Generation X are disappearing

Hugo Rifkind had an article in The Times today about being a Xennial (too old to be a Millennial, too young for Generation X), and I sent him the following tweet as a reply:

Hugo and 77 other people (so far) were kind enough to like it, so I thought I’d elaborate a bit on my theory.

A lot of the stuff about the Baby Boomers, Generation X and the Millennials can be traced back to Howe and Strauss’s Generations from 1991. This book examined earlier American generations and claimed to identify a four-generation cycle. They then defined the new generations that were emerging at the time and tried to predict their future very roughly. In particular, they expected a huge crisis once the Baby-Boomers had started to retire (perhaps around 2020), which Generation X would sort out and then hand over power to the Millennials.

This is clearly not what happened – the crises (9/11 + the financial crash) happened much sooner than they expected, while the Baby-Boomers were still in office. They actually mentioned this possibility briefly on page 382:

What happens if the crisis comes early? What if the Millennium – the year 2000 or soon thereafter – provides Boomers with the occasion to impose their “millennial” visions on the nation and world? The generation cycle suggests that the risk of cataclysm would be very high.

Furthermore, in their historical analysis they clearly don’t assign a standard length to generations, so they would themselves have expected the generational boundaries in the 20th century to require some tweaking once the big defining events had taken place. It’s therefore completely in their spirit to revisit the definitions they suggested more than 25 years ago.

They actually don’t even stick to four generations per cycle all the time. What they call the Civil War Cycle contains only three. As they write on page 192:

[It is] America’s only three-part cycle – the one whose crisis came too soon, too hard, and with too much ghastly devastation. This cycle is no aberration. Rather, it demonstrates how events can turn out badly – and, from a generational perspective, what happens when they do.

I’m postulating that this has happened again. The crisis came so soon that at least half of Generation X hadn’t yet managed to get high enough up the housing ladder (or build up assets in other ways) to allow them to benefit from the asset boom that was a result of the financial crash. As a result we now have a huge split in most western societies: On the one hand, older people (Baby Boomers and older X’ers) often are asset-rich and have paid off most of their house, as well as having a good pension. Other members of this generation are less rich, but they might at least have a cheap council house that is affordable on their salary or their pension. On the other hand, younger people (Millennials and younger X’ers) don’t tend to have much wealth: They’re either renting in the private sector, or they’ve paid so much money for their house that a crazy amount of their salary is spent on the mortgage. They don’t have decent pensions, and they don’t really expect ever to be able to retire comfortably. They also typically grew up being told to expect a great and prosperous life, and they weren’t expecting things to turn out like this.

I was born in 1972, so right in the middle of Generation X, and I think we felt different from both the Baby Boomers and the Millennials before the financial crash. However, I now feel more and more similar to the Millennials, and further and further removed from the Boomers. So I think we might have to redefine the Baby Boomer generation as stretching all the way to the late 1960s, and the Millennials starting immediately afterwards. (I don’t believe it’s a clean break – whether somebody belongs in one generation or the other ultimately depends on whether they had enough assets when the economy collapsed.)

I think we can now also tell when the Millennial generation ended: The youngsters who don’t remember the time before the financial crash have a different mindset because they didn’t spend their childhood expecting a rich and easy life. They also happen to be the smartphone generation.

So to finish this blog post, let me redefine the generations as follows:

  • The Baby Boomers (too young to remember WWII, and old enough to have built up their wealth before the financial crash): Roughly 1940–1969.
  • The Car-Crash Generation (grew up expecting an easy life, but suddenly the rug got pulled away from under they feet): Roughly 1970–1999.
  • The Smartphone Generation (they don’t remember the easy years, and they live their lives through their smartphones): Roughly 2000–.

Hellenic Traders

The four Hellenic Traders books.
The four Hellenic Traders books.
I recently discovered Harry Turtledove’s “Hellenic Traders” series (written under the pseudonym Turteltaub).

The four books follow two cousins from Rhodes who sail around the eastern Mediterranean selling luxury goods between 310 and 307 BC. In the first book (“Over the Wine-Dark Sea”) they sail to Italy with peacocks, in the second one (“The Gryphon’s Skull”) they try to sail to Athens with the skull of a dinosaur but end up getting mixed up in the infighting amongst the Macedonian generals who took over after Alexander the Great instead, in the third one (“The Sacred Land”) they sail east, to Cyprus, Sidon and Jerusalem, and in the last one (“Owls to Athens”) they travel to Athens.

