Monday, January 23rd, 2006

On Generational Change

Generations are fictions. Or so someone said once.

Marketers find them first. That’s basically what Howe and Strauss, with their “Generations” framework and consulting business, do–they make loads of loot drawing lines around populations for companies that sell snowboards and spaghetti-strap tops and yellow plastic wristbands and stuff. So unlock the malls, because here come The Millennials.

Howe and Strauss surveyed 600 students at high schools in upper-middle-class Fairfax County, Virginia, to generate insights into young’ns that they then resell to multinationals. Their big finding? Young’ns prefer being called Millennials to “Generation Y”.

Pssssh. Who wouldn’t?

And who decided on these damn names anyway?

And hold on wait a minute, just what does a survey of seniors in Fairfax County–67% white, by the way–have to say about a generation of kids growing up in Richmond, California? Or Richmond, Virginia, for that matter? Can I vote for “not as much as you think”?

This weekend the NY Times ran an extensive piece on The Millennials, focusing primarily on their use of media (80% of you read blogs), their clique-ishness (“They are very bound to ethics and values. But in a funny sort of way, it prevents some of them from developing as individuals,” says one concerned doctor), and whether or not companies will succeed in attracting them (“Downloading is the poor man’s Tivo”, says one broke Millennial).

Ho hum.

It’s the same thing old folks (the ones now called “The Greatest Generation”) used to say about their Spock-coddled Baby Boomers, minus the hysterical alarm.

It’s too bad the alarm still hasn’t stopped ringing about that old scapegoat, “Generation X”. And by extension, the old straw-men–the ones blamed for conformity and greed in all the old manifestos–are now called “The Greatest”. Amazing how a fat inheritance can change a perception.

According to Howe and Strauss, even the Millennials know the deal: “By a five-to-one margin, they agreed that the elderly G.I. Generation had a “mainly positive” reputation. By the two-to-one margin, they agreed that Generation X has a “mainly negative” reputation.” Oh yeah? Well fuck you!

The thing to point out about all this quackery is that Howe and Strauss are, you guessed it, Baby Boomers. Everything is colored by their kaleidoscope eyes. Indeed, the dominant discourse in American life about generational change is still framed by Boomers.

Interestingly, a lot of Boomers themselves don’t believe the hype anymore.

“The Aging of Aquarius” is a barbed-wire gem by Jamie Malanowski on Boomer navel-gazing. If Brokaw projects all his guilt on his parents, and Howe and Strauss project all their happy feelings onto the Millennials–who just happen to be the age of their children–well, American University professor Leonard Steinhorn only has to look in the mirror to declare all is good.

Before going there with Dr. Steinhorn, Malanowski addresses that uniquely Boomer gumption epitomized in Tom Brokaw, yes, he of the “Greatest Generation” fame:

Readers will recall that it was Tom Brokaw’s great good luck as a journalist, as a reporter of news, to uncover that back in the 1930s and 1940s, a large mass of young Americans had to suffer, a) the trials and deprivations of the Great Depression, then b) fight a terrible war —a “world war” in the parlance of the time—against countries bent on global domination. Not only did Brokaw have the courage to bring to light this virtually hidden chapter of our history, but he or an associate had the marketing savvy to title the book The Greatest Generation, an irresistibly flattering phrase which sustained the book through many printings and multiple sequels.

This article is a must-read, so I really don’t want to spoil Malanowski’s killer close.

But just to say that if generations are created to scapegoat, there have to be generations to honor. The thing is, history doesn’t always help. I found this, what, every single fucking day I was working on this damn book. For like 10+ years! Maybe I still got a chip on my shoulder, hell, a rock. Rather than grouse any more–which I am told I wont to do as a Gen X-er, trapped with a name he never made in a world he never made–I guess I’ll just take a cue from Howe and Strauss and say buy my damn book already.

ADDENDUM 1/24/06: Scratch that last sentence. Buy this book instead: Letters From Young Activists. Now. What are you waiting for?

posted by @ 6:11 pm | 9 Comments

9 Responses to “On Generational Change”

  1. blackmail is my life says:

    This reminds me of Benedict Anderson’s riff in Imagined Communities on the development of the tomb of the unknown soldier, the proliferation of that idea around the world and its subsequent currency.

