Generational Theory

Tomorrow I will have my first book review up in quite some time. It is called Generation Z, and is basically an overview of the upcoming generation, how they are different, and what our actions/reactions should be as Christians.

Before I do that, I wanted to do a breif summary and some thoughts about generational theory as I feel like it is talked about a lot in the media and church right now – especially as it pertains to so-called ‘millenials’. I’ve also recentyl heard a podcast about boomers and there seems to be daily polls about the current generations. So, it was a post I was already thinking about, and then this book came and here we are.

What generations are around right now?

Greatest – basically anyone over 90, they lived through the Great Depression and fought in WW2. Also known as GI generation. They are the parents of the Boomers as the came back from the war, and popped out a record number of kids (the boom) during the great economic expansion and strengthen social safety programs.

Silent – Born in 30, basically didn’t do anything. Don’t take this as being harsh, but it is the reality. Mostly because there are just very few numbers of them. They are basically those too young to go to WW2, but not Boomers. Their time is short, and their numbers are excessively small due to the depression and especially the war (average age of the infantry in WW2 was 25).

Boomers – children of Greatest. They started during the post-war boom and depending on whom you read, ended in the early to mid-60s. This is a massive population, the largest ever (at the time) that spanned two decades. People argue over the stopping point (though everyone considers 1946 to be the starting point) and many (such as me) advocate seeing this as two different groups.

X – Children of Silent’s. They followed the boomers (whenever you finish them) to anywhere between 1978 and 1984. They are much smaller than the Boomers for one because they occupy a short timescale but mostly because they are children of the diminished Silent.

Millennials – Children of boomers, grandchildren of Greatest. Also known as ‘Y’ and Echo-Boomers. They start wherever you stop with ‘X’ and continue on to anywhere between 2000 and 2005. This is now the largest generation in history, first because they are the children of Boomers, but also because (taken to the fullest extent) they span 27 years from 1978 to 2005, which is obviously a terrible measure and they should also be considered as two distinct groups (more below).

Z – Children of X and Millennials. Born sometime around the Millennium (which means the name Millennials really makes more sense for them). Also known as i-Generation and Homeland Generation. They are born when you finish Millennials (though often much earlier, White puts it at 1993) to anywhere between 2012 to the current crop of children right now. The lines kind of blur here, and I think that is a good thing.

When I was in college and grad school a little over 10 years ago, and the issue of demographics came up, there was a focus on the ‘echo boomers’. These were basically us, the college students at the time, people born in the 80s to maybe early 90s, we were the children of the original Baby Boomers (echo boom, get it?) Kids in the 90s to early 2000s were often listed as “i-generation”, basically the generation that grew up with i-pods, phones, pads, etc. they were also (so as not to tie them to a product) referred to as the ‘millennials’, those born around the time of the millennium. The original idea of millennial was closer to what many call Z now. However, Straus and Howe consider Z (Homeland to them) to be from 2000 to now, making it two distinct groups.

Overall, we were often put together as the commonly referred to ‘Y’, but most demographers so the issue with have a Y generation follow X, mostly that the next would be Z, then you are out of letters. Partly because of this, the more trendy ‘millennials’ took over as the name people (especially the media) used. I’m honestly not sure why Echo-Boom never took off, other than technically an echo is quieter.

Likewise, some have split the boomers into two groups. For a great primer on this check out the podcast – Stuff you should know – What’s the Deal With Baby Boomers – the split them into the following:
1946-1955 – Leading Edge Boomers
1955-64 – Shadow Boomers (also knowns as Generation Jones)

Leading Edge are what you think of when you think 50s childhood. Those who were the young children of the GIs with the ‘idyllliac’ life as portrayed by politicians. The Shadow are known as the Jones (as in, keeping up with the Joneses) or even the ‘Me’ generation due to their focus on consumerism. This is the group most know for rapid consumption and selfishness.