Turtledove’s style is — as usual — very repetitive. The good thing about this is that you really get Ancient Greek culture hammered in with sledgehammers (he has a Ph.D. in Byzantine history and is clearly very knowledgeable about Ancient Greece). After reading the books, you’ll never confuse opson and sitos, you’ll know exactly how much water to mix into the wine depending on the occasion, and you’ll know much more about the sexual mores of Ancient Greece than you ever wanted to know. I’m sure I’ve learnt much more from reading these books than from the obligatory high school course in Greek culture (“oldtidskundskab” in Danish). The bad thing is you get utterly fed up with the same (at first vaguely amusing) lines being repeated ad nauseam; you might have to skip these bits to stay sane unless you have the memory span of a goldfish.

The last book doesn’t feel like the last book of the series. They’re dropping hints about travelling to Alexandria (the capital of Egypt) the following summer, Menedemos’ love life is in a crisis, and according to the history books, the Siege of Rhodes happened just two years later. Did Turtledove really intend to stop after four books, or did his publisher call an end to the series?

PS: The series has been reissued as e-books under Turtledove’s name, but you’ll pay more for these than for second-hand copies of the original hardcovers (linked to above).

The generation that got lost

Generation Y
Generation Y, a photo by dalechumbley on Flickr.
I’ve written about Howe and Strauss’s Generations before. It’s basically a theory that there are four basic types of generations that repeat in a cycle of about 80 years. For instance, today’s Generation Y (those born after 1982 or so) are supposed to exhibit many similarities to the generation born between 1900 and 1925.

They later produced a sequel called Millennials Rising. Written in 2000, it’s attempting to describe exactly this generation, and it’s failing miserably in many respects, because they’re basically describing a successful, heroic generation, something which doesn’t ring true when you look at all those youngsters saddled with student debt, living with their parents and trying to find a job in a world with sky-high youth unemployment.

I’ve been trying to figure out what went wrong, and I think the basic problem was that the Baby Boomers started running countries much earlier than Howe and Strauss expected (from 1990 to 2010 in the UK and from 1993 to 2008 in the US, rather than the projected 2000-2020). The effect was that they treated 9/11 as if this was a big, once-in-a-century cataclysmic event (although it could — and perhaps should — have been treated simply as a horrible act of terrorism, rather than the beginning of World War III).

As a result, when the Great Recession hit us in 2008, we were already sick and tired of the “Bomb, bomb, bomb!” Baby Boomers, and we duly elected Generation X leaders — such as Obama and Cameron — instead.

The result is drastic for Generation Y (called the Millennials by Howe and Strauss):

The Millennials’ Civic peer personality is not preordained. If the crisis comes too soon or (worse) unfolds badly, the Millennials will mirror the Progressives, a smart but hobbled generation that was later unable to realize the agenda of its Idealist elders. [p. 421]

Of course, the crisis didn’t really come too soon (unless one considers 9/11 to be the cyclic crisis called a turning by Howe and Strauss, rather than the Great Recession), but the fact that the Baby Boomers have been forced into retirement means that Generation Y cannot realise the agenda of the Boomers, so the effect is the same.

In effect, the Millennials are now a useless generation. Instead of being the willing soldiers for greying Baby Boomer leaders during the recession (and crises like Syria), they’re stuck with a frozen housing market (because Generation Y are risk-averse and won’t puncture the bubble), huge youth unemployment (which doesn’t bother Generation Y overly because most of us have got jobs and our kids aren’t looking for jobs yet) and many other problems.

Of course the Baby Boomers will eventually start dying off and vacating their expensive houses, but that could take another decade, and by then it could be too late for Generation Y. They will become the generation that never really got a good career and who never got to own their homes.

It’s good news, on the other hand, for the post-Y generation (let’s call them Generation Z). They were originally forecast to be a somewhat jaded generation, a bit like the generation preceding the Baby Boomers (the ones who were too young to fight in World War II but old enough to remember it), but now I predict they’ll be the new Baby Boomers: They’ll grow up with cheap houses and plenty of jobs, and with sharper elbows than Generation Y who thought participating was all that mattered. (As a parent, I’m already seeing signs that the schools are starting to toughen up a bit, but that’s perhaps better discussed in a separate blog post.)

Generation Y are starting to attract a lot of attention. Below, I’ve assembled some excerpts from various blog posts and newspapers articles.

Firstly, here are some comments from the London Evening Standard:

If you’re renting in Mile End, another surge in house prices is likely to fill you with despair, not elation. A teenager on a zero-hours contract in Enfield may wonder what he’s supposed to do with a 0.7 per cent rise in GDP, just as an unemployed history graduate in Woolwich will struggle to see how a new car plant in Solihull will help her job prospects. Meanwhile, a retiree in Richmond whose experiment with the buy-to-let market is paying off very nicely, thank you, may wonder what all this recession business is about.

To put it another way, any economic forecast is a generalisation that conceals huge inequalities and inequities. Generation Y (those born 1980-2000) have very good reason to feel that Osborne is describing a country to which they don’t belong.

