Identifying and naming a generation, as I've already noted, is neither entirely a science nor entirely an art. It's not just a question merely of demographics or world events, nor is it just a matter of identifying cultural touchstones. As a result, identifying and naming a generation is always and inevitably semi-malarkey, or "bullshit." And since nobody is better at bullshitting than marketers, business consultants, and lifestyle trend journalists, we tend to buy into their generational periodization schemes. That is to say, we mistakenly regard their claims as natural, inevitable, unquestionable.
Neil Howe and William Strauss * -- authors of "Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069" (1991), among other popular books ** -- have been highly successful at convincing us to accept their semi-arbitrary theories about American generations. They have described themselves as authorities on "generational change in American history," and what they produce is not entirely unlike scholarship; but it also savvily combines marketing, business consulting, and lifestyle trend journalism. *** Which is to say, what they produce is bullshit. And I don't mean that as a pejorative. Because what they write is entertaining! And it's not entirely incorrect, or untrue.
My own generational theory is bullshit, too; but it's less incorrect and more entertaining than Howe and Strauss's bullshit. At least, I think so. Which is why I'm still trying to convince you, readers, to listen to me, not them.
What's wrong with Howe and Strauss's generational periodization? I'll tell you!
According to H&S, there were five US generations born in the past century:
1901-24: GI Generation
1925-42: Silent Generation
1961-1981: 13th Generation (i.e., the 13th generation to know the US flag)
I'd argue that there were actually 10 generations born in the past century. See this handy chart:
BRAINIAC'S GUIDE TO AMERICA'S RECENT GENERATIONS
Lost Generation The New Kids
Lost Generation Hardboiled Generation
The Greatest Generation Partisans
The Greatest Generation The New Gods
The Silent Generation Postmodernist Generation
The Silent Generation Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation
1944-53: Baby Boomers
Baby Boomers OGX (Original Generation X)
Generation X PC Generation
Generations X/Y Net Generation
Please credit Brainiac/Joshua Glenn whenever you use this guide. Got a beef with my periodization, or different generational name suggestions? Leave a comment on this post or email me. Born between 1954 and 1993 and still unsure about whether you're a Boomer, Xer, Yer, or Millennial? Here's a handy guide.
More importantly, Howe and Strauss lump two generations together within each of their generations; even though they concede that some Americans born during the Boom (1946-64) share "political and cultural patterns very different from the Boomers," they're not willing to admit that two generations were born during the Boom: Boomers and Xers.
Let's take a look at the so-called Silent Generation (1925-42). According to my periodization, there are two distinct generations lumped together here: Postmoderns (1924-33) and Anti-Anti-Utopians (1934-43). Today, I'll discuss the Postmoderns.
Postmoderns -- who were in their teens and 20s in the Forties (1944-53, from the end of WWII to the end of Korea; not to be confused with the '40s), and their 20s and 30s in the Fifties (1954-63, from Elvis to the Beatles; not to be confused with the '50s) -- were mostly too young to fight in World War II. They came of age in the postwar years, the early Cold War era. The Soviet dominance over eastern Europe, the Soviet blockade of Berlin, and the threat of apocalyptic nuclear war made it an anxious era; the atmosphere on the domestic front was charged with paranoia. At the same time, African Americans were challenging segregation, a new youth culture was emerging (with new forms of pop music), and sociologists, social critics, poets, writers, and comedians were critiquing US society.
Why "Postmoderns"? Because, in Europe, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Michel de Certeau, Pierre Bourdieu, Louis Marin, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, J.G. Ballard, Luce Irigaray, Christian Metz, Guy Debord, Hélène Cixous, Umberto Eco, and Paul Virilio were all born between 1924-33. In America: Philip K. Dick, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Andy Warhol, J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, Richard Rorty, and Susan Sontag. These thinkers and authors identified and diagnosed a new sociocultural condition -- one in which fixed, universal categories and certainty were replaced by difference, process, and anomaly. Postmoderns argued against "scientific" rationality and unitary theories of truth and progress; instead, they emphasized the ambivalence and indeterminacy and "undecidability" of things. Using "deconstructive" methods, they discovered and celebrated what they claimed was the eclecticism and hybridity lurking just beneath the modernist illusion of conceptual unity and institutional integrity.
This is not to argue that everyone born from 1924-33 is a postmodernist theorist! But members of this generation grew up in a world in which two world wars, the Holocaust, the Stalinist Gulag, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated the carnage and destruction that the modernist rhetoric of progress is capable of creating. If their elders (e.g., the New York Intellectuals) abandoned utopianism (the dream of a momentous, rational, all-encompassing change in the human condition, achieved through the revolutionary transformation of society), Postmoderns went even further, and repudiated the archetype of modernity as a force for unmitigated progress. Some of those who lost faith in Progress became conservatives; others (with the notable exception of those involved in the Civil Rights movement) balanced progressive concerns with irony, absurdism, and apocalypticism. Their (anti-totalitarian) destabilizing and de-essentializing of orthodoxies led Postmoderns to question whether there is any longer a meaningful basis for collective agreement or action. So, wedged between the activist Greatest and Boomer Generations, they seemed "silent."
