Gen X, Gen Y etc - are the differences real?

Whenever I hear people talking about the characteristics of Gen Y or whatever, it almost always sounds to me like “When I was a lad”-ism.

As in “These Gen Y’ers want it all, aren’t interested in hard work etc but when I was a lad, we got up before we went to bed, licked the road clean before breakfast etc etc”

Are there actual cold hard controlled rigorous studies that show that there really are basic differences in the psyches of people born only generations apart in recent times, as is popularly suggested? What are those differences, really?

In answering, bear in mind that this is GQ. I’m not interested in anecdotes nor in pop psych books by authors whose research consisted of asking around and then vigorously opining consistent with their own prejudices. Peer reviewed studies only.

There are none.

Most current generational theory derives from the work of William Strauss and Neil Howe. Their most important book, Generations, came out in 1991. In it they established their theory of generational archetypes, provided examples from the past 400 years of American history to support their thesis and made some predictions about the future.

Their biggest prediction is that the United States will suffer a major upheaval (on the scale of the Great Depression or the Civil War) sometime between 2005 and 2020. If they’re right about that it will be a fairly strong data point supporting their position.

(I should add that not just any crisis will do. They make some specific predictions about the social forces that will trigger the crisis and how the country will respond. If you want to know more, read Generations, or their follow-up book that focuses on the crisis itself, The Fourth Turning.)

But so far no one has conducted any experiments that have yielded hard data to prove or disprove Strauss and Howe’s hypothesis.

Anecdotally … my wife has personally witnessed what appeared to be the X-to-Y generational shift in college students. She’s a college professor and a couple of years ago she and her colleagues noticed an abrupt shift in how students responded in class. Over the course of a year or two the students became more team-orientated, less argumentative, more in need of specific instructions, and more grade-conscious. The change was pronounced enough that it was remarked upon (“what’s up with this latest batch of students?”) by several other professors in my wife’s department who weren’t familiar with generational theory at all. They actually had to adjust their lecturing styles to accomodate the changing student expectations.

Very interesting observation, Pochacco… but I must admit a bit unsettling. Is the youth of tomorrow more “programmed” now by the media and government to be good little productive oil-burning tax-paying citizens? Rhetorical question… but your anecdote certainly has me worried…

I’ll pontificate a bit more.

In Strauss & Howe’s theory there are four generational archetypes that repeat over and over again: Idealist, Reactive, Civic and Adaptive.

The Baby Boomers are an Idealist Generation. They’re very concerned with ideals and principles and they tend to value ideological purity over just getting the job done. They are more focused on individual empowerment and less on commual action.

Generation X is a Reactive Generation. Wild in youth they turn into hard-nosed realists in middle age. Eccentric and sometimes selfish, but also self-deprecating and efficient.

Generation Y is a Civic Generation. Very good at getting things done. Team oriented, and generally upbeat. Their weakness is a tendency to trust authority too much and to not be very curious.

The Silent Generation (and the kids who are babies right now) are Adaptive Generations. They tend to be artistic and sensitive. They are good at seeing all the sides of a particular issue, but bad at turning their knowledge into practical reality.

Of course this is just a brief summary. One of S & H’s interesting points is that different generations assume different roles at different times in their lives. An overdose of idealism in someone in their 20’s might manifest itself as a desire to throw out all the norms of society and start over from scratch. But an overdose of idealism in someone in their 60’s might manifest itself as a desire to pass restrictive laws that tell other people how to live their lives.

Spoken like a true Gen-Xer. We’re always so suspicious of authority, aren’t we … ? :slight_smile:

According to S&H, Generation Y (or the Millennials, as they call them) are definitely a powerful army waiting for a leader. But who that leader is and what use they will be put to depends very much on how the Great Crisis manifests itself. The last time we had a young Civic generation they pulled the country out of the Great Depression and won World War II.

Some other good books on this topic are Millenials Rising and 13th Gen : Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? ( both by Howe, Strauss and Matson), and Generations at Work (Zemke, Raines and Flipczak).

It seems to me that there is a much smaller generation gap between Gen X and Gen Y than there was between Gen X and the Baby Boomers, and that gap was much MUCH smaller than the gap between Baby Boomers and the WW2 generation.