After all, it is Britain’s young who are most likely to be trapped in the over-heated rental market, most likely to be on a zero-hours contract, most likely to use payday loan companies, most likely to have slaved under an unlawful “Workfare” scheme, and most likely to be unemployed even now.

According to the most recent statistics, there are 973,000 young people (16-24) still out of work. The figure rose by 15,000 in the last quarter, even as Osborne talks of a “game-changing” year for employment. And let’s not forget that four out of five jobs created during the Great Recession are in the lowest pay bracket. As the economy returns to “normal”, normal for this generation has shifted to something very different from their parents’ definition of the word.

The most striking shifts, however, are in attitudes. Iain Duncan Smith has persistently argued that this is an “X Factor generation” of “job-snobs” who believe that “success is not related to effort or work”. As Ed Howker and Shiv Malik note in their new edition of their book, The Jilted Generation, it seems that the young believe him. Surveys published this week show that Generation Y are more suspicious of welfare claimants than their parents — even though they are the most likely to be welfare claimants themselves. They are also more sympathetic to pensioners than to jobseekers — despite the fact that today’s pensioners are the richest ever to have lived.

The lessons Generation Y have drawn from the recession is that they are on their own. Their failures are their fault. Their successes need not be shared. Is this what Osborne had in mind all along?

Here’s an American commentator:

So what are millennials known for, so far? Well, to start with the obvious, we’re fucked financially. Anecdotes abound of millennials slaving away as unpaid interns and underpaid assistants, or slacking off as overqualified retail reps and baristas. “Generation Screwed,” Joel Kotkin called us in a thoroughly depressing July 2012 Newsweek feature that laid out the various headwinds holding us back: staggering levels of student debt (at least $25,000 on average, according to the latest reports); a 13.1 percent unemployment rate for 18- to 29-year-olds, compared to 7.9 percent nationally; and “a mountain of boomer- and senior-incurred debt … a toxic legacy handed over to offspring who will have to pay it off in at least three ways: through higher taxes, less infrastructure and social spending, and, fatefully, the prospect of painfully slow growth for the foreseeable future.”

And an article from the New York Times:

The millennials have developed a reputation for a certain materialism. In a Pew Research Center survey in which different generations were asked what made them unique, baby boomers responded with qualities like “work ethic”; millennials offered “clothes.” But, according to new data, even though the recession is over, this generation is not looking to gorge; instead, they are the kind of hungry that cannot stop thinking about food. “Call it materialism if you want,” said Neil Howe, an author of the 1991 book “Generations.” It seems more like financial melancholy. “They look at the house their parents live in and say, ‘I could work for 100 years and I couldn’t afford this place,’ ” Howe said. “If that doesn’t make you focus on money, what would? Millennials have a very conventional notion of the American dream — a spouse, a house, a kid — but it is not going to be easy for them to get those things.”

This condition is becoming particularly severe for the group that economists call younger millennials: the young adults who entered the job market in the wake of the recession, a period in which the unemployment rate among 20- to 24-year-olds reached 17 percent, when graduate school competition grew more fierce and credit standards tightened. Many also saw their parents struggle through a pay cut, a job loss or another economic disruption during the recession.


The millennials, in other polls, remain optimistic about their futures. Economists are less so. There is a persistent fear that they have entered a permanently lower earnings and savings trajectory. Even if the generation recovers, even if it ends up wealthier than the one before it, the scars will be deep and long-lasting. Kahn has started comparing recent graduates during the recent recession with recent graduates in the 1981-82 recession. She said the initial wage losses were comparable, and the trend looks set to repeat. “My inclination is pessimism,” Kahn said. “If anything, these guys might experience something worse.”

Other economists also envisioned a future in which millennials would spend less and save less. “I was talking with a mom who has a son in his mid-20s and told her the generation is not on the same wealth-building path,” said Signe-Mary McKernan, one of the authors of the Urban Institute study. “She had this look of terror on her face; our children are in trouble, and that’s such a worry for a parent. I told her, ‘Maybe this generation won’t have a worse life, but just a different life.’ ” And that may be true. Millennials are the best-educated generation ever. Their challenge may just be to preserve that advantage for their own children.

And finally:

Right now, most of the permanent underclass feels politically frozen: When one missed paycheck means descending into poverty without a safety net, unions and political activism seem like a low priority. Educated young people are frozen, too—caught in the privileged-poor paradox. Our meager (or nonexistent) paychecks incite righteous anger—especially when we think of our middle class parents’ luck at their age—but they also choke our very ability to organize, create, and take risks. As our wages fall, our degrees lose value, prices of food and rent rise, and workdays expand, we have less and less time to read a book, to join a rally in the next town over, to hop a bus to Washington, to even have a hours-long discussion about politics with our friends. Most Millennials aren’t starving, Great Depression-style, but they are starved for a low cost of living and a baseline of economic freedom.

