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The generation game

August 19th, 2003

Ken Parish has been playing the generation game (in this case, Baby Boomer vs Gen X) with Paul Watson an avid boomer-basher. A good time was had by all, as usual.

I don’t want to interrupt anyone’s fun, but I thought it might be worth pointing out that as a device for explaining social trends, the idea of a ‘generation’ is almost totally useless*. Nowhere is this more true than when it’s used with reference to ‘baby boomers’.

Among the obvious problems with this concept are the facts that

  • Most of the people thought of as archetypal boomers weren’t born during the baby boom (examples: John Lennon 1940-80 and Mick Jagger 1943- )
  • Most people born during the baby boom entered the labour force during a period of high youth unemployment and have experienced high rates of unemployment ever since

To satisfy all the standard cliches about baby boomers you would have to be simultaneously over 60 (to be a contemporary of Lennon and Jagger) and under 35 (to be among the last to get a free university education in Australia).

I did a more lengthy analysis of the generation game in the Fin a few years back which I’ll post soon.

* For some limited technical purposes, the related concept of a ‘cohort’ is useful, if handled with care.

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  1. Homer Paxton
    August 19th, 2003 at 10:33 | #1

    John,
    You have just destroyed all the careers of social researchers.
    Hugh MacKay will sue!

  2. August 20th, 2003 at 10:12 | #2

    John, you make some valid points re the over-stretched age range of the boomer stereotype. Continuing the theme, today’s news brings a case of the Ă£Geriatric (almost) Gen Xerä. At 45, Michael Tuckey is apparently so impecunious (a $193 fine would have “severely financially disadvantaged” him) that he needed bailing out by mum and dad (the 200 buck occasional bail-out being a Gen X membership token, par excellence).

  3. James Farrell
    August 20th, 2003 at 15:13 | #3

    I would love to see a moratorium on the term baby boomer. When a genuinely interesting demographical discovery is being described, well and good. But as far as I can see, in opinion columns, letters to the editor and so on, the term is seldom much more than a synonym for middle aged. Accordingly, the polemic that invokes the concept is limited, for the most part, to variations on the banal observation that middle-aged people tend to have more wealth and power than the young or the elderly.

  4. August 20th, 2003 at 21:34 | #4

    To paraphrase the hoary old chestnut from genomics: there is more difference within a demographic gen (or cohort) than there is between them.
    Thus Osama Bin Laden is a baby boomer, Bill Gates and as is Pro Quiggin (and me).
    But the differences between social strata, whether age, class, race, gender, sect, region or culture-related are what interests researchers because they are deemed significant for the subject under investigation – which is a qualitative and subjective judgement.
    Generational strata seem to be relevant for the study of the patterns of consumption and use of age-related goods and services.

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