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Comparing American Generations                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Oct/15/2010 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Society,

America is a country awash in diversity. Yes, we have a broad range of ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity. We also have a significant amount of diversity from generation to generation. This diversity fosters change, conflict and cultural metamorphosis. If there is ever an opportunity to become overwhelmed with data, that would be upon visiting a government website. The data here is virtually all from the US census. The social conclusions are mine, but that is my privilege since I am doing the writing.

Sociologist and cultural anthropologist tend to agree that there are currently five generations in America. It should be noted that these same experts differ on defining the boundaries of each generation so I am going to lean towards an average based on my research and personal experience. The five living generations of Americans from oldest to youngest, the World War II generation, the Swing generation, the Baby Boom, Generation X, and the Millennial generation. I know, there is now a post-Millennial generation. I am excluding this latest generation from my discussion because they have yet to become old enough to put their mark on society.

World War II Generation: This generation was born before 1933; these are the oldest living Americans. Many members of the generation fought in World War II giving them their name. This generation lived through the Great Depression, the dust bowls, FDR’s New Deal, World War II, the atomic bomb, and America’s rise to being a “super power.” All of these experiences have shaped their attitudes and values. Some scholars also refer to them as the “GI Generation”. With age their numbers are declining, but the political clout of this generation is still quite formidable, just mention changing Social Security or Medicare and powerful lobbying organizations such as AARP will flex their muscles. The World War II generation still has a substantial presence in Congress as well as state level politics across the country. This is perhaps the most affluent elderly generation the nation will ever see. The GI Generation benefited from an expanding economy and skyrocketing real estate prices. Its members lived through the Great Depression learning firsthand what hardship was and the value of saving for the future. Its members were also the first beneficiaries of generous government programs such as Medicare, Social Security as mentioned earlier, and the GI Bill. It is also important to note that the World War II generation is less educated than other current American generations. This lower education level is because a high school education was sufficient to get a good paying manufacturing job during their working years. It is very reasonable to presume that this gap in education is a significant factor in why its members tend to see things differently than many of their younger counterparts. Yes, your education level does impact how you view the world, society, and your place in it.

Swing Generation: This generation spans a relatively small birth range from 1933 and 1945. This generation is more easily identified by the socially dominant generations they are situated between. Caught between the forces of the World War II and Baby Boomer generations, they tend to “swing” between the attitudes and lifestyles of one or the other. This social swing is why they are considered the “swing generation.” Some members of the Swing Generation adopted the more socially liberal lifestyles that are commonly associated with Baby Boomers. Many leaders for social change including the civil rights, women’s, and antiwar movements in the 1960s were members of the Swing generation. Other Swing generation members tended to be as conservative as their World War II elders. This generation is the source of many of the country’s current corporate CEO’s and national politicians. The Swing generation left home during a period of post World War II prosperity finding long term work relative ease. Many of these work situations allowed for growth from entry level to middle management. The relatively small size of this generation also means that it has been difficult for them to get national attention on their specific needs and agenda.

Baby-Boom Generation: Born between 1946 and 1964, this is the largest uniquely identified generation of Americans. Because of their numbers and the rise of social analysis, Boomers have been the focus of attention and study since their birth. Businesses that sold diapers, baby food, bicycles, and school books reveled in their arrival. Because their parents endured the great depression, there was a drive by their parents to provide their Boomer children with more than they had. This behavior manifested in suburban homes, the products the homes were filled with, and the educational opportunities their children were offered. Baby Boomers were raised by young stay-at-home mothers who followed the teachings of Dr. Spock and had Walter Cronkite in their living room every evening for dinner. As Baby Boomers aged, the businesses that had catered to them had to make tough decisions about following this large generation block, or adapting products to endear the loyalties of the next generation. The Baby Boomer generation was the first generation raised with a global view of news and events as opposed to focusing only on community and national event. With the confidence of World War II successes behind them, their parents raised the Boomers to be independent and to believe they could control their own destinies. During the 1960s, this upbringing manifested itself in the anti-authoritarian and counterculture movements. This is also the generation that first entered into the service of the Peace Corps sacrificing years of their lives to help others across the globe. In the 1980s this confidence translated into see-how-fast-I-can-get-rich and a level of materialism never previously seen. So would say this was the generation of conspicuous consumption.

In the 1990s, Boomer individualism was apparent in increased entrepreneurialism. While their parents all worked for large employers, the Boomers chose in record numbers to “be their own bosses. Other unique Boomer manifestations were the self-help movement, and the rise of New Age spiritualism. As the 21st century begins, Boomers are reaching the empty-nest stage of life. Instead of breathing a sigh of relief, however, Boomers are confronted with a fragile economy, steeply climbing college tuitions, and a retirement that seems beyond their reach. While the greatly anticipated empty-nest lifestage could be an opportunity for self-expression and personal growth, it may be turn out to be more work than play as Boomers try to put their children through college, pay off their mortgage, and save for an eventual retirement. Because of the immense size of the Baby Boomer generation they have had an unprecedented influence on the American economy and culture which could last for decades. This generation came of age watching the space race and being the first to enjoy the possibility of routine travel to virtually anywhere in the free world.

