The “dumbest generation”: sloppy thinking, maybe, but it’s put-up-or-shut-up time for Gen X
In the past I’ve written about a variety of generational issues, and have often focused on the Millennials. At times I’ve been construed as dogging them pretty hard. As I’ve tried to explain, my criticisms of them (for being entitled, for lacking critical thinking skills, etc.) haven’t really been criticisms of them, per se – a cohort that’s 75-100 million strong doesn’t get to be a certain way all by itself. The blame, if we want to use that word, falls on those responsible for educating and developing the generation.
Further, some have erroneously interpreted my critiques as somehow suggesting that my generation – X – was without flaw. Which, of course, is ridiculous. Every generation has its relative strengths and weaknesses, and X has been a trainwreck in some respects.
All of which leads me to the other morning, when fellow scrogue Brian Angliss forwarded along the link to a Washington Post column from Neil Howe, the man who co-authored, along with William Strauss, the finest series of works on America’s generations I’ve ever encountered.
The thesis under discussion this fine day? “Early Xers” are the dumbest living generation.
Not exactly the sort of thing you like reading about yourself, to be sure. But this is Neil Howe talking, so step one is shut up, set aside your attitude and emotions and read what he has to say. My conclusion? Howe’s take is interesting and credible on a number of levels. There are problems with the argument as set forth in the article, but it’s certainly worth thinking about.
The most disturbing part for me was this:
And today, as midlife parents, they have become ultra-protective of their own teenage kids and ultra-demanding of their kids’ schools, as if to make double-certain it won’t happen again.
Boomers were, by and large, the parents of early Millennials (born from around 1980-2000), but the back end of the parenting problem I’ve talked about … well, I don’t want to name names, but I’m probably like you in that I know some of the Xers he’s talking about. I know some who defy the type, too, but on the whole I think he comes closer to describing the rule than the exception.
This is not something I’m proud of, even though I’m not a parent.
I’m also intrigued by Howe’s use of the “Generation Jones” frame. Intrigued and a bit troubled, to be honest. GJ has always struck me as little more than marketing hook for the creator’s consulting business. I met the guy at a conference in 2000 and he talked my damned ear off trying to convince me of the legitimacy of his theory; however, nothing he had to say really put a dent in the more comprehensively articulated frame that Howe and Strauss had laid out in Generations and expanded on in 13th Gen, and as a result I found nothing about it that required me to alter my thinking significantly.
So to see so much of this analysis hinging on Generation Jones-style demography got me to looking a little more deeply. I’m not 100% happy with what I found.
I’ll begin by admitting, on behalf of “early Xers” everywhere, that we’re guilty of much of what is charged here. We may be guiltier than alleged, even. While I don’t plunge to quite the cynical, self-loathing depths that we see in, for instance, Todd Snider’s hysterical, auto-flogging “My Generation, part 2,” I do understand where he’s coming from. So whatever I may say on behalf of Generation X, I’d be delusional to try asserting that we represent a model to live by.
However, this doesn’t excuse Howe’s sloppiness.
For starters, Howe and Strauss were pretty clear about where the Boom ended and X began: the Boomer included birth years 1943-1960 and Generation X was 1961-1980. I don’t want to fetishize a moment in time – 12:01 AM, January 1, 1961- nor make sacred dogma out of an artificial and somewhat abstract way of dividing people, especially those on the cusp. At the very least, there’s tremendous value in examining the contexts surrounding macro-cultural transitions, so a serious researcher who wants to look at the period on either side of 1960-1961 is engaged in a perfectly valid course of study.
But, let’s be specific in how we categorize, especially if we’re the people responsible for establishing the definitions in the first place. Generation Jones encompasses a 12-year period: birth years 1954 through 1965. In Howe and Strauss’s model – articulated in Generations and reiterated in several subsequent books – this span includes the seven last years of the Baby Boom and the first five years of X. Which makes this particular line especially curious:
Whatever you call them (I’ll just call them early Xers), the numbers are clear…
Ummm, no. If you have 500 Germans in a room and 300 Swedes, you will not “just call them” a roomful of Swedes.