The WW2 generation grew up in a world of political and ideological turmoil, economic instability, economic collapse, and global total war that devestated two continents.

The Baby boomers grew up in a world of steady economic growth, the remote cold war, American triumphalism, and running water, electricity, phones and TV in every home.

Huge difference there. We GenX’rs grew up a little different, the economy wasn’t growing, America wasn’t triumphant, but there wasn’t a sharp discontinuity like WW2 that changed everything. And GenY is pretty much more of the same.

I have to disagree here. Not only have we always had the internet (which is a huge difference), but we’ve also grown up with a very different attitude towards corporate America. Remember, mass layoffs in pursuit of profit have been the norm for my entire adult life.

Same here, says the 33-year-old.

Except there was a big change in how kids were viewed within society. Kids in the 60’s and 70’s were largely ignored while the adults focused on adult issues. It was the era of latchkey kids and slashed school funding. When kids appeared in movies it was often as scary monsters (Rosemary’s Baby) or victims (Pretty Baby).

All of this changed in the early 80’s when the Boomers started having kids. That’s when you started seeing Baby on Board signs in the rear windows of minivans. All of a sudden protecting children became an important thing to do again. And the new crop of young adult we’re seeing now is the result in that shift of attitudes in the early 80’s.

I’m 42. I have very vivid memories of the 70’s. And it was very obvious to me that my nephew (born in 1986) and his friends were having a very different sort of upbringing than my friends and I had.

Wait, are you supposed to be GenX or GenY at 33? I’m 39 and I’m definately GenX.

But we certainly didn’t always have the interweb. Yeah, GenX kids had computers and video games, but they were brand new things, and we certainly didn’t have the internet. I didn’t have email until after I graduated from college in 1988. Although you could get on the university VAX and chat with the other ~200 people logged on to the VAX, it was a network, not the internet. I didn’t have a dialup internet connected computer until I was in my 30s.

Yeah, there’s a big difference between Baby Boomers with their Motown and Woodstock and their Vietnam War and their Lyndon Johnson and Nixon and their peace and love compared with GenX’rs and our Punk/New Wave/Metal and our Reagan and our Gulf War and our omputers.

But does that difference compare to a kid growing up during the depression, fighting WW2, then embracing the comparitively paradisical 50s? Those people grew up in a completely different world. Pre WW2 was a different planet.

I think Strauss and Howe put the cut-off around 1982. So there are people in their late 20’s right now who count as Gen-X. Strauss and Howe’s generations are 20-30 years long.

And, if S&H are correct, we’re about to pass through a similar watershed. Thirty years from now, when you and I are old men, we’ll be relics from a bygone age. Our grandchildren will read about 2006 (“In the waning years before the Big Crisis”) in history books and it will seem like a foreign country to them.

Hmmm. So just as I thought. There is no hard data there is just a load of speculation and assumption, backed by dubious anecdotes. Or in other words, probably total bull.

I suppose I have a special interest in this topic because I’ve never fit completely into either Gen X or Gen Y. The thread prompted me to Wikipedia, which has, IMHO, one of the best articles describing where people like me (born in '81) fit in:

Wikipedia-MTV Generation

Some of the highlights have already been mentioned, but I think the following are notable:

We’re the last generation that got old enough to know about the Cold War while it was still going on. Granted, I wasn’t yet 10 when the Soviet Union was broken up, but I do have vivid memories of our school maps and globes saying USSR. Likewise, I remember the wall coming down, and the sheer number of people who bought pieces of it for their desks.

We remember a time before the internet; most of us had home computers when we were children, but they didn’t have modems. Truthfully, I recall being in 7th grade and hearing our teacher talk about the coming “information superhighway” and I laughed. I figured it was a fad and wouldn’t last. Heh.

At a very impressionable age, 10 or 12, we saw the first Gulf War on television (at my house, we were still a few years away from getting our C-band satellite) and, political arguements aside, saw how fast and “easily” we won. I recall my 4th grade class sending care packages to soldiers. More telling, though, is that we all traded Gulf War trading cards. “Do you have the F-117 yet?” “No, but I’ll trade you a Stormin’ Norman card for it.”

