Gen X or Y?

Charles Stross:

In my next novel (the one I’m going to write for publication in 2014), I’m planning on tackling the future of politics circa 2030-2040. Today’s front-rank politicians, aged 45-70 and children of the Boomer generation and their immediate predecessors and successors, will be elderly and retired or dead by that time; the pre-occupations of politics will revolve around the issues and preoccupations of Generation X and Generation Y, those born between 1965-1985, and 1986-2000.

The shifting in the definition of “Generation Y” has been noticable to all my university friends (born, roughly, 1980 and 1981). The term was coined when I was at the type of age that needed a generation tag, I was probably 20 at the time. People born in 1965 were in their mid-thirties at the time, and “Generation X” seemed to cover the age range of roughly 25 to 40 year olds at that time, the people who were waiting (are waiting?) for Baby Boomers to move out of management positions for them, the people whose issues were kids and mortgages and such.

Thus, to the extent that they cared, people born in 1980 or so were first labelled, and came to identify with, Generation Y.

Then a change in rhetoric happened, because a catchy term for “16 to 25 year olds” was needed, and Generation Y was right there. (Stross is using it for people currently aged 11 to 26, in his entry.) So for about half a decade now, the leading edge of Generation Y has been stuck at 25 years of age, and anyone over 25 is Generation X. Thus, quite a lot of people have suddenly found themselves “promoted” to Generation X in the last five years or so. (For that matter, I suspect that people who were born in 1960 to 1965 are a bit surprised to suddenly find out that they’re now considered Baby Boomers, after being fed a steady diet of “the Boomers are keeping you down!” fluff in their own twenties.)

Really, if you want to seriously analyse this, John Quiggin had the final word in the Australian Financial Review in 2000 (and I imagine the inspiration for it was the coining of the term “Generation Y”, which certainly was not used at the time to refer to children then being born):

One of the standard ploys in journalism, marketing and political commentary is the generation game. The basic idea is to label a generation ‘X’ or ‘Y’, then dissect its attitudes, culture, and relationship with other generations. The most famous generation, of course, is that of the Baby Boomers, born between the end of World War II and the early 1960s, and their most enduring contribution to the generation gap is the ‘Generation Gap’ between children and their parents…

At first sight, discussion of this kind can carry with it an air of fresh insight, but most of it stales rapidly. Much of what passes for discussion about the merits or otherwise of particular generations is little more than a repetition of unchanging formulas about different age groups: the moral degeneration of the young, the rigidity and hypocrisy of the old, and so on.

Demographers have a word (or rather two words) for this. They distinguish between age effects and cohort effects [my emphasis]. The group of people born in a given period, say a year or a decade, is called a cohort. Members of a cohort have things in common because they have shared common experiences through their lives. But, at any given point in time, when members of the cohort are at some particular age, they share things in common with the experience of earlier and later generations when they were at the same age.

Most of the time, age effects are more important than cohort effects. The primary schoolers of the 1960s were very like the primary schoolers of today and, of course, totally different from the middle-aged parents they have become. The grandparents of today are more like their own grandparents than the bodgies and widgies they may have been in the 1950s.

So, Generation Y was originally a cohort term referring to children born, very roughly, from 1980 to about 1990, very roughly the bulk of children of the Baby Boomers (that’s a pretty short generation, so I can see how it gets extended to 2000 readily enough). But all three of “Baby Boomer”, “Generation X” and “Generation Y” are now being used to describe age effects instead:

  • Baby Boomers are perpetually pre-retirees: they have the bulk of the desirable jobs and the bulk of adult power. They are also perpetually a future liability in anticipated health costs and pensions. (In actual fact, many of the children born in the decade after World War I and quite a few born in the early 1950s are now retired or retiring.)
  • Generation X are perpetually early- to mid-career: they have high debt burdens, they have young children, they have high stress levels, they don’t feel entirely settled in their career but they are invested in it.
  • Generation Y are perpetually older youth: they spend a lot of time (“too much”) at university, they don’t take their jobs seriously, they nick off and travel at the least opportunity.

Incidentally, I assume the class aspect of these labels is apparent enough: these stereotypes all refer pretty much exclusively to managerial people (upper-middle) and their parents and children. This is often true of coverage of cohort effects: they describe the youth of journalists’ friends’ children.

I am that class, but the Gen Y stereotypes didn’t even describe my early 20s cohort that well, too many long term relationships and relatively young marriages. There was a lot of travelling and career-hopping though: my husband is one of the very few people I know who graduated with a Bachelor degree and has worked a full-time salaried job—not one individual job, mind you—in the same industry ever since. Stereotypes, eh?

However, since the coining of the terms, the confusion of age and cohort effects in the use of these terms means that people are surprised to find themselves aging out of them: you used to be Gen X, but now you’re a tailing Boomer. I used to be Gen Y for that matter, but I turned 30 and that was that. I graduated. I’m X.

I’ll be curious to see how long this effect lasts, if in five to ten years, as it should, the term Boomer is used to refer to people who actually have retired, rather than Boomers being perpetually on the cusp of retiring as they have been for seemingly my entire life.

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