The next noted generation is “Generation X” born between 1965 and 1976. Generation X is considered an extremely well-educated generation with the highest percentage and amount of post high school education yet seen. Gen Xers as they are also known are considered an extremely media savvy generation having grown up with rental movies, cable television, personal computers and cell phones. Gen Xers now makes up a large share of the nation’s parents with children under age 18 (still living at home). The relatively small size of Generation X has made its influence easy to overlook and this is consider a sore spot by its members who are most painfully aware of this fact. When Gen Xers were teenagers, businesses and retailers still focused the majority of the products around the taste and specifications of their Baby Boomer parents. Now that Generation X has their own children, businesses are focusing on this new crop of teens and young adults to capture the spending money of the large Millennial generation. As parents, Gen Xers face the same problems that confronted Boomers—a conflict between the demands of work and the desire to fulfill the family roles in the best possible way. With the work place demanding ever more from employees, and their personal time as parents giving their children attention being stretched to the limit, Gen Xers find themselves with little time or money to spend on themselves. With a changing economic landscape, some Gen Xers lack health insurance, and others are having problems affording a home of their own. These are especially troubling issues because while they lived under the roofs of their Baby Boomer parents all of these things seem virtually guaranteed. Still more frustrating on the professional level is the lack of advancement opportunity that is available in the workplace. With Boomers hanging on to their careers longer than expected and in sizable numbers the promotional pipeline seems clogged ahead of them. Between promotions, housing and health insurance, many Gen Xers are wondering when their day will come…if ever.

The Millennial Generation like the Baby Boom generation is marked by its size as they span the birth years from 1977 to 1994. Unlike like the Boomers, the Millennial generation does not appear to suffer the pains of a generation gap. The lack of a generation gap appears to be attributed to the fact that they share many of the same values and interests at their parents. The world in which Millennials are growing up is very different from that of their parents’ childhood, however. Racial and ethnic diversity is much greater among Millennials than among older generations. Global boundaries are becoming more nebulous, as travel, migration, and the Internet connect members of this generation across the globe regardless of cultural or national boundaries. Millennials also face a harsher world, one in which school shootings and terrorism are very real day-to-day threats. In a similar manner to the World War II generation, the Millennial Generation is very aware of the economic anxiety and the fragile nature of the economy that their parents deal with on a day to day basis. Some of this economic and terrorism anxiety is likely linked to the media in 24 hour information they have grown up with. This is the first generation to have 24 hours news channels and assume as normal having at least 40 channels on their television along with streaming news video to their cell phones. The result is that from a young age they have become savvy in all the issues of the day including soaring health care costs and the uncertain nature of every being able to retire. Their concern over retirement is unique considering that many of them are just entering the job markets and should have decades of work ahead of them. On issues of social awareness, members of the Millennial generation seem even more liberal than their Generation X predecessors. On issues of civil liberties and women’s equality they seem well on a path to set new standards. Millennial girls and women will further the gains made by their elders. They are already moving into the remaining male-dominated arenas, such as sports. Young women now outnumber young men in the nation’s colleges. The Millennials are the first generation born into the high-tech world. They are growing up with computers and the Internet, with cell phones and genetic engineering. Unlike older generations, which have had to struggle to adapt, most Millennials are sailing effortlessly into the high-tech 21st century. The future belongs to them.

Now that we know some basics about the various generations, it is time to look at some of the real contrasting characteristics between them. Generation X is by far the best education of any of these generations despite its smaller size. The educational attainment of the World War II generation is considerably lower than that of the younger generations. Because education influences attitudes, this difference is a key element in the enduring generation gap between the oldest Americans and younger people. A substantial 29 percent of people aged 65 or older never graduated from high school. As shocking as that number may seem, in the days of large industrial manufacturing jobs not graduating high school was not a significant burden on a person’s earning potential. To show you how quickly these numbers fade, here is some more related data. Among those aged 55 to 64, the share of non high school graduates is a much smaller at 15 percent. The figure is just 11 to 12 percent among people aged 35 to 54. As mentioned earlier, Generation X is the best-educated generation with 31 percent of its members having completed college versus a slightly smaller 30 percent of the Baby-Boom generation. To get a slightly bigger picture you should note that 58 percent of Gen Xers have been to college for at least one year. I would appear that ambitions were high even if the follow through was somewhat less. The Millennials are not old enough to have completed their education yet. So far, only 9 percent are college graduates though this number will climb in the next few years. This is a generation that has been brought into a world with fewer and fewer available opportunities without a college degree. Despite the strong relationship between education and lifetime earning potential, the rapidly growing cost of a degree is forcing many people to opt out of the college path and the Millennials may not achieve as high a college participation rate as their Generation X predecessors.

