Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Our Generation, part 2

Okay, I posted Neil Howe's piece on our generation the other day, and I promised to give my opinion. I've been intrigued by Howe and his late writing partner William Strauss' series of books on American generations for many years now. This Post article is largely based on the conclusions reached in their Generations book.

At first, I was insulted. (I also didn't care for the unnecessary dig at Sarah Palin. Somehow, it's always Democrats like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama who are the smart ones, while Republicans, like Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Sarah Palin are simpletons.) I think he overemphasized the importance of test scores and college graduation levels as a measure of intelligence.

But, frankly, as a generation, our parents kind of dropped the ball. I think a lot of them were seduced by the lure of the Seventies "freedoms" in areas of sex, drugs, and the like. They let their kids get away with way too much. Remember the smoking areas that our parents and school officials set aside for high school kids who wanted to smoke. Their attitude was that the kids were going to smoke anyway, so let's get it out in the open. (See the Wolf Print articles and my earlier comments on the 70's smoking area debate.) Basically, parents gave up on us because they bought into the notions espoused by the cultural leaders of the day. Certainly, not all parents bought into this, but we have to admit that enough did for it to have an impact on our birth cohort.

But looking a little closer at Howe's piece caused me to largely agree with him. I like his concluding paragraphs which demonstrate that we have learned from our parents failures and will seek to lead our own children to great success.

Most early Xers know the score. Graduating (or not) from school in the early 1980s, they saw themselves billboarded as a bad example by blue-ribbon commissions eager to reform the system for the next generation, the Millennials. Angling for promotions in the early 1990s, they got busy with self-help guides (yes, those "For Dummies" books) to learn all the subjects they were never taught the first time around. And today, as midlife parents, they have become ultra-protective of their own teenage kids and ultra-demanding of their kids' schools, as if to make double-certain it won't happen again.

Does America need to worry that this group is taking over as our national leaders? Probably not. Early Xers have certain strengths that many more learned people lack: They're practical and resilient, they handle risk well, and they know how to improvise when even the experts don't know the answer. As the global economy craters, they won't keep leafing through a textbook. They may be a little rough around the edges, but their style usually gets the job done.

Just don't tell the early Xers that today's youth are the dumbest generation. Not only is that jibe factually untrue, it also calls into question all the family sacrifices the early Xers are now making on behalf of these youth. Let Generation Jones keep the "dumbest" label. They know it fits, and they're tough enough to take it.

Frankly, I'm proud to be from a group that is resilient and knows how to improvise rather than the one that posted the highest SAT scores!


Anonymous said...

I also read that Howe op-ed in WaPo on Sunday, and must respectfully disagree with you; i found it utterly inaccurate, and offensive. I am proud to be part of Generation Jones (born ’54-’65, between the Baby Boomers and Generation X), and have been very happy to see so many prominent journalists and experts talking about Generation Jones in the national media. I am really offended by Howe's years of trying to undermine our long-lost generation (the reason Howe keeps trying to undermine GenJones is that Howe's theory doesn't allow for the fact that most generational experts now view generations as shorter than the traditional 20 years which Howe's theories depend on).

If you have a chance, read the comments on the Washinton Post site responding to this op-ed; I was happy to see lots of people defending Generation Jones. Here's one of many comments posted there which captured some of the anger with, and disappointment in, Howe, comment from ‘CultureAndPeople’...

"As someone who has studied generations for years, I must say that I’m very surprised that Neil Howe would go this far when it comes to attacking GenJones. It’s well-known to many of us in the field that he has felt very threatened by the whole GenJones thing, but you’ve got to get over it, Neil! Generations are getting shorter, there is a Generation Jones. Instead of embarrassing yourself trying to diss it, just figure out a way to adapt your theory to include the shortening of generations. Your theories can co-exist with GenJones; figure it out.

This article takes the cake when it comes to your attempts to diss GenJones. Using ridiculously bad science to try to position GenJones as “The Dumbest Generation”?! Wow. Feels over the top to me.

First, Neil, framing this generation as “dumb”?! As you know, dumbness is another way of saying “low intelligence”. What evidence do you have that Jonesers are less intelligent?! If Jonesers were the “victims” of ineffective educational experiments, less attentive parents, a souring national mood toward youth, etc., etc., etc., on what basis does that make them less intelligent? You might more plausibly say that they are, for example, less knowledgeable (although I believe that would also be untrue), but to characterize them as “dumb”?

You might also frame this in a positive light; for example, showing how Jonesers have overcome these enormous obstacles to get where they’ve gotten (e.g. wealthiest generation in the country). But instead, framing them as the dumbest generation?!

And the evidence you use to try to make this case makes my jaw drop. Take the SAT comparison you make as one example; how could you write this with a straight face? I find it hard to believe that you are not aware that: students now do all kinds of SAT prep that they didn’t do in the 70s/80s, that SAT scores were re-normed in the 1990s which significantly inflated the scores, making any comparisons obvious apples to oranges, the relevant varying admission standards (including the 1970s admissions de-emphasis of SAT’s) affecting SAT scores, the fact that it was the ACT, rather than the SAT, that “smart” teens took in the 70s/80s, and all the other reasons why your SAT comparisons are completely absurd.

In addition to your faulty SAT comparison, this article is filled with similarly ridiculous “evidence”. Are you so desperate to diss Generation Jones lest it hurt your business, that it’s worth cheapening your name this way?

And given the dire situation our nation now finds itself in, and given that it is primarily GenJones, starting with Obama and most of his main appointments, who we are looking to lead us through these difficulties, do you really need to use the platform which you’ve built to try to position this new generation of leadership as the Dumbest Generation? Couldn’t you at least wait until they are sworn in and have a little time to try to lead before you launch this kind of attack?

With all respect, Neil, it feels to me like you are putting your own selfish personal goals ahead of the country’s interests at a dangerous moment in our national history. William Strauss deserved better than this, Neil."

John B. Ramsey said...


Thank you for the comment. I had not visited the Post site nor had I ever heard of the term "Generation Jones." Where does that term come from? I'll need to do a little more research. I was not aware of the strong feelings on the issue.

I first learned of Strauss and Howe in 1991, and was glad that someone finally recognized that Baby Boomers born in 1946 were a lot different than ones born in 1961. At least they attempted to define the generation by more than just the birthrate.

I don't think there is any reason to be angry, though. The flaws of my generation really would be laid at our parents feet. I think that the comment you have posted by "CultureAndPeople" erroneously characterizes Howe as waging an attack on our generation. In the end, Howe's conclusion was fairly favorable to our generation, I thought.

I do think he erred and tried to sensationalize by using that term "Dumbest Generation." And I do agree that "CultureAndPeople" makes a valid point about Howe's misuse of scientific data and especially the faulty comparison of SAT scores between eras.