After last Monday’s re-visiting of the generational conflict in Great Teacher Onizuka, I wanted to turn to an illuminating collection of essays and short stories, Generation Y: The New Lost Generation 1979-1989 by JD Cowan, Brian Niemeier, and David V. Stewart. You can grab a free copy through JD’s blog.
As the title indicates, the central thesis of the book is that the generational cohort that corresponds to the younger siblings of Generation X, one that used to be referred to as Generation Y, has become a lost generation. Gen Y have increasingly been lumped in with either the following Millennials or the preceding Gen X. But that doesn’t really do justice to the character of people born in that cohort, including me. Gen Y was the last generation to grow up with the Cold War or before the Internet became ubiquitous. But the world of their childhood was significantly less chaotic than the preceding decade, but also less constrained than the following decade making them different than their older and younger siblings.
Societal norms and customs of the times combine to form shared experiences among those born at the same time. This also includes consumption of and opinions on pop culture, world events, politics, religion, and technology. You are influenced by the media you do, and do not, consume. This is a lightning strike that can only happen at select moments in modernity for those growing up in it. You will not have the same formation as those older or younger than you, because you can’t. The modern world moves much too fast to allow that. In other words, no one is just a product of their environment: they are also a product of the generation they are born in.
It has always been this way, but it has not always been as blindingly fast as this. As the post-industrialized world has gone on, the times have moved faster and faster and human beings have struggled to keep up. Generations are now no longer as slow to change as they once were. Just like the rat race mentality modernity brings to just about everything, so to does it effect generations struggling to keep up. We are always moving to the next thing, as is the media attempting to keep up in order to mold and sell to us.
If you want to really understand the world, generational theory is useful, but it needs an update to correspond to the increasing rate of change in late modernity. Generational theory, especially in its macrohistorical versions like Strauss and Howe’s The Fourth Turning and Millennials Rising, has long been an interest of mine. However, I am also keenly aware of its limitations. You can craft compelling narratives quite easily with cyclical theories of history, but making accurate predictions has proved elusive.
Strauss and Howe in particular seem to have been enamored of the neat 20 to 25 year cycles that made their definition of generation line up with the standard genealogical one. That worked passably well until the twentieth century, but if you start from the premise that it is the predominant environment that children grow up in that makes for a generational cohort, then the pace of cultural change in the twentieth century was too rapid for a cycle that long.
If you accept the premise that a specific cultural environment can shape a generation’s character, then there should have been more variation in the generations during the century with the most rapid cultural change we’ve ever seen. With that in mind, here is the full list of the generations that spanned the twentieth century, including the bookend generations on either side:
- The Lost Generation ~ Born from 1893-1913
- The Greatest Generation ~ Born from 1914-1934
- The Silent Generation ~ Born from 1935-1945
- Baby Boomers ~ Born from 1946-1956
- Generation Jones ~ Born from 1957-1967
- Generation X ~ Born from 1968-1978
- Generation Y ~ Born from 1979-1989
- Millennials ~ Born from 1990-2000
- Generation Z ~ Born from 2001-2011
- The Last Generation ~ Born from 2012-2022
I like this list. I find it illuminating when I look at artistic movements in particular. It also makes for an interesting revision to Strauss and Howe’s theory, which had four archetypes succeeding one another. In the book Millennials Rising, the Millennials (born starting 1982) were to have the same role as the Greatest Generation, a Hero generation that resolves a major crisis. However, if you accept this revision to generation length while maintaining Strauss and Howe’s structure, the actual successors to the Greatest Generation were really Gen X, who have failed to take the leadership role in society that the Strauss and Howe theory would have predicted.
Why that might be so is an interesting question, and one speculated on on the book. Brian Niemeier argues that it is most illuminating to look at each generation in terms of their characteristic flaws:
These differences come to the fore when you consider each generation’s besetting vices. Everyone who takes an interest in generational trends knows the stereotypes. The Greats are diligent but emotionally distant. Boomers are inveterate narcissists. Xers are cynical to the point of paralysis. Millennials are developmentally stunted snowflakes.
For those members of Gen Y who are enjoying a chuckle right now, you’re not getting off the hook. If my generation can be said to have a general vice, it has to be that we’re collectively naive, approaching the point of obliviousness.
There’s an explanation for everything. In Gen Y’s case, we grew up largely unaware of what was going on because our elders subjected us to a ubiquitous and extended gas-lighting campaign. Our childhoods mostly happened in the ‘80s to early ‘90s, which were the eye of a cultural storm that started in the 1960s and is now rending Western civilization stone from stone.
Generation Y came up in an era that still had something like a functioning economy. In terms of race relations, America was as close to color-blind as we’ve ever gotten and are ever likely to get. If you were in second grade ca. 1988, you didn’t think anything of hanging out with the black kid in your group. He wasn’t a “POC” or even necessarily an African-American. He was just Mike.
When Cowan, Niemeier, and Stewart call Gen Y a lost generation, they don’t just mean forgotten. Gen Y is lost because it has nothing to go back to except its memories of the genuinely awesome toys and entertainment of their childhood.
…the nostalgia that afflicts people around my age is something that has more to do with a crisis of meaning than a mere yearning for the “good ‘ol days.” Many generational groups look back on the past fondly, but I do think my generation is unique in its nostalgia due to what we are nostalgic about, which is the media and toys, rather than people and places.
There’s not much to reflect on when you’re twenty-one and you ask yourself, “how did I get here?” First, you haven’t been alive very long, so the past is small and easy to contextualize. Second, you haven’t lived long enough to see the true consequences of what you have done or what was done to you.
So many people around my age are bitter, often deeply bitter, about the wasted experiences of their youth. We were all told more or less the same thing: go to college, get a degree, acquire happiness. When you are twenty-one, the myth is still real. When you’re in your late thirties, the illusion of it is not only obvious, but angering.
– David V. Stewart
There are some truly harrowing essays in this collection, such as Cowan’s extended reflection on the nihilistic movie SLC Punk and what it says about the identity of Gen Y. However, the ultimate goal of this collection is not to complain, but to start us down another path of right action by first diagnosing the cause of our generation’s malaise and frustration.
Human beings might come into the world alone, but loneliness is not the natural state of man. Alienation, atomization, and selfishness builds a cocoon to the outside world. Eventually, without a way of seeing a path forward to the future, the past is all that remains. One can be trapped in an endless cycle of growing despair at the world not living up to expectations. This is the dark side of Generation Y.
However, expecting the future to live up to the enshrined past that lives in your head is a fool’s errand. That world we were expecting to come into fruition back when we were children is not coming. It will not arrive if we vote for the right people. It will not arrive if we stop the bad people from being bad. It will not arrive if we ignore the way things are. There is no scenario where that world that existed in our heads will ever actually exist. Cultural Ground Zero and its fallout put that delusion to bed for good.
The purpose of this book was not only to line out who Generation Y is, but where we came from, and where we can go moving forward. As a generation so reliant on the past, it is easy to get stuck there, and many have done just that.
I think Cowan, Niemeier, and Stewart are on to something, and I encourage everyone, not just my fellow Generation Y cohort, to read this and think about their arguments. As the oldest cohort of Gen Y, I am just now getting to my forties, which is about the point in time at which we might expect to make a real impact. Our story is not yet finished.