    The Brokaws of the world fell over themselves to canonize a generation that accepted entrenched, codified racism as fait accompli. How that goes unnoticed is beyond me; I hasten to add that certain nostalgias among black elites contribute to the myth too (this is a big take home message in Adolph Reed, Jr.’s work).

    Of course, these sort of dialectic conflicts aren’t always bad, and sometimes it’s the marketing that works against itself, making clearer the delineation between haves and have nots, making it the stuff of revolutionary youth movements, too.

  2. Jeff says:

    >>The Brokaws of the world fell over themselves to canonize a generation that accepted entrenched, codified racism as fait accompli.< < Well, Steinhorn apparently gives credit to the Boomers for fixing the sins of the Greatest Generation, which is one of the things that make them “Greater”. There’s also the idea that Boomers are somehow more spiritually attuned than Hip-Hop Gen folks, like they’ve got a direct line to God and we gotta call them first. Per Malanowski, take credit for the renewal of fundamentalism, too, then. But what do I know anyway?

  3. Anonymous says:

    I, speaking as a… ugh… “Millenial” was fine being referred to as “Generation Y” or “Spawn of Aging Hippies.” “Millenials” makes us sound like very peculiar flowers.

    Beyond that, I think these old dudes don’t have a clue what we’re up to… or at least some of us. One of the funny things about generations is that the ones who aren’t changing anything are always the same as their equivalents in previous generations

  4. msdroop says:

    I am here to say good job to Jeff Chang on Can’t Stop,Won’t Stop! He has done a very wonderful job of telling the story, especially the way he gave a behind-the-scenes look to readers. He shed light on the way every event in the lives of minorities are affected by politics, racism, and capitalism (to name a few factors). Every negative thing in this country that has happened/is happening was/is created by the powers that be. Good job for all the things you spoke on Jeff!

  5. msdroop says:

    I am posting to say whata great job Jeff Chang did on his book Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop. I like the way he gave a behind-the-scenes-look at every thing he discussed in his book. And thank you for driving home the point that every negative thing that has gone on or is going on in this country is a result of politics, racism and capitalism (to name a few). They always intermingle! Great job!

  6. Anita says:

    In response to the article about generations. I don’t really see how ‘millenials’ represent the generation at all. It sounds like a name that the senior class made up and then just thought that it sounded cool.
    However, I must agree that ‘millenials’ does sound a heck of a lot better than Generation Y. Generation Y comes with a negative connotation and no generation should be labeled as the unknown.
    Positive thinking brings about positive outcomes. Give a generation a good name and you give the people in that gneration something to live up to.

  7. Anonymous says:

    When thinking about different generations of music, I think it’s important to realize that times do change, as evidenced in Chang’s book. Yesterday’s generation had original passion for the music they created while much of today’s music culture is based solely on making money and making women dance explicitly. This has also led to the evolution of muscial genres. We all know that the south has risen with its “lean with it” style. Every other part of the U.S. has had it’s time, and they will surely have a second chance as time passes on.

  8. tlittle says:

    I don’t think these guys and can take a few high school students from some small town and sum up what’s going on with “millenials” as a whole. What they found is what’s going on in their world. The majority of those kids were white, which does not completely represent the newly labeled generation of millenials. The results of their findings would be more accurate if that completed surveys from multiple high schools in more urban areas all over the country. May be these guys should take a few pointers from Jeff Chang when it comes to giving information. Chang informed us about hip-hop through all ethnicities involved in creating the culture. He took information from multiple sources and peaced them together. Great Job on the book “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.” It was very informative!!

  9. Ben Istoc says:

    I would say it is ambigious to name a generation the “greatest”, considering the fact that there are many more to come with the potential of achieving greater things. Furthermore, can’t characterize a generation that has not yet reached its fullest potential. However, Jeff Chang did a good job putting information together enhancing different point of views, giving a non-bias point of view. Great book, “Cant Stop Wont Stop”.

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