I respect the hell out of Howe’s work, as I’ve made abundantly clear on numerous cases, and this bit is out of step with his customary clarity of thinking and writing. If I didn’t know him to be an analyst of intelligence and integrity, I might wonder if I were smelling an agenda on the part of a parent who’s had enough of hearing his kids trashed. (Well, okay, maybe I am wondering that. Not accusing, but wondering.) Howe has Millennial children and thinks incredibly highly of them and their contemporaries (this is his point, directly paraphrased from Millennials Rising, not mine). Certainly the verve with which he goes after Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation (the jumping-off point for his column) suggests that he’s had enough Mill-bashing. To be fair, I can’t say that I blame him. If I had Millennial children, as do some of my friends and relatives, I’d feel the same way, and it’s not like there isn’t substantial data he can call on to make his point about Mills and Xers – something that becomes quite clear as the article progresses.
All this said, a good bit of the data he uses to whack these “early Xers,” does specifically reference actual early Xers, and with that I have no quibble. As I said earlier, guilty as charged. I might argue that, as useful as the measures he’s examining are (standardized test scores, for instance), I’d defend Xers a little because our outstanding critical faculties – which I think account for a good deal of our non-dumb moments – are hard to measure. But I’ll admit to being biased on that front. All that said, Howe is a man who’s capable of tremendous detail and specificity – something he’s proven time and again – and as a result I find myself baffled at why he’d clutter up his examination with one group by pointlessly conflating it with another.
So, Neil – who’s the dumbest generation, X or Jones? If it’s Jones, why are you laying the trip on X instead of both the Xers and Boomers, and if it’s X, then … why are we even mentioning Jones, exactly?
I don’t really stand to gain or lose anything regardless of the answer, since I’m part of both demographic groups. I’d just like to have a cleaner sense of what we’re really talking about here.
In any case, this is not a pretty picture of my generational cohort, and in truth, I don’t find anything about his relevant points that seem necessarily inaccurate. In college I was routinely appalled by what the people around me were up to, although at that point in time, before I had really studied generational dynamics (or, for that matter, really imagined what generation I was a part of – remember, I graduated from college seven years before Coupland’s Generation X popularized the term) I thought of this more in terms of a crisis in values than I did basic dumbness.
But maybe I was wrong. I can look back now and see how so much of what 13th Gen had to say explains my contemporaries, and while I might nitpick one methodology or another around evaluating test scores, the bottom line is that Howe is, at the very least, making a defensible argument about the deficiencies of a demographic group. Fair enough.
I think Howe’s explanations as to why we underperformed (then, and perhaps now, as well) gets at something important, and it echoes what he and Strauss talked about at length in 13th Gen:
Yet sheer numbers aren’t the whole story. The early Xers’ location in history also plays a large role. Quite simply, they were children at a uniquely unfavorable moment — a time when the divorce rate accelerated, when the media image of children turned demonic and when the “latch-key” lesson for kids stressed self-reliance rather than trust in others. By the time they entered middle and high school, classrooms were opened, standards were lowered, and supervision had disappeared. Compared with earlier- or later-born students at the same age, these kids were assigned less homework, watched more TV and took more drugs.
Most early Xers know the score. Graduating (or not) from school in the early 1980s, they saw themselves billboarded as a bad example by blue-ribbon commissions eager to reform the system for the next generation, the Millennials. Angling for promotions in the early 1990s, they got busy with self-help guides (yes, those “For Dummies” books) to learn all the subjects they were never taught the first time around.
With regards to the career side, I’ve written over at Black Dog about Xers and the macro-succession crisis (in this article, particularly). We’re a small generation (~50M) following a very large one (~75M), and there simply weren’t as many leadership opportunities available because, well, the Boomers in those jobs have no real obligation to retire and get out of our way, do they? So on that front we Xers found ourselves on the wrong end of an unbalanced math equation. Still do, in fact.
In the coming five years or so a massive number of Boomers are going to retire (the earliest Boomers hit retirement age this year, in fact) and early Xers are going to have to step in and step up. (For a lot of reasons, I don’t expect this transition to be a terribly pretty one.) The most prominent symbol of Gen X taking the reins right now is Barack Obama, who will soon become the first Xer president. Unless you’ve been off planet for a few years, you realize the massiveness and unfathomable complexity of the challenge he faces, and for better or worse it’s now time for my generation to step up and lead. You may think Xers are slackers and “the dumbest generation,” or you may prefer the Howe and Strauss narrative from 13th Gen, which credits us with a good deal of street smarts and a collective ingenuity born of necessity. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter. The time is now, and we’ll either get it done or we won’t.
Whatever failings we’ve been guilty of in the past, I’m hopeful we can make up for them in the next couple of decades.