One of the more interesting transitions has been women’s participation in the workforce. The percentage of men in the labor force has declined substantially since 1950. The largest drop has been among men aged 65 or older, falling from 46 percent in 1950 to 19 percent in 2004. Since 1990, however, the labor force participation of men aged 65 or older has increased, rising by 3 percentage points due to declining retirement nest eggs. Women’s labor force participation increased in every age group between 1950 and 2004.<br />
The biggest rise occurred during the 1970s, when Boomer women entered the labor force. Women aged 25 to 54 saw their labor force participation rate rise by more than 30 percentage points between 1950 and 2004 as working wives (and mothers) became the norm.

Boomers head the largest share of households and Generation Xers rank second in importance. For obvious reasons the middle-aged dominate the nation’s 112 million households because the large Baby-Boom generation now fills the forty and fifty something age groups. Generation Xers, aged 28 to 39 in 2004, account for 22 percent of households. Although Generation X is small, it accounts for the second largest share of households. As Generation X replaces rapidly replaces the larger Baby-Boom generation in the important 35-to-44 age group. Interestingly, the number of households headed by 35-to-44-year-olds fell 3 percent between 2000 and 2004. The Millennial generation, the oldest of whom turned 27 in 2004, head a mere 11 percent of households. Although the Millennial generation is second only to Boomers in population size, they head few of the nation’s households because most still live with mom and dad.

Rapid Growth Is projected for people in their sixties and seventies. During the 2000 to 2010 decade, the largest expansion will come to pass among 60-to-64 year olds as the oldest Baby Boomers enter their sixties. The age group is projected to expand by 53 percent, a gain of nearly 6 million people and therefore still being a political force. During the 2010 to 2020 decade, the 70-to-74 age group will grow the fastest of any 5 year block as the oldest Boomers enter their seventies.

Several age groups are shrinking as they fill in with members of the smaller Generation X. The number of 35-to-39-year-olds is projected to decline by 10-11 percent between 2000 and 2010. The aging of the Millennial generation will boost for the first time in a long while the numbers of twenty something’s.

There is also a lot of ethnic change happening in America. Because the Asian, black, and Hispanic populations are growing faster than the number of non-Hispanic whites, each succeeding generation of Americans is becoming more and more diverse.

Interestingly, the Net Worth has declined for older members of the Baby Boomers. For obvious reason more debt means less net worth and Boomers have always had a problem with dept. Net worth is considered by most to the simplest and most important way to measure wealth. Fundamentally, net worth is what remains for a household after subtracting all their debts from their assets. While household net worth rose 33 percent between 1989 and 2001, after adjusting for inflation, one age group saw its net worth actually decline. The net worth of householders aged 45 to 54 effectively declined by 2 percent. Interesting, in the same period between 1989 and 2001 the net worth of householders aged 35 to 44 (younger Boomers) rose just under 1 percent. One reason for the apparent lackluster growth in the net worth of Boomers is their late arrival into homeownership. Because many delayed buying homes, the home equity of middle-aged householders has declined. The home equity loans of the 1990-2000 era have also eaten substantially into their net worth along with increased credit card debt.

I know, there is a lot of numbers here. Drawing conclusions can be tricky and I am not a statistician or sociologist. I could easily double this write up with more data, but you might merely glaze over if you haven’t already. I have learned that the Baby Boomer generation despite being 55 years of age or older is still a force both in retail demographics and work force pressures by staying in the job market longer than their predecessors and to the frustration of their children. The generation gap that so dominated the WWII verses Boomer generations seems to be substantially influenced by their differing education level and the related differing world and life perspectives this creates. Education is itself, and interesting touchstone. The WWII and previous generations were able to achieve financial stability in a manufacturing based economy without higher education. With the decline or export of manufacturing from America along with the influence of automation, a college education has become far more critical to long term success and potential net worth. The most significant change over the next 30 years may be ethnicity. For 200 years the US has been predominately a Caucasian population. Despite all of our bragging about being a “melting pot”, we have until recent years been mostly melting together different white Europeans cultures as opposed to races. That European base has a much lower birth rate currently than the ethnically Hispanics, Black and Asian portions of the population. As these diverse groups rapidly grow in numbers and influence we will soon see the challenges of a melting pot truly tested and evolve our society for future generations.

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Tom Hopkins
I am not judged by the number of times I fail, but by the number of times I succeed; and the number of times I succeed is in direct proportion to the number of times I can fail and keep on trying.
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