The new generation gap

December 11, 1992

Thirty years ago, the "generation gap" referred to the cultura clash between the great demographic fertility bulge of people born between 1943 and 1960 -- the "Baby Boomers" -- and the "GI Generation" (1901-1924) that fought WWII. Today, however, a new generation gap is emerging between the grown-up "Baby (( Boomers," now in their thirties and forties, and the teen-agers and twentysomethings of the age cohort just behind them.

fTC The experience of these younger Americans, the 13th generation counting back to the peers of Ben Franklin, has been markedly different from that of the Baby Boomers who preceded them, according to Neil Howe and William Strauss writing in the December issue of Atlantic magazine. Where the Baby Boomers came of age in an era of unprecedented prosperity and seemingly limitless opportunity, the so-called "Thirteeners" are struggling to make their way amid economic stagnation, a deteriorating environment and diminished expectations. Not surprisingly, many of them resent what they perceive as the mess their immediate predecessors have made of the world they will inherit.

The authors describe Thirteeners as a new "Lost Generation." When Boomers, who regard Thirteeners with a certain anxious condescension, think of them at all, they picture a group of academically incompetent, politically apathetic low-achievers who listen to heavy metal music, watch MTV and get their names in the news for things like wilding, date-rape, suicide pacts and hate crimes.

Thirteeners really are poorer, more alienated, less upwardly mobile than Boomers -- even the three quarters of Boomers who aren't yuppies. The Boomers at least managed to maintain the standard of living of their parents. Thirteeners are losing ground. They are the shock troops of the low-wage/low-benefit service economy, the children who can't afford to move out of their parents' houses after graduation. No wonder they're angry.

Nor is it surprising that relations between Boomers and Thirteeners are marked by a certain mistrust and mutual incomprehension. While Boomers wonder, "Why can't they be more like us?" Thirteeners, surveying the collapse of the social contract that lavished the good life on the earlier generation, are likely to reply, "Because by the time we got here you guys had ruined everything!"

Sometime in the next century, though, the rift will heal as Boomers and Thirteeners finally quit blaming each other and cooperate on behalf of the children being born today. And strange to say, around the year 2030 (if history is any guide) that new generation -- the by-then adult Millennials -- will suddenly appear to Boomers and Thirteeners alike as the last best hope for this poor world.

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