This week on the Good Faith podcast, Curtis Chang is joined by the world’s leading expert on generational distinctions, Dr. Jean Twenge, author of Generations: The Real Differences between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents—and What They Mean for America’s Future.
They discuss the six major generations shaping our society:
- the Silents, born 1925–1945
- Baby Boomers, born 1946–1964
- Gen X, born 1965–1979
- Millennials, born 1980–1994
- Gen Z, born 1995–2012
- and the still-to-be-named cohorts born after 2012.
What are we getting wrong about each of these generations?
This excerpt was lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
We live in a different world, and we have been shaped by different influences. Since your goal was to help generations understand each other better, what would you choose as this is the most important truth for somebody who’s not in that generation to grasp about that generation?
Yeah, that’s a great question.
Silents. I would say it’s that Silents were the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and the feminist movement, not boomers. So two most famous members of the silent generation, arguably, Martin Luther King and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Oh, interesting, you don’t think of them as the same generation.
So you think of those two people and the changes in equality that they worked on, and it really does show you how “the silent generation” is a real misnomer.
Boomers. A very common perception is that Boomers are all rich and powerful. That is absolutely not the case. There were lots and lots of Boomers who really struggled in the ’80s when there was transition to a service-based economy and away from a manufacturing economy. Boomers experienced many of them when they were young adults and heading into their 30s at a time when it was too late to change course. They had to kind of change things midstream. If you were born in 1950, and you started work at a factory, and then all of a sudden, all those steel mills in Pittsburgh, for example, were going away, then what did you do next?
There’s this common narrative that Boomers made all this money, were really successful, and then pulled the ladder up so the millennials couldn’t climb it. But boomers were really, in many ways, the first victims of income inequality and the changes in the economy, not the perpetrators, because these things happened before they were in power.
Gen X. So I’ll tell you, even though I’m a Gen Xer, that was, in some ways, the hardest chapter to write.
We got labeled in the early ’90s with this label. Gen X is an unknown quantity, and we’re still kind of that way. We’re still ignored. We’re still sort of misunderstood. We’re still sandwiched between these two bigger generations. Even digging into the data, there were certainly some distinctive characteristics, but it was harder to really nail down how Gen Xers are unique. What captures it the best: we were the generation, the last generation to have an analog childhood.
Yeah, we were writing letters. We were still reading maps.
It’s not even just that we didn’t have smartphones, there was no social media, there was no internet. There were video games, but they were pretty primitive. It was an analog childhood. One outgrowth of that is that we were also more or less the last full generation to have a unified pop culture experience.
If you want to start making conversation with a Gen Xer who you don’t know, you ask them about Saturday morning cartoons or what TV they loved growing up. Oh God, it was so awful. But we have these fun childhood memories.
If I start humming “The Brady Bunch” tune, everybody hums along.
And there’s nothing like that for my kids’ generation. It’s so atomized, like, everybody’s watching different TikTok videos or YouTube channels and it’s just not that unified experience.
Do you think that explains one reason why my generation is so troubled and puzzled by this sort of social disintegration that’s happening? Because we experienced society as having a cohesive whole. We experienced your trusted news sources are these three major news channels. So to have a generation come up behind us that just rejects this cohesion is so threatening to us.
I think so. A lot of the issues on free speech and cancel culture break between Gen X and millennials. That shows up in the data too. That’s not just a guess. So it’s it is somewhat of a transition, but that does seem to be where the break is.
Millennials. Millennials are actually doing very well financially. That’s very counter to the narrative that you hear. The “broke Millennial,” or that they’re going to be the first generation who’s not going to do as well as their parents. The evidence for that is now gone. I mean, certainly, the Great Recession had a huge impact, and younger adults were not doing that well during that period. But after that, median incomes roared back, at least as of 2020, home ownership among millennials is only a couple of percentage points lower than it was for Gen Xers or Boomers at the same age.
It’s a really small difference compared to the huge perception of that. And those median incomes, those are corrected for inflation. So yes, it’s true, that the cost of housing has outstripped inflation, but other things are less expensive. That’s what it means to correct for inflation. I think that’s not often acknowledged. Yes, there are some things that are more expensive, but there’s other things like toys, furniture, computers, and pretty much all consumer electronics, that actually cost less. It averages out. And so even corrected for inflation, millennials are doing better. And the St. Louis Fed has looked at wealth, and they had said a few years ago, “Ooh, millennials are falling way behind.” They’re not anymore. They have caught up.
There are challenges. The cost of childcare is a huge one. Because a lot of these income gains have been in the incomes of women. I mean, pretty much all of that increase, it’s from women. So then heterosexual couples, okay, they want to have a child. Then if they’re both going to keep up that income, they have to pay for childcare. That’s a huge challenge.
We have to acknowledge that there are some caveats to this.
Gen Z. If we’re going to focus on one thing for Gen Z, it really has to be mental health. The increases in depression for teens and now young adults are just so huge, so stunning, so concerning. The generation acknowledges that. They are very vocal about paying attention to mental health. it’s not just because they’re more comfortable talking about it, it’s because more actually are suffering. Not just from reports of symptoms, but sadly, also from objective measures of behavior like self-harm and suicide.
Photo by Taylor Grote on Unsplash
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Curtis Chang is the founder of Redeeming Babel.
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