I often think about the generations thing. For marketing and media purposes, we always hear a lot about Millenniums and Gen Z etc., and our culture war is everybody against the boomers. But what really is a generation? Does the concept really exist beyond the media? For me, trying to work it all out by dates doesn’t work.
When I first read Coupland’s Generation X in 1992, I thought it spoke to me directly. I really felt keenly that sense of invisibility that Coupland captured with the capital X. That invisibility has been borne out in the years since. The culture war is presented as Millenniums vs The Boomers, for example, with the intervening X ignored, as ever. The boomers cling on to their privilege, and take it upon themselves to attack youngsters like Greta Thunberg as a threat to their way of life. So that’s now Boomers vs. Gen Z, if the Millenniums are Y. And nobody, as ever, really notices X.
Let’s look at those dates. I’m going to arbitrarily (?) assume a generation is 16 years, because, well. My mum was knocked up at 15 and had her first at 16, so I guess that’s why. 16 is an age at which people can/could join the army, get knocked up consensually etc.
- Baby Boomers: 1946–1962
- Generation: X 1963–1979
- Gen Y/Millenniums: 1980–1996
- Gen Z, Greta’s people: 1997–2013
- Gen ᚦ, the people of the Runic Thorn: 2014–
I said above it doesn’t work for me. This is for a couple of reasons. First, I strongly identify with Gen X, and yet my year of birth (1962) places me at the arse end of the boomers. And, self-evidently, December of 1962 is a grey area of transition, and there’s no real reason that generations have to be measured in whole years, especially as the (VE-day) post-war baby boom necessarily would have started around February of 1946, or a bit later in the case of the Pacific theatre, or even earlier in the case of premature births.
The water gets even murkier when you want to pin-point cultural moments. Sexual intercourse began, says Larkin, in 1963. So how old did you have to be in 1963 for that to be the beginning of your kingfisher days? If we say 16, then, sure, bang on the Baby Boom time-line. But when did you first get massively into music? 14? 13? In other words, we could push the Boomers into 1950 and assign everything before “the Beatles’ first LP” to the previous generation, the War Babies. Lennon was 16 in 1956 and no way were he and Ringo Boomers, born as they were in 1940, the last year of the 1930s.
And what do we call the generation before the Boomers? “War Babies” seems inadequate. But “Greatest Generation” were the ones fighting the war, often the parents of both the “War Babies” and the Boomers. Beat Generation is there for the taking, but the idea behind it seems too exclusive for a whole generation, and Jack Kerouac was born in 1922, making him part of the so-called Greatest Generation, which he clearly did not feel a part of. At which point the whole system cleaves into parallel strands. But maybe: Beat Generation. It’s all very confusing.
A second reason I object to these dates is that, according to them, within my own family I have older siblings who are Boomers and a younger sibling who is (firmly) Gen X, and I’m somehow stuck in the middle.
Which leads me to my further thought, that which generation you are depends not on dates but on your parents. After all, the only context in which the word makes sense is to do with parents and their children.
If your parents were old enough to be making babies as soon as WW2 ended, then you’re a Boomer. But my parents most definitely were not. My mother, who started early, was knocked up, I think, in 1952. So she’s neither a Boomer nor a Greatest Generation, but some other, weird, missing demographic, Generation V (making the Boomers W, natch). All of which is terrible because I’m sure Coupland wasn’t really thinking of the letter X but rather of the xxx of an overtyped mistake, an elision.
Generation V = Generation elVis, or Vanished, as they’re another invisible one, like their children. Hmm… It seems that the noisy and visible generations beget noisy and visible generations (Boomers to Millenniums), whereas the quietly despairing invisible generations beget more invisibles (V to X; vanished to elided).
So my parents were Gen V, making me Gen X. Whereas if your parents were Gen U (Greatest Generation, U for Uniform), then you are a Boomer (Gen W). And if your parents are Boomers, then you’re a Millennium (Gen WhY); whereas if your parents are Gen X, like my kids, then you’re Gen Zed.
All of this makes perfect sense, and I’m happy to have cleared up any confusion. I feel this is important sociological work.