Meet the Postmoderns:
* Noam Chomsky, George Plimpton, Nathan Glazer, Andy Warhol, Robert Pirsig, J. Hillis Miller, Jason Epstein, Geoffrey Hartman, Jules Feiffer, Milton Glaser, Samuel P. Huntington, Robert Silvers, Tom Wolfe, Anton LaVey, Norman Podhoretz, Jasper Johns, Harold Bloom, Jimmy Breslin, Jim Jones, Richard Rorty, Dan Rather, Susan Sontag, Michael Novak.
* Bill Haley, B.B. King, Sammy Davis Jr., Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Chuck Berry, Eartha Kitt, Stan Getz, Harry Belafonte, Fats Domino, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Bill Evans, Chet Baker, Ornette Coleman, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, George Jones, Ike Turner, Johnny Cash, Tiny Tim, Patsy Cline, Little Richard, Quincy Jones, James Brown
* Johnny Carson, Art Buchwald, Jerry Lewis, Don Rickles, Mel Brooks, Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, Jackie Mason, Dick Gregory, Carol Burnett, Stan Freberg
* Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Paul Mazursky, Elaine May, Stan Brakhage
* Truman Capote, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin, John Barth, Rod Serling, Flannery O'Connor, William Styron, Harper Lee, Allen Ginsberg, Cormac McCarthy, Gary Snyder, Poul Anderson, Philip Levine, Robert Rauschenberg, Maya Angelou, Claes Oldenburg, Anne Sexton, Peter Matthiessen, Cynthia Ozick, E.L. Doctorow, Toni Morrison, Thom Gunn, Donald Barthelme, Robert Anton Wilson, Gay Talese, John Updike, Robert Coover, John Gregory Dunne, Sylvia Plath, Philip Roth, Ed McBain, Wally Wood, Steve Ditko, Alex Toth, Gil Kane, Joe Kubert, Frank Frazetta, Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Don Martin
* Martin Luther King Jr., Alexander Haig, Malcolm X, Robert F. Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, Ethel Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, William F. Buckley Jr., Edward Abbey, Coretta Scott King
* Lee Marvin, Marlon Brando, Buddy Hackett, Don Knotts, Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, Rod Steiger, Tony Curtis, Donald O'Connor, Dick Van Dyke, George Kennedy, Audrey Meadows, Cloris Leachmann, Andy Griffith, Marilyn Monroe, Fred Gwynne, Sidney Poitier, Peter Falk, George C. Scott, James Garner, James Coburn, George Peppard, Gene Hackman, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Gena Rowlands, Robert Duvall, James Earl Jones, James Dean, Anne Bancroft, Debbie Reynolds, Anthony Perkins, Robert Vaughn, Gene Wilder
* Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Buzz Aldrin
We'll get to the Anti-Anti-Utopians soon. Until then, I invite your emails and comments.
Note that Postmoderns like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Claes Oldenburg reacted against then-dominant ideas of abstract expressionism in the arts -- Abstract Expressionism was pioneered by the Partisan generation -- and created the first postmodern art, characterized by themes and techniques drawn from advertising, comic books, and other areas pop culture. Honorary Postmodern: Roy Lichtenstein (1923).
UPDATE: Authors of books described by the New York Times Book Review in 2006 as "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years": Toni Morrison (1931, for "Beloved"); John Updike (1932, for the four "Rabbit" novels); Philip Roth (1933, for "American Pastoral," "The Counterlife," "Operation Shylock," "Sabbath's Theater," "The Human Stain," and "The Plot Against America"); and Cormac McCarthy (1933, for "Blood Meridian," and the Border Trilogy); Norman Rush (1933, for "Mating"). Now, Updike, Roth, and McCarthy aren't usually lumped in with their pomo peers like Philip K. Dick, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Robert Coover. But even if they aren't destabilizing novelistic conventions with ironic antirealism, Updike, Roth, and McCarthy appear to agree that something's gone awry with the technologically advanced, prosperous, contented, triumphalist liberal democracy that is postwar America; they lack (and mock/mourn) the virile can-do spirit of some of their immediate predecessors; and their protagonists are beset with anxiety-provoking tensions, uncertainties, paradoxes that can never be resolved. By a postwar liberal, anyway: No wonder Carter seemed so hapless!
Regarding Morrison, I've found that African-Americans born before the mid-1960s typically don't fit the characteristics of either my generational scheme or the taken-for-granted one. Strauss and Howe do admit, sotto voce, that their history of American generations is actually a history of Anglo-American generations. As far as I can tell, it's only in the past 30 years that Anglo- and African-American cultures have slightly merged. And regarding Rush, I've never read any of his novels, so I won't comment on them.
* William Strauss died earlier this month.
** Also by Howe and Strauss: "13th Gen : Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?" (1993), "The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy" (1997), "Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation" (2000), "Millennials Go to College: Strategies for a New Generation on Campus" (2003), "Millennials and the Pop Culture: Strategies for a New Generation of Consumers" (2006), "Millennials Go to College: 2nd Edition" (2007), and "Millennials Go to College Surveys and Analysis: From Boomer to Gen-X Parents, 2006 College Student and Parent Surveys" (2007).
*** Strauss was a humorist -- he founded the Capitol Steps satirical troupe -- which helps explain the media-friendly quality of their "research." Together, Howe and Strauss founded LifeCourse Associates, which (among other things) helps businesses market products and services to members of the demographic cohorts they've identified as Boomers, Xers, and Millennials.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.