July 2016

Generationally Speaking: Pigeon-holed and profiled

Author: Kitty Bartell

Being pigeon-holed, profiled, or stereotyped goes against the grain of most independent-minded Americans. Look, I just did it right there… Are most Americans actually independent-minded? Without the time or inclination to conduct the in-depth research study necessary to satisfy our information-saturated society in order to validate my hypothesis, I am going to risk taking a bit of flak from the contrarians out there and declare that, yes, most Americans like to think of themselves as independent-minded and free-thinking.

For all the independence we declare, and we declare it a lot, particularly this time of year (happy Fourth of July, by the way), as a society, we excel at putting everyone in predictable boxes—sometimes to make us feel safer, sometimes to entertain and sometimes to educate. As Americans, we are known to pursue happiness (a.k.a. fun, joy, whimsy, glee) with great abandon. I am no exception. Just for giggles, I dug into pigeon-holing and profiling and found that, generationally speaking, we are rather predictable.

All this stereotyping begins at a young age, when our families, caregivers and guardians begin creating the boxes in which we are guided to live: be smart, be athletic, be pretty, be hard-working, be kind, be faithful, be strong. This is where folks impart the wisdom of their particular era upon the next generation, in the hope that the traits and mores they most value will be carried on.

All members of a living generation can provide a wealth of information about who they are, what events or circumstances have significantly impacted them, and why who they are should matter to subsequent generations. Of course, being the very young United States of America (no other country in the world, born from previously unclaimed soil, is younger), the lessons of past generations can inform our future like nowhere else, should we choose to listen.

Scientists and theologians agree that a generation is 20 to 25 years long, and that there are six identifiable generations living in America today.

Members of the GI GENERATION were born between 1901 and 1926; sometimes called The Greatest Generation. Known to be energetic team players, these people were children of the WWI generation who went on to fight in WWII, many living through the Great Depression. This was a time when marriage was for life and divorce was unacceptable. This generation invented everything from the fly swatter, Life Savers candy, and the blender to the Model T. Many grew up without refrigerators or electricity, and retirement was never a consideration; you worked until you died. Rosa Parks, Walt Disney, Mother Teresa and John F. Kennedy were born into the GI Generation.

Peace, jobs, the suburbs, television, rock ’n’ roll, and cars defined the MATURE/SILENTS GENERATION. In addition to the electric guitar, Scotch® tape, Tupperware, and drive-in movie theaters, this generation ushered in the nuclear age with Enrico Fermi’s first controlled nuclear reaction. Born between 1927 and 1945, this group spent their formative years conforming; however, they also experienced the first hopeful signals of the Civil Rights Movement. This generation was formed by the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Pre-feminism, women primarily cared for the children or worked as teachers, nurses or secretaries. When and if they did retire, it was to the peace and quiet of their own front porch rocking chairs.

The largest generation in history, BABY BOOMERS, has over 77 million members. Born between 1946 and 1964, the “me” generation is divided into two sub-boomer groups: 1) save the world revolutionaries; and 2) career-minded partiers, a.k.a. yuppies. At the same time when free love and non-violent protests (which ironically triggered violence) were happening, this generation was building a reputation for self-centered, self-righteousness. Not easily pigeon-holed, this group spans millions of people from one socio-political viewpoint to the complete opposite. Without a great deal holding them together ideologically, Baby Boomers invented their way from bikinis to Barbie dolls, from the Peanuts gang to lava lamps, all the way to being the first generation innovating great advances in technology. Instead of rocking away their retirement, Boomers are known to sky dive, pursue sports, and will live longer than any group that came before.

Labeled as either late to marry or quick to divorce, the children of this career-driven generation came home to empty homes where they occupied themselves and often cared for each other, at least until the end of the work day. The latch-key kid became a defining symbol for GENERATION X. Born between 1965 and 1980, described as self-absorbed, they grew up with an entrepreneurial spirit; and while they may have started schooling without computers, they certainly did not finish that way. Averaging seven career changes in their lifetime, Gen Xers saw the creation of the Rubik’s Cube, Post-It® Notes and brought about the growth of computer use in every aspect of personal and professional life.

It has been said that GENERATION Y is a sharp departure from Gen X. Born between 1981 and 2000, also call the 9/11 Generation, this group is described as optimistic and focused, respecting authority and having great expectations for themselves. With enormous academic pressure, these are the kids who are getting involved in politics, science and technology. They are writing smarter papers, expressing well-rounded viewpoints and are more socially tolerant. Expecting life to run 24/7, Generation Y is always “on” and generally chooses teamwork over individual pursuits.

BOOMLETS (or GENERATION Z) were born after 2001 and are just dipping their tiny toes in the water of creating an identity for themselves. However, this is the generation that will see the predicted majority shift in the United States from Caucasian to Hispanic. Already, four million of these children have cell phones and are leaving behind toys at a younger and younger age due to the growing presence of computers and web-based learning. It has been predicted that they may be the generation that experiences eco-fatigue—actually tiring of hearing about the environment and the many ways they may have to save it.

Now wasn’t that fun? As with every generation, stereotypes and pigeon-holes fit some and are a misfit for others. When studying these six generations, it is evident that each creates growing pains for the next; however, within each, great things may be accomplished. Linked by time and family and circumstances and history, taking up the challenge of moving forward, of learning the lessons from the past, and taking the best our ancestors have to offer, we have the kind of opportunity Americans thrive on: the opportunity to be independent—together. 

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