Generations are Weird

This is absolutely not a topic I would have chosen for myself, but it is one that has been swimming around in my brain since last night.  Last night my good friend Liore posted an article called “F*ck You, I’m Not Millennial” from Huffington Post.  I initially braced myself for yet another “Millennial Bash” article, but what I found was something that articulated the general sense of confusion I have felt my entire life.  Generations are an odd construct, and it could be argued that they don’t exist.  However there are significant differences between mindsets and outlooks every so often.  I think vastly different than my parents or boss who are firmly planted in the Baby Boom era.  My parents thought vastly different than my grand parents who were the children of the Great Depression.  I was born in 1976 which lets me claim the late 70s, entire 80s, and early 90s…  as my formative years.  So I have various traits of folks who grew up in all of those…  and not an entire matched set of any specific generational stripe.

In part I blame the internet and computers for shifting my focus on what I found important in life.  In High School I remember having to make an appointment at a big library an hour away to use the internet for a research paper…  which then largely involved WAIS and Gopher searches to find information to then download and print out.  Years later I met my wife over IRC and while we grew up 30 mins apart…  were introduced by a mutual friend living in Belgium.  So I largely grew up just accepting the fact that I was yet another Generation X member, even though I didn’t necessarily feel like I had all of the traits of Generation X.  According to the “sanity” version of the timeline in the Article above…  I am instead the first year of Generation Y, which is the generation that demographers largely forgot they spawned.  That break out honestly makes a lot more sense to me for a lot of reasons.  Firstly while my first console experience was Pong…. and we had an Atari that I remember fondly…  my gaming formative years were absolutely on the battleground of the Nintendo Entertainment System that I got in late elementary/early middle school.  So calling us the Nintendo generation seems fitting for a whole slew of reasons.

I still largely feel like I am out of sync with the generational construct.  Growing up I consistently hung out with folks way older than I was, and now that I am an adult thanks to the magic of the internet I tend to skew the opposite direction.  A large chunk of my friends are in their late 20s to mid 30s…  so while I feel like I definitely do not always see eye to eye with them…  I can at least understand their thought processes.  As a result I think my generation more than anything is a translation layer between what came before me, and what comes after me.  There are so many times at work I get pulled into discussions to do just this… and somehow explain to the Baby Boomer management what exactly the Millennial generation is saying or meaning.  Generations are this sort of social shorthand for trying to identify significant differences in the way groups of people were raised.  The problem with this is that I think the number of differences are accelerating, and before long there will really be no meaningful generational breaks.

Growing up when I did more or less in the 80s…  most families were fairly similar.  There were a lot of specific cultural touchstones brought on by the fact that we more or less had three channels of television to watch at a given time.  However as I aged everything was a sense of constant change… we went from records to cassettes to the Walkman to the CD to mini disc and finally ending up with the MP3…  and now streaming music services.  Media and entertainment was a moving target, that kept changing…. so we just accepted this as normal.  I remember I was a late adopter of the CD largely because I could purchase 2 cassette tapes for the price of 1 CD…  and that allowed me to get more music into my life.  There was also an element of scarcity in everything because I grew up in a town of 2500 people…  deep in flyover country.  To find any store not deeply constrained by limited stock, I had to travel roughly an hour to the south.  As a result we did a lot of experimenting and enjoying whatever the hell was available…  which lead to some extremely eclectic tastes pulled from the clearance bin at the mall.

Events felt larger and more homogeneous.  Everyone watched the Oscars because there was nothing better to do…  same goes for every awards show or movie of the week.  You could go to school the next day and it was pretty certain that everyone would be talking about the same things…  because there were a limited number of things actually happening on any given day.  Now other than shared interests…  I don’t have a clue one what is going on in most peoples lives unless I am intimately aware of the details.  To give the example above…  I’ve not watched an awards show or even really had one playing in the background as I did other things for at least a decade… probably pushing two.  The internet gave me access to so many better ways to spend my times, and as I grew up… it grew up too.  My first internet experiences were like many on AOL, but after racking up a $250 phone bill calling the next city over… that door slammed shut pretty fast.  It wasn’t until 93 / 94 ish when I got proper unlimited internet…  which involved a contorted system to actually get access.  I had to pay $20 a month to the phone company to make the next town over a “local call”, and then $40 a month to Galaxy Star Systems…  a budding regional ISP to get unlimited internet access at blazing 96000 baud dial up speeds.  So a grand total of $60 a month…  but it gave me doorways into completely different worlds.

I think in part this feeling of being an “Internet Pioneer” is what always drives me to keep trying new things.  It almost seems as though it is my duty to be the beta tester for everything that comes down the pipe since I have seen and experienced so much of what came before.  This feeling however I think is also what makes me feel out of phase with whatever generational boundaries I am supposed to be feeling.  My world has been one of managing change and figuring out how to deal with it.  I will claim that I do not like change at all… but when it happens I am generally the first to roll with the punches and sort out what the new normal is going to look like.  Maybe this is bombastic of me… but I would like to think of myself as being part of some Cipher generation… that uses our weird irregular experiences to help bridge the gaps between these other more traditional generations.  So while I might not understand the way a Baby Boomer thinks…  I can at least translate what I am saying in a way that is going to land and resonate with them.  I mean I do this as a job anyways…  translating deeply technical terms into a sequence of metaphors and easy to digest chunks that the business can understand.  Maybe I just always did this… and maybe the properties of whatever generation I happen to be really part of is a chameleon like sense of adaptability.  The only real normal we have ever experienced for any length of time… is change.

