When I was younger, I resisted thinking of “Generation X” is an important part of my identity. This was partly a personal trait: to the best of my limited ability, I wanted to be mature and not to follow reflexively the characteristic interests of people in their twenties. My resistance was also–paradoxically–a trait of Generation X. We were born in a demographic trough, outnumbered and often overlooked. We were at least somewhat alienated by our predecessors’ talk of a Generation Gap, a Youth Movement, a Sexual Revolution, and a campus counterculture. We couldn’t detect any major social upheavals that distinguished us from the late Boomers. In 2002, 54.4% of us (i.e., those who were then between the ages of 26 and 37) said that “There is nothing particularly unique or distinctive about my age group.” In contrast, 68.7% of the younger adults and 50.8% of the “Greatest Generation” people said, “My age group is unique and distinct from other age generations.” (The Boomers themselves were split almost 50/50 on this question.)
Now, in my thirties, I’m much more likely to think of myself in generational terms. Because of my work with CIRCLE, it’s my job to study age cohorts. In particular, I’ve been much impressed by Karl Mannheim’s theory. Mannheim noted that babies are born every minute, so it is somewhat arbitrary to divide individuals into discrete generations. He argued, however, that our political and social opinions are relatively flexible when we are young. (I would explain this in terms of “rational ignorance”: we must form opinions, but once we’ve got them, it’s usually not worth the effort to change them.) Thus, whenever a major historical event occurs, it most deeply affects those who are between the ages of 15 and 25 at the time, and they turn into a “generation” with lasting traits.
The classic case was the World War I generation; service in that unbelievable slaughter permanently distinguished an age cohort from those too old or young to be drafted. The Vietnam generation went through a faint echo of the same phenomenon. (Incidentally, the big generation gaps are marked by changes in hair–World War I vets shaved off the Victorian mustaches, goatees, and long tresses of their fathers, whereas Boomers let their hair grow long. We in generation X have been characteristically unsure how to differentiate ourselves, hair-wise.)
Mannheim explains that each generation plays an essential role in the healthy evolution of a society. The older cohorts preserve memory and experience, but the younger ones help by not remembering too much. For example, we Gen-X’ers don’t remember Vietnam well enough to let it overwhelm the rest of modern history. In the nineties, I knew many young Madeleine Albright fans–people who wanted to avoid repeating Munich and cared less about Tet or Kent State. Boomers, of course, play an equally important role by keeping alive the traumas of more modern history.
Meanwhile, at a personal level, I’m beginning to draw some guidance and psychological support from identifying with my age cohort. Some of my peers are fabulously successful, running important firms and organizations like the ACLU, writing masterpieces, or holding senior academic positions at distinguished universities. But most of us are in the middle ranks. We are frequently called– as parents, teachers, and supervisors of younger colleagues–to share memories and experiences going back to the seventies. At the same time, we have parents, teachers, and supervisors of our own, who remember and know more than we do. We play a mediating role at this point in our lives.