"And that's whats wrong with Bart's generation. Now, as for your generation . . ." - Abe "Grampa" Simpson
The Baby Boom that followed the Great Depression and World War II was a genuinely unique demographic phenomenon. Not only was the country suddenly prosperous and peaceful (well, mostly) after sixteen years of depression and war, but a rapid expansion of public health measures cut the child mortality rate by roughly two-thirds from the 1930s-1950s. More people than ever were eager to have kids and more of those kids survived.
It famously ballooned the population, and created a "generation" that was unlike anything that came before it. But, I'm sorry to report to everyone who writes generational posts, columns, and articles, it was a one time event. Subsequently nicknamed generations, most famously "Generation X" and "the Millennials", are figments of imagination elevated to reality by columnists and pundits desperate for material.
Grade school arithmetic is all one needs to see this. The chart below plots both total births (the blue columns) against the actual birth rate (the yellow line).
Numbers taken from here, original data from the Department of Health and Human Services.
A few things become immediately apparent:
- The Baby Boom was gargantuan. If the birthrate in 1990 (16.7) had been the same as it was in 1960 (23.7), there'd have been an extra 1.8 million kids born in 1990 alone.
- The drop off from the Boom was precipitous. The delta in the birth rate from 1965-1970 was -5.3 per 1,000 people. That's more variation than has happened in the entire time since 1970 (-3.7 per 1,000 people).
- The birth rate settled into its current range in the mid-1970s (thanks, abortion & contraception!) and has only very gently fluctuated since.
In 1950, well before the wave reached its peak, there were 3.6 million births in the United States. In 1980, long after the wave had crashed, there were also 3.6 million births. The difference is that in 1950 there were only 150 million people in the country; in 1980 there were 225 million for the same number of births. In other words, proportional to the population at the time, the high school class of 1968 contained three (3) graduating seniors for every two (2) in the class of 1998. That's how big the Baby Boom was, it was like taking every high school class in America and making it bigger by 50% for a decade and a half.
Pew Research made the perfect .gif of this back in 2014:
Even the projections for the 2050s show the Boomers sticking well out over their kids.
It took the country until the year 1990 (4.18 million) to get back above the total of live births in 1964 (4.03 million). And that total quickly slipped back under 4 million for much of the 1990s. By contrast, the Boomers hit 4 million+ per year consecutively from 1954-1964 in a country that had a hundred million less people in it.
By contrast, tiny, statistically and socially insignificant blips account for all of "Generation X/Y", "Echo Boomers", "Millennials", and all the other shoddy nicknames about which so many words have been spilled. Here's Boomer uber-show 60 Minutes from 2004:
Born between 1982 and 1995, there are nearly 80 million of them, and they're already having a huge impact on entire segments of the economy. And as the population ages, they will be become the next dominant generation of Americans.
The birthrate in 1982 was 15.9/1,000. In 1995 is was 14.8/1,000. The average in that span was 15.7/1,000. There's a slight gentle up, then a slight gentle down, and drawing any kind of meaning from that is like seeing the Virgin Mary in a urinal cake. Sure, there are some lines there, but they don't necessarily mean anything.
1982-2004 is just a arbitrary range that happened to coincide with people who were 9-22 in 2004. But someone born in 1982 had a childhood that had a lot more in common (culturally speaking) with someone born in 1977 than with someone born in 1995, or even 1990. The set CBS and so many other outfits use to premise their arguments is devoid of any rationale other than speculation.
It's true that generational conflict makes for good copy. Adults have been praising and complaining about younger versions of themselves for about as long as the written word has existed, it's an evergreen topic: The Kids Today. They can be lazy or hardworking, innovative or surprisingly traditional, the future of liberalism or punk conservatives, it doesn't really matter what the exact idea is or what the equally shaky counter argument will inevitably be. It's all generalizations anyway.
The boring reality is that anyone born after about 1970 or so has a lot more in common with someone +-5 years of their age than they do with someone ten years or more away whose birth year happens to fit in such vague ranges as one sees in think pieces and trend articles. Here's the Paywalled Lady from just last year pushing the equally spurious "Generation Z":
Generational study being more art than science, there is considerable dispute about the definition of Generation Z. Demographers place its beginning anywhere from the early ’90s to the mid-2000s. Marketers and trend forecasters, however, who tend to slice generations into bite-size units, often characterize this group as a roughly 15-year bloc starting around 1996, making them 5 to 19 years old now. (By that definition, millennials were born between about 1980 and 1995, and are roughly 20 to 35 now.)
That article quotes some teenagers, a bunch of "innovation" consultants, and a couple of demographers who don't agree on anything. It is meaningless, a transparently shambolic framework whose only real purpose is to allow as many unsupported generalizations as possible. To give you an idea of just how vacuous this is, the Generation Z article on Wikipedia (yes, there is one) starts:
Generation Z (also iGen, Post-Millennials, Centennials, or Plurals)
That is bullshit stacked on bullshit. The Boom was real. Everything else is just marketing for ideas that can't withstand even the gentlest scrutiny.
Unless we end up in Children of Men, the simple fact is that there will always be 13-year-olds who speak incomprehensible slang and 18-year-olds who do childish shit in adult sized bodies. There will always be 23-year-olds who are starting to find their footing and 28-year-olds who are finally becoming real adults.
Baby Diego was a wanker.
The non-existence of other generational cohorts when compared to the Baby Boom does not, of course, excuse the extra large proportion of assholes that the Boomers seem to have nurtured and promoted among their own. Nor does it lessen the real ways that people are divided by age. But if you're reading an article that uses the word "millennial" with anything but derision, it's best to close the browser tab, ditto the less often sighted but still active "Generation X". And when bloviators eventually settle on a term for kids born this century (one of them has to generate the most pageviews, right?), ignore that too.
Boomer is a real word that means something. Every other generational nickname is horseshit.