Sunday, July 8, 2012

Granfalloons and Echo Booms

In Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut invented the term “granfalloon” to describe a collection of people who make more of an utterly factitious commonality than the commonality deserves. Examples would be Rotary Clubs, Sagittarians, alumni of the same prep school, citizens of a nation, and members of the same ethnic group. Typically, beyond that one shared datum, members have little more in common with each other than they have with random outsiders. Sometimes granfallooning is a harmless and pleasant excuse for socializing; sometimes it is downright deadly and an excuse for cruelty. Whether or not they are foolish artifacts, however, these group identities influence the behaviors of the people in them and the perceptions others have of them.

Generations arguably are granfalloons, since the members within each generation vary enormously in politics, lifestyles, preferences, and circumstances. Yet, people born at roughly the same time in roughly similar cultures (e.g. Boomers in the US and UK, but not also in China) really do experience a common history and grow up in a common popular culture. Those experiences are a framework for a sense of identity. Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964 (the year the birth rate started a nose dive), formed the largest generation in history up to that time; they were the first born into general affluence and were smugly aware of how they differed from their parents. They still are. Their successors, the Xers, revel in not being Boomers and still like their Grunge; Smells Like Teen Spirit is almost sure to be somewhere on their iPods. Generation Y, also called Millennials and Echo-Boomers, has been in the news lately. The reason: it is the first generation to outnumber the Boomers and it has come of age.

There is no definitive agreement about where the birth years of Generation Y begin and end. I’ve seen start-dates as early as 1976 and end-dates as late as 2004, but most commonly Generation Y is taken to mean the present crop of youthful adults, 18-35, which means the birth years 1977 to 1994. Commonalities? Tech is an obvious answer. They grew up with (or encountered early) the internet, cell phones, video games, and social networks. A majority lived with a single parent at some point prior to leaving high school. They are more ethnically diverse, they have finished more years of school, and they leave school carrying more debt in real as well as nominal terms than members of any previous generation. Illegal drug use is substantially lower among them than among their parents at comparable ages, though legal drug use (e.g. Paxil, Xanax, Ritalin) is higher. Older folks often complain they are slackers, but older folks always say that about younger, so the reality is unclear. Some suggest that digital interconnectivity has damaged their education (see The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein) since they are less likely to memorize what is a click away on the Net; yet, since there is, in fact, less need to memorize what is a click away on the Net, the jury is still out on this one. Oddly, (and I have no explanation for this) they get their driver’s licenses later, and that trend continues. In 1998, 65% of eligible drivers age 19 or younger had licenses; today only 46% do. When I was in college, men were a small majority of the college population (Vietnam, the draft, and the S2 Student Deferment had something to do with that), but today women earn 60% of Bachelor Degrees, and a majority of Masters and Doctorates.

So, yes, the stats for Generation Y are different from the stats of earlier generations. But then, current stats are always different from older ones. If there is a generation to compare with Y, perhaps it is the one born 1877 to 1894: Carl Sandburg, Margaret Sanger, HL Mencken, Dorothy Parker, Mae West, Aldous Huxley, E. E. Cummings, et al. That cadre felt the 20th century belonged to it in much the same way Millennials feel the 21st is theirs; they were comfortable with telephones, automobiles, and electric appliances in ways their horse-and-buggy parents were not. The Philippine War for the US and the Boer War for the UK were similar to the grim experience of Iraq in the 2000s, and the Panic of 1907 was a financial crisis on the order of the one of 2008.

Let’s hope the similarity ends there. The 20th century got worse – insanely worse – before it got better.

I asked a couple Y-ers what song represents the Generation musically. They hemmed and hawed but finally agreed on this by Adele as being most “pan-niche,” which is a term I think I understand. (Party Rock Anthem by LMFAO was a contender also.) I’ll take their word for it.



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