What valid conclusions can be drawn about a given generation?

In the recent thread “Have Baby Boomers Wrecked the Planet?” a fair amount of commentary relies on the notion that we can speak of (for instance) the “Boomer” generation as being typified by certain characteristics and attitudes.

I’d like to interrogate this notion a bit. Can we define and describe a given generation using more than impressions and anecdotes – in a way that stands up to social-science scrutiny? If so, how?

(Data-based examples encouraged!)

You can definitely identify generations as cohorts based upon birthrate and longevity trends, which can largely be attributed to socioeconomic trends. There are large distinctions between “Baby Boomers”, “Generation X”, “Millennial” and “Post-Millennial” in terms of their birth rates, relative affluence, educational demographics, and other identifiable metrics. Of course, it should be noted that these definitions are almost exclusively focused on the ‘visible’ demographics that marketers are primarily interested in, e.g. white middle class consumers, and do not represent non-white and lower socioeconomic classes with any cultural distinction or nuance.

In terms of practical distinction, a lot of reasonable conclusions can be drawn with regard to economic trends, and in particular that the Boomers are the wealthiest generation overall that the United States will see, and that subsequent generations will bear more irresolvable debt (especially student and housing debt), slower per capita economic growth, and a stovepipe-to-upside-down pyramid of retires-to-workers. Whether technological innovations (i.e. automation) will help to ameliorate that or make it worse has yet to be seen but I’m not particularly optimistic, and without net immigration we’re going to have a really difficult time with elder care; on the other hand, child care is becoming less of a problem as Gen X parents opt for the two-or-less children and many Millennials are opting for a child-free life. It remains to be seen how that will pan out for Post-Millennials but given dating and relationship trends plus the increasing cost of child-rearing it seems unlikely to reverse without (again) a large amount of immigration. All of this can be found in economic and demographic data with only a very small amount of extrapolation.

The assignment of cultural beliefs and ideals, on the other hand, is somewhat more suspect. Complaints that Millennials are all obsessed with their mobile devices and unwilling to work hard can be countered by the fact that people of all living generations seem to be obsessed with mobile technology and social media, and while it is easy to blame the young kids for not putting in extra work “the way their parents did”, that is such a tiresome saw that was probably originated by the Akkadians if not preceding them. It may be that Millennials as a group see that the rewards they receive are not commiserate with the effort expected from them and slack off, but I suspect that this is more that there have always been people unwilling to put in extra effort and it just wasn’t as apparent in the pre-computer age where work had a naturally slower pace by dint of technology and there was no expectation of responding to emails at all hours. I think different generations likely had different expectations—although again, we have to acknowledge that this is filtered through the particular social demographic one is looking at and doesn’t reflect what more marginalized people might want or expect—but I find it suspect that white collar workers of one generation were substantially more motivated and industrious than another given comparable incentives and opportunties.


Excellent post. Thank you.

It’s also worth saying that any given label or cohort has fuzzy edges. As the Boomer era slid into the GenX era there may have been moments of greater and lesser rates of change. But as it’s happening, it looks and feel much more like a continuum.

It’s only in hindsight that we can see a sort of heatmap of clustered characteristics representing e.g. Boomers and Gen-Xers. And even then, although the two hotspots can be discerned easily enough, and each assigned a set of stereotypical characteristics of the breed, one might be hard pressed to identify any sort of definitive border between them. Any kink in the data on e.g. birthyear cohort won’t neatly align with a kink in voting habits, polled attitudes, car ownership, etc.

The short answer is no.

Lazy stereotyping is lazy and mischaracterizes/demeans far too many people.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both “baby boomers”, but to lump them together along with what probably is the largest group by birthdates on this board is asinine.

It depends on the generation. Growing up in the Depression when very few had much money and there was massive unemployment had a massive effect on your life. Likewise World War II with a huge number of males off to war and civilian rationing had very big impacts. While there were things like the Vietnam War and the 1960s Civil Rights movement, I don’t think anything has had the impact of the Depression and World War II since those two events.

You can draw general conclusions about age-related cohorts, but every one of them has an asterisk, *Statistically Speaking, Individual Results May Vary. The problems on all sides of this discussion arise when everyone forgets that (usually unstated) caveat. “Boomers are X”, “Well, I’m a Boomer, and I’m not X, therefore you’re a bigot!”

You don’t need every member of the cohort to have a certain attribute, in order for that attribute to dominate certain societal trends. If, lets say, 70% of Boomers graduated college with zero debt, while only 20% of Millennials did so, that’s going to affect trends of the whole society, no matter what your personal situation is.

And economic factors matter as well. The condo I bought when I first started working in my career is now worth about 6 times what I originally paid, but entry-level wages for this career have not increased anywhere near that much. Someone 25 years younger than me, embarking on exactly the same career, will find it much harder to get into the housing market, period. And that has an effect on “generations”.