Day 660: Generational Labels – A Primer For The Young’uns

originally published October 21, 2013

Good morning children. I know what you’re thinking – you’d rather be outside, frolicking in the gumdrop sunshine, knocking a hoop down the street with a stick or catching a picture show at the local nickelodeon, but this will only take a minute. You see, you don’t yet realize that before long your cultural choices will come to define an era. Your era. That’s right, your tastes will set the font and lighting for the legacy your generation will hoist upon the world.

And that’s a big responsibility.

Before the 20th century – so here we’re going back beyond your great-grandparents’ time – nobody kept track of generational labels. People were born, they worked in the mines or the factories or the fields, then they died of scurvy and the world moved on. ‘Cultural milestones’ were almost unheard of. But the more we became connected to one another, the more we sought to define ourselves in grand, sweeping terms. Generalizations that could redact our forefathers and eventually us and our children with the economical swipe of a single brush.

So listen up. Your future – or more importantly the way your time on earth will be judged by the rest of us – is on its way. It would serve you well to learn a little something about the crowds that swarmed these streets before you.

The Lost Generation includes everyone who kicked off from the starter’s block in the late 1800s and came of age around the time of the first World War. I don’t want to depress you kids, but every generation seems to have a war or two to pin on its chest, so you’d best start watching the news now so you’ll know who to hate when the time comes. Gertrude Stein allegedly passed the term ‘Lost Generation’ on to Ernest Hemingway – it came from an outburst by a garage owner yelling at a young mechanic who had failed to properly repair Stein’s car. It was an early exclamation of “these kids today”, something you’ll probably hear your parents grumble when they discover what fluff-pop crap you’ll listen to as a teenager.

Were these folks lost because they had to share in the most globe-blasting conflict in the planet’s history thus far? Were they lost because they were the first generation to embrace feature films, jazz music, and the debauchery of the speak-easy 20’s? Did they simply not know how to follow a map very well? Ultimately this group of fine men and women are defined by a single Parisian garage owner who felt that young folks were lazy. That’s a good lesson kids – it just takes one famous slip-up to define you all.

Journalist Tom Brokaw came up with The Greatest Generation to define those who grew up during the Great Depression and went off to fight in WWII. What makes them so great? Well, they survived the Great Depression and fought in WWII. They laid the foundation for the western way of life as we know it, I suppose. They invented the earliest computers, televisions and frozen dinners. Bebop and duct tape. The microwave and silly putty. Velcro and LEGO.

But were they really the greatest generation? No, Brokaw wanted to sell a book by that name, that’s all. Every generation has had its share of dynamos and douchebags, children. Look around you – some of you will fall into one of those two categories also, though for the most part you’ll grow up to be drones, plugging your lives into the system just like the rest of us. Sorry, I’m getting a little dark here. Let’s move on.

The Silent Generation (born 1925-1942) was too young to serve in WWII, but a lot of them got to dive into Korea, so they had that. Time Magazine did a story about these kids in 1951, describing them as grave and fatalistic, with confused morals and these crazy women who wanted both a career and a family. These are Don Draper’s people – sorry, you kids probably don’t know who that is yet.

In England these kids were the Air Raid Generation, having grown up amid the panic of the second World War. Some of these kids helped to invent rock & roll though. Shit, you kids probably don’t know what that is either. Put down that Bieber garbage and ask your parents who Eddie Cochrane was.

The Baby Boomer generation is the most important generation of all time – just ask any of them. When your great-grandparents came home from WWII, they made lots of babies. Don’t ask me how – that’s for another article. But those babies became the first generation of youth with a real power to affect the marketplace. Their war was Vietnam, and if they weren’t there, they were probably back home fighting another war, against the war in Vietnam.

Baby Boomers think of themselves as a special generation, and in a way they’re right. They were the first to have a youth culture, graced with that sweet spot in history when technology connected us and delivered digestible culture to every hi-fi and console set in the country. Also, there were drugs. Ask your grandparents about those when your parents aren’t around and you’ll learn a lot.

Many of you probably have parents who belong to Generation X. Born between the mid-60’s and the late 70’s / early 80’s, we’re the gaggle of guys and gals who got screwed over when the Sexual Revolution turned into AIDS-mania. Sure, we’re known for being more accepting of racial, gender and sexual orientation equality than our folks, but we’re also the first generation who decided it was cool to be unimpressed by anything. Our war was Desert Storm. Whatever, we won in, like, fifteen minutes or something.

We got a little mopey and disenfranchised with society for a while, yet we embraced brand culture like it was going out of style (which it apparently never will). We watched our music on MTV. We had no Beatles, but dammit we had Star Wars first, and even your generation will grow up loving that shit. We were slackers, but one study at the University of Michigan claims we turned out rather well-balanced and happy. To be honest, I’m a little surprised we made it.

I was born right on the cusp between Generation X and Generation Y, which begins around 1977 or so and stretches into the 90’s. These were the first kids to grow up with computers in every house, and with video games as a staple of home life. They’re known as the Millennial Generation because they were in a culturally-relevant demographic when the year 2000 hit. Some call Gen-Y’ers ‘Generation Me’ because of a trend of narcissism and entitlement that permeates through them. I’m not quite so brash.

Their war was the mess over in Afghanistan and Iraq, and like the Baby Boomers there were a lot of them against the war back home. Except their music wasn’t anywhere near as good.

As much as we older folks like to rag on the Gen-Y crowd for coming of age right around the time the internet stuck its flag in our collective brains, they’re actually a civic-minded bunch with a strong sense of community. Snarly Youtube comments notwithstanding.

This brings me to you lot, known as Generation Z because we seem obsessed with developing labels for generations before actually learning the traits that will define them. You have quite the canvas upon which to paint your legacy, being the first to enter the connected web-wide-world and experience it from the moment your eyes can focus long enough to check out the latest Vine clip.

You are the most diverse generation of children in American history, so you’d better one-up the eras that came before you and figure out how the hell to get along. According to one study you are the least likely to believe that such a thing as the American Dream exists. I hope you go through your cynical, hate-the-world phase quickly and quietly, and move on to fixing the crap-heap we’ve left in your possession.

And take care of the old folks. We didn’t screw everything up, honest. It was messed up when we got here; we just didn’t know how to fix it.

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