By the time we cuspers, or Gen XY, or the MTV Generation, or whatever, reached the “cool years” (which I define as age 14-19) we’d seen Generation X become a brand. We were being forcefed the “Pepsi, generation neXt” commercials, grunge had become a copy of a copy, and Cobain had already died. We watched (with horror) the transition of MTV into a marketer of cool, and I think we have a more innate understanding of the “crass corporate vulture feed[ing] on mass consumer culture.”

We cuspers were in college on 9/11. The point I want to make here is difficult, but I think 9/11 made us more pragmatic. I don’t see the anti-war movement in my generation (certainly not when compared to the boomers) but, at the same time, we’re leery of blind patriotism. To make a broad generalization, my friends in GenY seem to be more apathetic, and my friends in GenX seem to be more extremist. We’re stuck in the middle. Does that make any sense whatsoever?

So, to get to the OP, I think that the differences are real, because those of us between the generations have a difficult time identifying with either. In my experience, I can see differences between my father (The Great Generation), my older friends (GenX), myself (XY), and my younger friends (Y). Maybe I’m just crazy, though. :confused:

Princhester, I suggest you go to your nearest academic library and search publications in the field of sociology. I am finding many cites on generational differences myself. The cites that explicitly use the terms Baby Boomer and Generation X tend to be dissertations or conference papers. The journal articles tend to use ranges of years.

I notice you are not in the US. The books I’ve read on this are very US-centric and other countries probably have their own generational waves. It doesn’t seem particularly controversial (to me) that a well-documented phenomenon such as the rapid increase in divorce seen in the US during the '70s would have an impact on the children of that generation, as an example.

While I’m not interested in launching into Great Debates style research for you, here is a cite to show I really did do an academic search: Perceptions of Workplace Inequities and Mental Health across Three Cohorts: Do Rising Expectations Lead to Lower Well-Being, American Sociological Association (ASA), 1999. Excerpt from abstract “Three dimensions of mental health (psychological well-being, job satisfaction, & self-assessment of one’s achievements) are considered for three cohorts: “Traditionalists” (born before 1944); “Baby-Boomers” (born 1944-1959); & “Generation X” (born 1960-1970). Regression analyses reveal that Baby Boomer women are more likely than other women to be disappointed with their life achievements, although the same pattern does not hold for men. Findings are discussed in light of changes in gender roles during the past 30 years.”

It is unsupported by hard data. On the other hand, **something ** is going on. People are clearly responding to some sort subtle collective behavioral differences when they talk about The Baby Boomers or The Greatest Generation or The Lost Generation. Strauss & Howe advanced a hypothesis that seems to explain why these differences exist and made some predictions with it. Not enough time has passed to determine whether those predictions were accurate or not and no social scientists seem interested in pursuing the matter, so there’s no way of judging whether the idea is true or not.

The lack of hard evidence one way or the other means that any conclusions based upon generational theory should be viewed with great skepticism. But the lack of hard data also means that it still remains as an interesting and potentially true hypothesis. It’s not **definitively ** bullshit … not yet anyway.

In any case, you’re in not in the United States. Even if Strauss & Howe are correct the cycles in Australia aren’t necessarily synched up with the cycles in the United States. Generation Y, if it exists, is an American cultural phenomenon, not a global one.

And to clarify (in light of Harriet’s post about current sociological research) when I say “unsupported by hard data” I’m referring to the full-blown Strauss and Howe four-cycle generational theory. It’s clear that some generational differences exist between different age cohorts and these differences can even be measured by experimental methods. What’s not been established is the value of S&H’s theory as a **predictive ** tool for the **future ** behavior of different age cohorts.

Hard to imagine how they could, either. It’s a classic example of what scientists call a “nonfalsifiable” hypothesis.

Actually the S&H generational model makes a number of predictions that should be testable. For example, they predict that Generation Y in adulthood should exhibit a greater differentiation in gender roles than Baby Boomers and Generation X did. If, over the next 20 years we see an increase in the percentage of women who choose to be stay-at-home moms, that’s a piece of data that confirms the S&H generational model.

Now there’s not one single big experiment you could do to prove whether their model as a whole is right or not. But there are a number of experiments you could do to determine whether or not their predictions are accurate.

I noticed right around that time that all the students became Chinese. Coincidence?