If you want to think seriously about generational theory, these two interdivisions of the two massive groups is helpful. For one, you may have two different generations in the same ‘generation.’ I (’84) and my nephew (’98) by almost all accounts we are both millennials. However, he is my sister’s kid, and cousin to my daughter, quite literally the next generation in our family. Also, his life experience is quite different. He doesn’t remember 9/11, whereas it is a defining event for people my age. He doesn’t know pre-smart phone, let alone pre-ubiquitous cell phones. He basically only knows the Obama administration. The list could go on, and on.

Similarly, early boomers like my dad (’47) have a very different life/worldview that later boomers like my mother-in-law (redacted). My dad served in Korea and all my uncles went to Vietnam. They all remember JFK being shot; that was of the defining events for them. For Mrs. MMT’s family, who are generally about 10-15 years younger, they think more about events in the 70s, the stagflation and energy crises leading up to Reagan.

So, all that is a long way of saying that the generation stuff you hear about so often now is way overblown and generalized. I kind of laugh when I hear a colleague who isn’t even 40 talking about the problems with millennials. Millennials are much older than media portrayal for one, but they also encompass over 75 million people born in a time spanning 3 decades (about 23 years on average), five to six presidents, and countless different economic situations. Again, I finished grad school in ’08, meaning the Great Recession was a defining part of my life (like the depression for my grandparents), my nephew was 10.

Finally, I’ll point out that these lines aren’t perfect. For instance, my sister is an X. Some people with large families may have children that cross lines, or if someone was married very young, their children may fall into the next group. I think generally speaking, the time period in which you grew up is the best indicator, due to being shaped by the culture, and if someone is in some of the blurry edges, they are probably best classified by their parents’ generation. If you noticed, it was quite cycle. Greatest were shaped by the depression and war, then came their children who were shaped by war (but not a major recession/depression due to the law passed by their parents, which they would later repeal), their children are then affected by 9/11 another set of wars and the Great Recession. Likewise, you have the Silent, which is small and kind of off, who then have the ‘X’s who are also small and in a lot of ways, a reaction against the corporatism and greed for the second wave of Boomers. Now, their children and Millennials and whatever is next are all getting blurred together. Part of this is really just how ill-defined my generation is, but also because paths are less traditional. It isn’t men graduating high school then going to trade school/college/military, getting married at 22, then have their first kid within 2 years. That is how you end up with Mrs. MMT and I without question being the same generation (we are less than 6 months apart), but my dad was 37 when I was born, where as her mom was early 20s. Or my nephew who is closer to me in age than he is to my daughter because my sister was 19 when she had a kid and I was 30.

An importance thing in understanding how the church reacts going forward is seeing how history is repeating itself. The Echos, like me (80s) are already known for being more frugal and rediscovering things like cooking and sewing, the same way our grandparents were. While the people just now interring the workforce down to middle schoolers are rejecting the consumerism and self-centeredness of the second half of the boomers (much like ‘X’). While there is a mix of people in the 90s that grew up in the expansion and mirror those boomers in their sense of entitlement and expectations for life.

I’m not as pessimistic about the changes in the next generation as others may be. They will be more diverse and more liberal, but that has been true in every generation. Probably the biggest difference, and the one that does bring them outside of these generational patterns is that they are not growing up a majority Christian culture. I think White does a great job addressing this in his book. So, there is that, I’ve already written much more than I had originally intended, but it is one of the topics I geek out on, so I hope you liked it and that it was helpful

2 thoughts on “Generational Theory

  1. I’ve never understood why everyone thinks X was born to the Silents. Every X’er I know was born to a Boomer and every late Millennial (born 1995 and later) was born to an X’er. Some might argue that X became disaffected loner/slackers BECAUSE we grew up in homes with narcissistic Boomer parents who barely acknowledged us. We’d probably be an entirely different cohort if the Silents had raised us.


    • True, most Xers I know where also boomers, but really only that Leading Edge cohort. Someone born in ’62 isn’t having an X in 72, is probably the biggest reason. So, there is kind of the idea that you need to skip a cohort, for the most part. It is kind of the same way that the Generation Jones cohort mostly are children of Silent, not really much of the Greatest. People don’t tend to have kids as far as 20 years apart. Like I said in the post, it gets blurry as people have kids at different ages.

      Liked by 1 person

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