Saturday, March 16, 2013

Pop Generations

A post on Siris today reminded me again that culture will tend to shape our thought although demography has its influence. Brandon (link) comes to the defense of Generation X. He startled me a little. I’d always thought that members of that generation were, like, way more somehow “sane” than members of the Boom (my own children, born at the tail of it, excepted). But then I don’t follow popular culture.

The naming of generations and when they are supposed to have started or ended, has, however,  always interested me. The names refer to collective experience and tend to be coined by writers, be they journalists or novelists. And the names stick around because…? Well, because the people of that generation nod and say yes. Mine is the Silent Generation, and I’ve always nodded. After all that? What else can you be?

The dates, here and below, refer to the years in which each generation was born. The Silent is dated, by nebulous guardians of culture, to 1925-1945.

Gertrude Stein named The Lost Generation (1883-1900), the one that fought World War I. I also favor Robert Graves’ take on that time expressed in the title of his memoir, Good-Bye to All That. Hemingway echoed Stein.

The generation that fought World War II has come to be known as The Greatest (1901-1924)—but I don’t remember it being called that until fairly recently; it is a retrospective naming. The Silent got its name from Time Magazine, the Baby Boom (1946-1964) from the Washington Post. The Boom, however, was a notable demographic upsurge.

Generation X’s name originated with two books, the first a photo essay by Robert Capa, the second a novel by Douglas Coupland. Dates for the GenXers are a little fuzzy—no consensus. It must have begun in 1965 and ended, according to some, in 1981. The X is supposed to signify the unknown, as in “Who knows?” Who knows what’s coming next?

After that came Gen Y, a name bestowed by Ad Age (we are declining). No poetry here. It is also called the Millennial Generation because, starting in 1982, it saw its last birth on the last day of 2000. It’s also called the Echo-Boom, the generation born to members of the Boom; on that more in a moment. The next one over, the current new generation being born, has a sort of place-holder name, Generation Z. Or might we speculate that Z ending the alphabet, signals the last generation that will die during the final sputters of the Fossil Age?

Now a look at demographics. In the graphic I provide a century’s worth of data on birth rate beginning in 1909, thus toward the tail of the Greatest, and showing parts of GenZ. The demarcation lines I show for the last two groups are dotted because the culture’s guardians are not sure about the dating.


This turns out to be an interesting picture. I note first that the Baby Boom, at is very peak, is only 1 point higher than the Greatest Generation at its lowest point shown in this series. It would be nice to see what the nineteenth century looked like. Maybe the data are there. The Boom is remarkable only in light of the birth rate’s rather sharp decline during the Silent Generation. And since then, despite Hispanic immigration, the rate has been sliding ever lower. The Baby Boom Echo, read GenX, is not much of an echo—if measured by birth rate. The slide from the Boom suggests, in turn, that as demography influences culture, so also culture influences demography. And culture, in the last three generations, seem not to have been “in the mood.”
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My numbers come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vital and Health Statistics, multiple files, lots of keying in Excel. The definition of a “generation” is, as it were, birth-to-birth, from the birth of the mother to the birth of her child. Some average that to 25, others to 30 years. Cultural or pop generations, as shown above, are certainly shorter.

Added later: I’ve added a post on LaMarotte (link) which takes the graphic shown here back to 1800.

1 comment:

  1. I think the "Greatest Generation" label was invented by Tom Brokaw about 15 years ago.

    That definitely is an interesting graphic; one wonders what's in store.

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