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Problems with the Popular Definitions of “Generations”

March 1, 2012 4 comments

Many people are often uncritically accepting of mass media popularized cultural definitions. They do so without thinking through the official rationale or basic reasoning. I am going to illustrate this problem by dissecting the legitimacy of media-driven definitions of “generations”. One of the most popular ways of classifying the various generations born in western countries since WW2 goes something like this- “Boomers“, “GenX“, “GenY” etc. Have you ever wondered if there is something logically inconsistent in the way we define these groups?

Let us start with the easiest to define group- aka the “boomers”. They are popularly defined as those born after WW2 (after 1945 to the early or mid 1960s). Sure there is the whole “early boomers” (1946-1955)and “late boomers” (1956-1965) issue, but statistical and economic data on birth rates does indeed support that those born in that period were born in a particularly fecund and optimistic time in the west.

Defining Gen-Xers is more complicated. There was a significant fall in the birth rate due to a variety of technological and cultural shifts after the mid 1960s. The general economic outlook and optimism did also darkened after the mid 60s, and was certainly the case by the 1970s. So we can say that kids born from the early-mid 60s to the mid 70s could be considered as Gen-Xers. Indeed, there is some overlap between the last baby boomers and the first Gen-Xers. They are traditionally defined as those born between the mid 1960s to the early 1980s- and that is problematic as I will show in the next paragraph.

Things become problematic when you start defining Gen-Y who are traditionally considered to the children of “boomers” and born after the early 1980s. There is however a slight mathematical problem with this assumption- namely, if the first children of baby boomers were born in the early 1980s, that would make their first-time parents kinda old (1981-1946=35 yrs). Now I don’t know about you, but I find that suspiciously late for having your first kids 30 years ago.

Some of you might say- “but what about the later kids of those of the generation before the baby-boomers?” Let us lump those born between 1930-1944 (too young to be adults in WW2)into one generation. Now remember that they were a smaller group than the baby-boomers. Given the standards of the era they were born in, most had kids in their early to late 20s and stopped having kids by the time they were in their late 30s-early 40s. Therefore the majority of their progeny were born before the early 1970s (1972-1944= 38 yrs old).

So is there a better, more consistent and logical way to define generations?

In my opinion, “generations” are best understood in terms of their parents. The maximum age gap between siblings born to the same set of parents is rarely larger than 15 years. Therefore the bulk of most generations are about 10-15 years part with a couple of years on either side. Technology, wars, lifestyle and occupational changes also matter..

So the best definition of “Boomers” would then change (slightly) to those born between 1946 and 1959 with some stragglers in the early 60s. Similarly “Gen-X” would be those born from the early-mid 1960s to the early to mid 1970s (always consider the age of their parents). ‘Gen Y’ers would then start to be born in the in the mid-to late 1970s till the late 1980s.

What do you think? Comments?

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