Wednesday, September 3, 2014

On Wanting Something Else

Several years ago I acquired a quasi-niece (long story), now 22, who, frequently with friends, spends almost as much time at my house as at her mom’s. One upside to this for me is a less distant exposure to Millennials than otherwise would be the case. It is often entertaining, if only for sociological reasons.

Some argue that any division of people into generations is arbitrary and meritless, but I can see some value to it. There really are moments in history which impact the people who experience them as youths in characteristic ways. Two people who experienced WW2 at 20, for example, even if diametrically opposed in political and economic views, will have much more in common with each other than with a Boomer of any philosophy; they grew up with the same music, the same cultural presuppositions, and the same physical environment.

William Straus and Neil Howe in their book Generations argue that generations are formed by “social moments” that are analogous to watersheds. Social watersheds need not be tall, but they in many ways determine how we flow. There is some disagreement about the boundaries between generations, especially by those who were born near a commonly accepted one and would prefer to be on the other side. Also, the world is not in synch; there is a strong correspondence of generational types nation-to-nation in the West, but types may vary a lot elsewhere. But granting some fuzziness at the edges, the generations still with us break down roughly as follows in the US.

GI Generation: This group is dwindling fast. It consists of those old enough to have served in WW2 (even if in fact they didn’t) but too young also to have served in WW1. This makes 1928 the last birth year that would qualify.

Silent Generation: They were born 1929 – 1945. They are called the Silents because they had so much to say and loudly: Martin Luther King, Ted Turner, Gloria Steinem, William Shatner, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, etc. They invented rock-n-roll. So they were, y’know, quiet. All of the 60s social revolutions for which Boomers like to take credit were really effectuated by the Silents (with support from a few key GIs); Boomers were too young to do much more than follow (or, in some cases, boo).

Baby Boomers: 1946-64. There actually are four distinct sub-cohorts of this group, each with its own flavor: those born in the1940s fully experienced the 1950s as kids/tweens and they turned 20 in the 1960s; those 1950-55 (my cohort) remember the 1950s but as small kids, and we experienced the 60s as teens; 1956-60 don’t remember the 1950s (except perhaps as fuzzy snippets) but knew the 1960s as tweens; 1961-64 remember the 1960s as kids. Yet, all four cohorts do retain enough commonality of social experience to belong together. We all romped in the freewheeling 1970s, when the 60s social revolution came to full fruition, as young adults.

Generation X: Cynical X tossed aside the loony ideals and flamboyance of the 60s in favor of pragmatic career choices and goth/grunge gloom. 1965 is the start, but the last birth year is a matter of debate. 1983 is one commonly chosen number, which is a likely birth year for a HS senior at the turn of the millennium; importantly, a 17 y.o. in 2000 would have been influenced overwhelmingly by the 90s. Some people place the end date a few years earlier or a few years later, depending on whom they want to include or exclude.

Millennials, aka Gen Y: Starting date is debated, but 1984 is a common one, if only because it is satisfactorily Orwellian and makes the oldest members 30 this year. 2004 is a common end date. The next group presumably is Generation Z which sounds as if they’re zombies.

Anyway, getting back to the Millennials in the house, I couldn’t help overhearing a discussion about their futures. All wanted “a life less ordinary.” None wanted to settle down or close any doors for themselves for at least a decade if ever. None wanted to settle. None wanted to just “live up to low expectations.” They aimed “higher.”

I can relate to that. Boomers talked a lot like that, too, to the puzzlement and irritation of our parents. The GI Generation experienced a Depression and a World War; to them, a secure boring job, a cozy marriage, and a modest Cape Cod house on a quarter-acre lot was aiming high. It was called the American Dream. Boomers, benefiting from the wealth our parents created, dreamed more imaginatively (LSD might have helped too), though perhaps less successfully. Xers and Millennials continued their drift from the GI’s Dream. Take marriage: two thirds of the Silents aged 18-32 were married; only 48% of Boomers 18-32 were married; 35% of Xers in that age span had tied the knot; in today’s 18-32 group 26% are married. In 1992 78% of graduating college students said they wanted kids at some point; in 2012 only 42% said they wanted ever to have them (Ref: study by Prof. Stewart Friedman at the University of Pennsylvania). The current generation sees no point in running into such constrictive responsibility. Rather than a conventional life, they want something…else. Something more, not necessarily in the sense of material wealth.

Once again, this is not a new thought. Ben (Dustin Hoffman) in The Graduate (1967) says about his future, “I want it to be different.” He means different from his parents’ lives, but he obviously has no idea what the alternative might be.

Well, it is normal to want more, I suppose, whether in material or Bohemian terms. It might be a bad idea to expect it though. It leads to disappointment, which might explain the extraordinary (legal) use of anti-depressants among twenty-somethings. But so long as the hopes are tempered with realism, there is nothing really wrong with crying “more, more, more!”

Billy Idol (b.1955)


  1. Makes me wonder at times where it's all going. It may be that less and less people are tying the knot, but it seems more and more are living with each other, changing partners more frequently, so that there's a different dynamics going on there. I suspect you can further break that down into demographics ie. race, wealth, etc.

    Where that might lead to is anyone's guess. I'm one of the Boomers that never got married. I think in part because I was more career motivated, but at the same time was never that happy at my job (I know--take a number and join in line).

    I didn't particularly like my field of work, well, I did starting out for a few years, at least I found it okay, but over the course of years, it changed dramatically. When it changed, it got less enjoyable/tolerable, and more like drudgery, but I stuck it out.

    I wonder if the current generation want more or perhaps something different all together. It appears they are less obsessed about material things, technology has helped along those lines--you don't need a physical book, you can read or have a book on iPad, same for music, movies, etc., and that's an interesting trend. Perhaps they want more experiences, maybe more freedom to do whatever it is they want to do. At least without material things they aren't as tied down as previous generations.

    1. I was married for all of three years -- long enough to know not to do it again. There are people who thrive as part of a couple. I'm not one of them.

      Dream jobs -- say, being paid to sample and rate luxury resorts around the world -- are a bit scarce. Some folks really do make a financial success out of what they love to do:painting, music, star gazing at Mt Palomar, or what-have-you -- and they often mistakenly believe anyone can do the same. In fact, however much they try, few painters, musicians, or (for that matter) astronomers manage to make a living at it. Most of us eventually do what needs to be done to pay the bills, whether or not it relates very much to our formal education or if the job also counts as a hobby. Our parents' generation, for the most part, was just fine with that. Each subsequent generation has grown less and less fine with it. That's certainly understandable. It might not change the ultimate result, though.

      Last week I reviewed "Adult World," a title with a double meaning; the film addresses this point pretty well, I think. Amy, the college student protagonist, is a poet even if she needs a day job; if she gets recognition/money for her writing, great, but that's not the reason to do it.