were similar for male students. 
     Another large study of millennials found that they are frequently in touch with their parents an average of 1.5 times a day.  They use technology at a higher rate than other generations.  This group is referred to as “digital natives.”  They have home computers, tablets and smartphones.  They watch tv on their mobile devices. 
     Millennials use social networking sites such as Facebook to create a different sense of belonging, making acquaintances, and to remain connected with friends. 
     Millennials are on a track to be the most formally educated generation.  In 2008, 39.6% of millennials between the ages of 18-24 were enrolled in college, which was an American record.  Along with being educated, millennials tend to be upbeat.  About 9 out of 10 millennials feel as though they have enough money or that they will reach their long-term financial goals, even during the tough economic times, and they are more optimistic about the future of the U.S. 
     Additionally, millennials are more open to change than older generations.  According to the Pew Research Center 2008 study, millennials are the most likely of any generation to self-identify as liberals and are also more supportive of progressive domestic social agenda than older generation.  Finally, millennials are less overtly religious than the older generations.  About one in four millennials are unaffiliated with any religion, a considerably higher ratio than that of older generations when they were the ages of millennials. 

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