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Question: Regarding birth cohorts, boomers, other labels and a sense of belonging

Last week, the Sacramento Bee published an article by Anita Creamer entitled “2014 brings a milestone for the last of the baby boomers” – about the subset of the American population who will turn 50 in 2014. In the article these are considered the last individuals born in the Baby Boom, a period described therein (and as is often the case) as 1946-1964. Ms. Creamer considers the experiences of the last members of that group, as exemplified by the following quote from Sacramentan Melinda Eppler, “I’ve never really thought too much about identifying with the baby boom. I just haven’t.”

This isn’t a new observation or a new topic for writers, as I pointed out in an email I wrote to Ms. Creamer that same day. The text of that message follows:

Anita,

Part of the problem, as described in your article, comes from the shifting and possibly misapplied labels for the generational cohorts. Although “Generation X” was first used in the 50’s (for a different group), it was brought into the pop-culture consciousness by Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.” Coupland, himself born in 1961, had previously written about those born in the early 1960’s and lamented the lack of identity or representation for his own birth cohort of the early 60’s. The book introduced, for example, the idea of a “McJob.”

Much of the labeling of generational cohorts and characterizing them in the way we do is associated with the work of William Strauss and Neil Howe, who wrote “Generations,” also in 1991, focusing on the history of America as a series of cohorts. In 1993, they wrote “13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?” in which they wrote about people born from 1961-1981. The term “13th Generation” was used as it was the 13th thus labeled American generational cohort and Strauss and Howe were the first to describe them in such a detailed way – and Generation X hadn’t caught on yet as a wider cohort label. I remember reading this book in 1993 – I was in grad school and it struck a nerve, as a 1963 baby myself.

Strauss and Howe shifted to the label Generation X, as it became popularized, but they continue to use the 1961-1981 dates that they had originally bracketed. The irony in Generation X being used as a label by some institutions/groups for folks born in 1965 and later is that it then actually excludes the group that Douglas Coupland originally wrote about, and used the label for, including himself.

So the subjects for your article fall into Coupland’s original concept, alongside Coupland (and me), and within the much broader Strauss and Howe range for the 13th Generation/Generation X. And the idea that they wouldn’t identify with older Baby Boomers is a long held one and it’s the underlying idea that prompted Coupland’s novel and his earlier (1987) article that framed it.

Tony

Interestingly, a few days later, the online New York Times (I don’t read the physical newspaper and so I don’t know if this also appeared in print) published an article by Richard Pérez-Peña entitled “I may be 50, but don’t call me a boomer” – essentially dismissing the concept of a single Baby Boom generation for many of the reasons Coupland started writing about the 1961-1964 babies (including himself) and demographers Strauss and Howe picked 1961 as the starting year for the following birth cohort.

A fairly thorough introduction to the “Strauss-Howe generational theory” can be found on wikipedia, including a full list of the generations and cohort spans they utilize. This includes the premise that generations vary in cycles, with recurring themes and characteristics.

Coupland’s writing started with a sense of not belonging to a group he was being assigned to. I’m in that same narrow cohort, his original Generation X, and felt the same way.

What about you – do you feel like you belong in your generation?

 

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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