8 thoughts on “Generations are Weird

  1. If your sibling is already married with kids before you are born, then its pretty easy to be separated by the generational gulf. Ever met anyone who has an uncle younger than they are? Being born in ’61, I grew up with several people like that. Happened quite often to children of the “Silent Generation” where birth control was unavailable or spurned. 🙂

  2. I was born in 1958, which makes me a very late Baby Boomer by that chart and a regular one by the usual reckoning that takes BB-Gen into the mid 60s. I am not a Baby Boomer in nay other respect than those parameters. I’d be interested to know if people reading my blog think of me as one.

    Those descriptions of the presumed experiences within the culture for Baby Boomers seem utterly ridiculous to apply to someone born in the late 1950s. The Vietnam War was almost over before I’d even heard it was happening and as for the Sexual Revolution… I’d feel considerably more comfortable with being labeled Generation X, although that’s not quite right, either.

    How come Punk, the single most important cultural event in my lifetime, which peaked roughly when I was 16-19, isn’t even mentioned as a benchmark? The great majority of punks on both sides of the Atlantic, including pretty much all of the band members, artists and designers, would have been Baby Boomers by these definitions but when did anyone ever describe Punk as a Baby Boomer phenomenon?

    I’ve always felt adrift from these definitions, partly because I’ve kept pace with at least some aspects of the moving culture throughout my life. I was firmly and centrally in touch until the mid-90s, when I was approaching my 40s and in fact it was discovering MMOs as much as it was aging that disconnected me for a decade or so. I have a big cultural gap from the late 90s to the early 20-teens but I’m slowly getting back up to speed in the areas that concern me.

    I think one of the key things about these Generations is that they apply, if at all, primarily to people who “stick” at a particular point in their own timeline rather than continue to move freely along it. I hope I never do that. I don’t plan on settling for my own past as my present until I have no future left.

  3. I was at a tech conference for restaurants where of course “millenial” product makers where discussing what “millenial” customers would want and how they would want it. The number of “millenials” in attendance who were sick and tired of being shoehorned into a very narrow view of what they like and dislike was proportionate to the number of “non-millenials” who were unconvinced that you can put so many different cultures and personalities, who only share an age as as a common theme, into the same, small box.

    There is a nice short video out about a book called 130 Million Markets of One that explains a different side – that consumerism doesn’t change by generation, but is split by traditionalists (where price is most important) and NEO’s (who pay more for experiences, brands, etc.) It’s interesting to watch. I tend to agree more with that than the new, normal explanation.
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  4. What Wilhelm said. The concept of “generations” are a generalization to make a group of people fit neatly into a defined group. Like any generalization, it isn’t 100% accurate, and sometimes fails badly when you start looking at individuals within that group.

    But, I think there are some general trends you can see in groups that are pretty accurate. For example, I absolutely think there’s a different mindset for people who had the internet happen when they were a teenager compared to people who grew up thinking the internet was always around. As you say, Bel, it really opens the mind to go from thinking your world is circumscribed by what you can see and reading about far away places to talking with someone half-way around the world in practically real time.

    And, of course, every generation thinks the following generations are terrible because they approach things differently. For example, I had a friend I had made on FFXIV who would be a “millennial”, about 15 years younger than me. We had a falling out and I told her I thought she was being selfish. She got absolutely defensive and said, “Don’t tell me how I feel about our friendship!” I was taken aback because I didn’t think I was telling her what to think, rather explaining my perception. But, another friend who is about the same age said she could understand why my former friend said that.

    Anyway, the point here is don’t use it to determine what people are like. If you need a convenient but often flawed shorthand for stereotyping people of a certain age group, it can be handy. Otherwise, not so much.
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  5. If one buys into the made-up shorthand of generational differences, it’s also worth reading up the made-up concept of “cuspers,” those born in-between two generations, or near the edges of that cusp.

    If certain shared values are culturally transmitted as a product of the environment and the time that one is living in, it makes sense that those born in-between can sort of pick up on and understand the two generations that boundary them, while feeling not quite fully a part of either per se.
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  6. The thing about generations is that they are more a demographic/statistical shorthand thing for 20 year gaps of time, as opposed to something that applies to a specific person. People don’t have kids in regular enough patterns to make this easy.

    For example, even using the sanity chart, my dad is a silent generation and my mom is practically a day one baby boomer, and your parents generation must, in some way, dictate your own generation. (I don’t like the sanity chart because it chops off the baby boom generation at 14 years, which means the oldest boomer had to give birth at 14 to spawn the first Gen X.)

    One of my friends has two older siblings who are deep in boomer territory, but he was a late, unexpected addition to the family and falls into the Gen X zone. His dad was greatest generation (in the Navy in WWII) and his mom in the silent generation. How can one be in a different generation than ones siblings?

    Basically, it is a concept for generalization of groups, but falls down pretty easily with individuals born in the boarders between these generational constructs.
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