It’ll be interesting to follow Generation Y over the next few years.

Matador, or documenting the recent past

I got the wonderful Danish TV series Matador (“Monopoly”, as in the board game) on DVD for Christmas.

It follows a range of characters in the fictional town of Korsbæk between 1929 and 1947. It was made in loving detail, so apart from being great TV, it also makes for great history lessons.

Obviously, by now few people can actually remember that time well, but when it was produced (1978-82), it was still relatively recent history. It was the idea of Lise Nørgaard, who was born in 1917, so she was basically documenting Denmark as she remembered it from she was 12 until she turned 30.

It would be a bit like if person born in 1953 came up with an idea for a TV series set between 1965 and 1983, to be produced between 2014 and 2018. If it was done really well, it’s likely people would still enjoy it in 2048.

I think it’d be equally compelling whether it was set in Denmark, in Scotland or somewhere else.

Britain and Scandinavia

The subject
Originally uploaded by Simon Collison

To what extent is Britain (or the British Isles) the same kind of construct as Scandinavia (or the Nordic countries)?

Both Britain and Scandinavia have a long and complex history, with periods of political unification and others with separate kingdoms and plenty of wars.

Scandinavia’s united period was a long time ago (1397–1523), while Britain only started falling apart when Ireland became independent again less than a century ago. On the other hand, the British Isles are to some extent more heterogenous than Scandinavia – the former is a mixture of Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Norman French, while the latter consists of the descendants of the Vikings with some Finns, Lapps and Germans thrown in.

In both cases in can be hard to pinpoint exactly what Britishness/Scandinavianness means. For instance, John Major’s description of Britishness – “Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and, as George Orwell said, ‘Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’” – is so clearly a description of England that does not apply to Scotland and Ireland. In the same way, it’s very hard to define Scandinavian culture in one sentence. And yet, Scandinavians do recognise the similarities intuitively, and Scandinavians abroad tend to hang out together, for instance at international conferences.

So there are definite similarities. And just as Scandinavia does exist in spite of having been separate countries for half a millennium, Britain will always exist whether Scotland becomes independent in 2014 or not. Actually, Scottish independence might actually lead to a reevaluation of the concept, so that it ceases to be about a political construct and starts being about what actually binds people on these islands together, whether they live in Ireland, Wales, Man, Scotland or England.

Historieforfalskning i Russangbogen!

Jeg opdagede rent tilfældigt, at Russerne synger 2005 – også kendt som Russangbogen – ligger på nettet i PDF-format.

Jeg sad med fornøjelse og bladede den igennem, mens jeg mindedes gamle dage, da jeg faldt over et eklatant eksempel på historieforfalskning.

På side 67 skriver de flg. om Vi har en lang vej hjem: “Denne sang har en fascinerende historie. Teksten blev en dag fundet på Mat/Fys-Studenterrådet. Da det tydeligvis var en sang, satte en flok gæve mennesker sig til at finde ud af, hvilken melodi, den var skrevet på. Det gør man ved at synge og synge indtil man opdager, at den passer som fod i handske på netop Kringsatt av fiender. God fornøjelse!”

Den sande historie er naturligvis, at da Jesper Andersen, Peter JC og undertegnede skulle lave Russangbog 1994, opdagede vi, at havde brug for en ny udgave af “Der er ingenting som maner” med noder til bagsiden. Vi gik derfor ned på biblioteket og ledte mange sangbøger igennem, til vi endelig fandt den rette bog.

Det var, mens vi sad på Kommunebiblioteket i Århus (og aldeles ikke på Studenterrådet, hvor jeg aldrig kom), at vi fandt den fremragende sang om at have en lang vej hjem. Vi kendte naturligvis også den oprindelige melodi, da der var noder i bogen, men vi mente ikke, den passede til teksten, hvorfor vi ganske rigtigt prøvede os frem, til vi fandt en bedre melodi. Som vi skrev i forsangen:

Vi fandt mange sange, vi nævner blot én,
som absolut ikke ku’ synges.
Vi gav den fluks en ny melodi
og nu kan den immervæk nynnes.

Are we living in 1848?

‘Writing of the European revolutions of 1848, for instance, one historian recently noted: “At the beginning of 1848 no one believed that revolution was imminent.”’ This is from an article in The Independent today, arguing that Western nations are now ripe for revolution.

I think it’s rather speculative, but as demonstrations inspired by the Arab Spring spread around the world, the idea is not so fanciful as to allow us to ignore the possibility that something dramatic could be happening soon.

We might soon find that we live in interesting times.