I’ve been interested in generational theory for a while now, although not in a fancy-pants way. In a functional way.
You can look up generational theory, by the way, in case you still doubt my self-effacement up there. It’s a real thing. You’ll see the names Strauss and Howe.
And while it’s all very fascinating, particularly the Strauss-Howe stuff, it feels a little like astrology, which might actually teach you something about the cosmos if you really work at it. The rest, of course, is just pretend.
As is generational theory; that is, the idea that we belong to a particular club in which we all, more or less, have shared experiences that have shaped our lives. The obvious arbitrary nature of this makes the whole thing fascinating speculation, but just speculation.
But I think about it a lot, and for practical reasons: I wonder about references. I wonder who knows what, who remembers what, and who isn’t interested. I read a story today in which a young person (a Millennial; generationalists take note) was interviewed about voting for a third-party candidate and asked if he/she worried about a “Ralph Nader” effect on the election.
To which our young person responded, appropriately, “Who’s Ralph Nader?”
That’s what I worry about, or at least question, whenever I get in the mood to reflect backwards. I think of it as The Howard Cosell Question. Cosell, the famous sports broadcaster whose distinctive voice, personality, ego, and opinions were much discussed in his heyday, which was primarily the 1970s. I wrote a op/ed piece for the Seattle Times 15 years ago in which I mentioned him, and my daughter’s English teacher made copies for her class and had them discuss it. That was pretty cool, but he needed to explain who Cosell was and that’s when this all started.
I’m sort of rescued from a sad fate, throwing out dozens of dated references, by demographics: The people who might be clueless about Ralph Nader aren’t the ones, mostly, reading newspapers.
It’s interesting as it is to read the theories, particularly the Strauss-Howe book The Fourth Turning, which attempts to diagram the cyclical nature of western civilization in general, and the United States specifically. It’s fun to read. As I said, like a horoscope. You can find some science there, and well-thought-out ideas, and it’s reasonable but still a little contrived. It’s observable but can’t be demonstrated, because it’s too vague to demonstrate. The Millennial Generation, according to them, might be the next greatest generation. Good for them, good for us, but what does that even mean?
And I think I see the flaw. Strauss-Howe tend to mark our 14 generations since colonial days in roughly 20-year increments, corresponding to the four stages of life: Begin adulthood around 20, mid-life around 40, old age around 60. Begin is the operative word.
I have a new way. I made it up all by myself.
Since we already tend to generalize decades (the 1960s, the 1940s, the 1980s, etc.), I say we skip the clever names and just focus on high school.
High school. It’s hard to argue that these are formative years for most of us, since we enter as newbie 14-year-olds and leave as legal adults, ready to vote or serve. What happens in the world is viewed through our teenage prisms, sometimes politics and other current events but mostly (I think) culture. This is where the references are hatched, unknown a decade before and fading quickly by the next.
So here’s my new plan: Anyone who spent at least a year and a half in high school during a particular decade belongs to that generation (or cohort, maybe, is the better word). This is also arbitrary, but at least it’s a more manageable group. If you started your junior year in high school in the fall of 1989, graduating in 1991, you’re a 90s. If you graduate in 1990, you’re an 80s. If you graduate in 1971, you’re a 70s, but a 60s if you’re the class of 1970. See?
It becomes much more manageable, in my opinion. I graduated in 1976, making me a full-blooded 70s, shared with people three years younger and five years older. Or, another way, my cohort ranges from 55 to 63. Next year it’ll be 56 to 64.
This seems much more effective than the 20-year collections, which really make little sense. In some models (they tend to vary a little in start and stop dates), both Bill Clinton (age 70) and Stephen Colbert (age 52) belong to the same generation. This is crazy. It makes more sense to me to say that Bill Clinton is a 1960s and Colbert is a 1970s (he spent 1-1/2 years there, part of 1978 and all of 1979). The year Clinton graduated from high school, the top films were Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady, although Beckett and Hard Day’s Night were in the mix.
When Colbert got his diploma, he had Gandhi, Sophie’s Choice, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Tootsie, along with Diner, Blade Runner, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. So, a difference.
And that’s just film. There’s music, books, trends, fads, fashion, and interesting haircuts.
I think this is brilliant. But it’s kind of early.
Anyway. Doesn’t really make much of a difference, but it helps me out. I meet someone in their mid-50s to early 60s, I figure we’ve lived through mostly the same experiences. For example, by the time the 1970s rolled around, even the earliest of our bunch had far less chance of being drafted than their slightly older brothers. Me, I never even had to sign up for the Selective Service. I was grandfathered in (only men born between March 29, 1957 and January 1, 1960, were exempt when Carter reinstated registration in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. History which probably falls into the Nader category for Millennials).
Again, this is astrology. Your results may differ. And not everyone, particularly writers with a historical bent and artists seeking inspiration from the past, fits neatly into the cultural milieu of their high school years. Some of my favorite films were made decades before I was born, and I tend to prefer music from the 1960s when it comes to pop. But this is the nature of artificial constructs: They work well in certain situations, not so much in others.
My take-away is to buck conventional wisdom and dismiss the idea that we have short memories. We just have specific memories, frozen in the cerebral cortices of teenagers. If anything influences the people we become (and I have my doubts in these general terms), it’s those.
And then we gather new ones, and process, and try to integrate with our formative years, and some of us do better than others, but I still suspect most of us are solidly grounded in our eras. And I’m not sure it matters all that much. Don’t know Ralph Nader? It’s OK. But if you decide to branch out, discover what happened before you were around, and what’s happening now that may be slightly off your radar, well. You could go all the way. And that’s a quote.