The Basics of American Demography

From Paul Taylor’s interesting book on demography, The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown, on how demographers divvy up the population:

As a branch of demography, generational analysis has always been a bit of a stepchild. It rests on the premise that members of the same generation experience the same historical events at roughly the same stage of their life cycle, and as a result share what might loosely be called a generational persona, one that’s also shaped by (and a reaction to) the persona of their parents’ generation. In the early twentieth century, Hungarian-born sociologist Karl Mannheim wrote a seminal essay that helped to legitimize generational analysis as a scholarly pursuit. In modern times, American historians Neil Howe and William Strauss expanded on Mannheim’s theories by compressing 500 years of Anglo-Saxon history into an overarching generational frame. In their schema, four archetypal generational personas (idealist, reactive, civic, and adaptive) recur in repeating 80-year cycles, with each holding sway for about 20 years before yielding to its successor. They categorize Millennials—America’s 14th generation—as civic; Xers as reactive; Boomers as idealistic; and Silents as adaptive. Their work has been popular in part because it helps employers and educators anticipate and plan for the distinctive characteristics of their future workers and students. But it has also attracted critics who find it too rigid and formulaic.

As long as one acknowledges the obvious—that there are as many different personality types within a generation as across generations—I see some value in generalizations about generations. All of us know people who bear the marks of their distinctive coming-of-age experiences: the grandmother raised during the Depression who still reuses her tea bags; the uncle who grew up in the 1960s and still sports a ponytail; the kid sister who sends 200 texts a day to her many, many best friends. At the same time, one should bring healthy doses of humility and caution to the exercise. That’s because in one sense, it’s too easy, and in another, too hard. It’s too easy because no one needs a scientific survey to persuade them that the typical 20-year-old, 40-year-old, 60-year-old, and 80-year-old are different from one another. They already know. It’s too hard because we can never completely disentangle the many reasons for the differences. At any given moment, they can arise from any of three overlapping processes.

1.) Life cycle effects. Young people may be different from older people today, but they may become more like them tomorrow, as they themselves age.

2.) Period effects. Major historical events (wars, social movements, booms, busts, religious awakenings, medical, scientific, and technological breakthroughs) affect all age groups, but the depth of impact may differ according to where people are located in the life cycle.

3.) Cohort effects. Period events often leave a particularly deep impression on the young, who are still forming their core values and worldviews.

Pew Research surveys allow for comparisons between today’s young and today’s old. And because we’ve asked the same questions over many years, we can also compare today’s young with yesterday’s young. We can do the same with census, economic, and election data. Taken together, these numbers paint a picture of a society not with generation gaps but with generation chasms. To understand it better, let’s start with thumbnail sketches:

The Millennials (born after 1980). Empowered by digital technology; coddled by parents; respectful of elders; slow to adulthood; conflict-averse; at ease with racial, ethnic, and sexual diversity; confident in their economic futures despite coming of age in bad times. Icons: Mark Zuckerberg, Lena Dunham, LeBron James, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Lawrence, Lady GaGa.

Gen Xers (born from 1965 to 1980). Savvy, entrepreneurial loners. Distrustful of institutions, especially government. Children of the Reagan revolution—and the divorce revolution. More comfortable than their elders with an increasingly diverse America. Icons: Quentin Tarantino, Will Smith, Adam Sandler, Tiger Woods, Robert Downey Jr.

Baby Boomers (born from 1946 to 1964) As exuberant youths, led the countercultural unheavals of the 1960s. But the iconic image of that era—long-haired hippie protesters—describes only a portion of the cohort. Now on the front stoop of old age, Boomers are gloomy about their lives, worried about retirement, and wondering why they aren’t young anymore. Icons: Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, Tom Hanks.

Silent Generation (born from 1928 to 1945). Conservative and conformist, Silents are uneasy with the pace of demographic, cultural, and technological change—and with the growing size of government. But hands off their Social Security and Medicare! Icons: Clint Eastwood, Neil Armstrong, Marilyn Monroe, Tom Brokaw, Hugh Hefner.

Most members of each of these four age groups say their own generation has a unique and distinctive identity, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center survey. But each gives a different set of reasons for their distinctiveness. In response to an open-ended question, Millennials stressed their use of technology. Gen Xers did as well, but many fewer offered that explanation. Boomers cited their work ethic and Silents their shared coming-of-age experience in the Depression and World War II.

A different Pew Research survey, this one taken in 2009, asked Americans of all ages whether they saw a generation gap in America between young and old. About 8 in 10 said yes, nearly identical to the share that had said the same back in 1969, when the generations were famously at each other’s throats. But in the modern era, as follow-up survey questions in 2009 and 2012 made clear, the generation gap ins’t seen as a source of great friction. Many fewer American said they see strong conflicts between young and old than said the same about conflicts between immigrants and the native-born, rich and poor, black and white, and Republicans and Democrats. And what generation gaps they do tend to be focused on technology and lifestyle rather than on the more polarizing terrain of politics.

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