Two ways to define a generation: Where do you fit?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012 | 12:51 p.m. CDT; updated 9:09 a.m. CDT, Monday, May 7, 2012

COLUMBIA — The concept of "generation" shows up again and again in media and popular culture, used by everyone from marketers to educators to employers. For the purposes of our "American Next" project, we want to explore how, in times of deep political and economic upheaval, the generation known as "the next generation" or "Gen Y" is positioned to inherit the decisions and policies of the generations that went before.

Yet defining who that involves presents its own challenges. Our research so far has unearthed only one sure fact about generational markers — there is no concrete way to define exactly where the age boundaries of Gen X, Y or Z lie. "Generation Y" — the term most often used to identify today's teens and young adults — wasn't even coined until 1993, a decade after which some groups say Gen Y-ers would have been born.

Don't look to the government for clarification. Oddly enough, most government sites link to Wikipedia or don't disclose the years used to differentiate between generations in any studies it conducts. 

Richard Hessler, an emeritus professor of sociology at MU, says there are at at least two main ways of conceptualizing "generation."

One is by the numbers: about 30 years between birth and giving birth. "Of course, this is a rough number of years that reflects the average age at cohabitation for a society," Hessler said via email. 

The other way to think about generation is as "a group of individuals bound together not by age per se, but rather by a common cultural experience that shapes personal identity," Hessler said. Examples would be the "Greatest (or G.I.) Generation," used to define those who fought in World War II and returned to build post-war America, or the "Beat Generation" that came of age in the 1950s.  

And of course, the vast population of "Baby Boomers," who grew up through the Cold War, the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, Vietnam, the assassination of one president and the resignation of another, continue to dominate much of the nation's agenda.

Hessler said, "In either case, these generations share common historical experiences that tend to shape attitudes and values in similar ways."

That approach was most common on the websites and publications we scoured, and subscribes to sociologist and demographer Norman Ryder’s theory of cohorts. The gist of this theory is that people can and should be grouped together by shared cultural markers or events that occurred during their formative years. These markers and events are believed to shape the perspectives and influence the actions of a particular cohort or "generation." Identification with a particular cohort is open to personal interpretation.

For Gen X (loosely defined as those born between 1960 and 1980), a few examples of these shared experiences would include witnessing the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger or living through the height of the AIDS epidemic.  For Gen Y, it would focus on events such as 9/11 or the election of President Barack Obama. For Generation Z — today's children — the inability to remember a time before the World Wide Web is key.

But what happens when Americans start becoming parents in their teenage years? Or put off having children until they're in their late 30s?  

And what experiences are so great in a multicultural, choose-your-own-soundtrack world that they define a generation?

This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.

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