Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Generation X, and journalists with few clues about demographics.

James Russell (via Tim Stevens) quotes this piece from the editorial page of The Australian.

ACCORDING to a landmark survey reported exclusively in The Australian today, those least likely to express satisfaction with their jobs are so-called "Generation X-ers", aged 20-29 years. Since the characteristics of Generation X are said to be boredom and cynicism, this news in itself is hardly surprising, and simply confirms what most of us have long suspected: there is no joy in alternative music.

James asks one of the key questions, specifically "What the fuck does this have to do with alternative music?"

The question I wish to address is a different one, which is "Why can't the media figure out what Generation X is?".

The expression "Generation X" came from the title of Douglas Coupland's 1991 novel Generation X: Tales from an Accelerated Culture . The generation of people that Coupland was referring to were people born between about 1960 and 1965, who were between 25 and 30 in 1990 and are in their late 30s or early 40s today. These were the people of the last few years of the baby boom: people who felt a sense of disconnection because the culture was being defined and all the good jobs had been taken by people a few years older than them. There was a feeling that something else was coming, but that this group were in the crack between generations.

I was born in 1968, which by this definition makes me too young to be a member of Generation X.

In the book Growing Up Digital, published in 1998 (but it seems an age ago), Don Tapscott actually looks at post war demographics, and addresses questions like this. He observes that the post war baby boom occurred between about 1948 and 1965. After 1965 the birth rate dropped considerably, and Tapscott refers to this as the "Baby bust" years. The birth rate increased again from about 1978, when the baby boomers (who had in many cases left having children to later in life than their parents had) themselves started having children in large numbers. Tapscott refers to these children as the "echo boom". So by Tapscott's definitions, the baby bust generation are people between about 25 and 38.

However, in the 1990s the media started using the label "Generation X" to refer to what Tapscott called the baby bust generation. Possibly this was because people took a few years to actually read the book, and possibly because the media is just lazy and understands nothing about demographics. It was also perhaps because, at least superficially at first, the baby busters looked similar in terms of attitude to Coupland's "Generation X": they has a "slacker" reputation, and they seemed disaffected and cynical. (As it seemed to have turned out, the baby bust generation had its moment in the sun with the dot com boom, and is now sitting back, licking its wounds, wondering where its job went, and watching the echo boom generation overwhelm the world. Or that is how it feels). Tapscott noted this usage, but rejected it. He also noted that the media had taken to calling the generation in their teens in the mid 1990s as "Generation Y". He rejected this usage even more strongly, because the generation in its teens at that point (which was what his book was actually about) was a far larger and more important generation than was "Generation X", however it was defined, and naming it by reference to X was therefore not a good idea. (He seems to have been right on this point, and the "Generation Y" nomenclature seems to have faded away.

In any event, bearing all this in mind, I was rather intrigued to see people aged 20-29 described as "Generation X" in the article quoted at the start of this post. It now seems that I am too old, whereas before I was too young. Apparently Generation X has not been aging, but has been aged 20-29 for more than a decade now. As far as I can see, this tells me more about the media than it does about any particular group of young people. This section of the media knows little about the demographic patterns I have described above, but it just has a need to descibe young beople as bored and cynical from time to time. The "Generation X" label is a good thing to attach to them while you are doing this, even if you have no idea what it actually means. As I see it, people in the younger part of this group, say those aged from 20-25, really have little in common with those who are ten to fifteen years older than they are. Plus, they seem to me to be the least bored and cynical generation in a long time.

For that really was the point of Tapscott's book. He argued in 1998 that the echo boom generation had a different attitude to technology than previous generations, as it was the first generation for which access to computers and computer networks was ubiquitous through adolescence and teenage years. (The echo boom generation was the first where access to these things was possible through adolescence and teenage years. I used computers at high school and the internet when I was an undergraduate, but in both cases this was because I was a geek. In some sense the technology was an isolating factor, whereas later it became the opposite). As a consequence the echo boom generation has more access to information, is more internationally minded, and is better connected than the generations that preceded it.

When I read the book in 1998, this idea seemed a little revolutionary. Now it seems commonplace and Tapscott seems prescient. The people of the first few years of the echo boom generation have been entering the workforce over the last couple of years. These people's use of technology is ubiquitous. They have been immersed in information in a way that was not possible when we were teenagers, however much we would have liked to have been. If you grow up in such a way that technology is a part of everything, then suddenly the gap between the cultures of arts and science seems much less stark. Those of the new generation who have really taken advantage of the opportunities and access to technology and information available seem mindblowingly impressive for their age. And one thing that goes with this is that echo boomer women seem empowered like women of no generation before them. There seem to be lots of twenty to twenty five year old women out there who are smart, educated, and utterly unashamed of this in a way I've not really seen before. These young women are quite intimidating and impress the hell out of me. They're intimidating in a "Can I please have one" kind of way, but still intimidating. (Somehow I think they see me as an old fogey, sadly). I also think this generation is rather more used to cosmopolitan, ethnically complicated societies than those before it, at least in the US and at least in certain other parts of the world, and is consequently rather more colourblind, which is obviously good.

Still, this is the generation that is going to define the culture over the next several decades. The media would do better to notice this and write about it than it would to recycle stories about youth being aimless and cynical from a decade ago.

Update: Patrick suggests that I have made a similar definitional mistake to the one I am decrying by using the word "technology" to refer to "internet and mobile phones", when I should use the word more broadly. I think I will concede "partially guilty" to that accusation. When I say that access to the internet has led to the younger generation having a different attitude to technology than previous generations, I actually do mean technology defined more broadly. The increased access to information of all kinds through the internet (and the way in which the information is accessed) and similar technologies has profoundly mixed up the idea of the separation between arts and sciences and leads to a different attitude to a much broader range of technologies than just computers and moble phones. People are learning to think in a more scientific manner because of this. (See my comments here and also the Richard Dawkins article I link to from that piece). I once (only ten years ago) knew a particularly brilliant Ph.D. history student, who essentially wouldn't touch a computer and considered people studying scientific subjects to be very different to people studying arts subjects like herself. This type of position is far less likely these days.

Still, I will confess to being a little sloppy in a couple of places. I don't mean quite the same thing by "technology" when I am talking about "access to technology" as when I am talking about "attitudes to technology" and "understanding of technology". If I was rewriting, I would reword the post differently to make this clear.

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