Greeting me as I walked through the door at Urban Outfitters today was a book on display, X vs. Y: A Culture War, A Love Story. It compares and contrasts the two generations, mostly from the vantage point of the media experiences of their formative years. (Here is the book's website, and here are some excerpts.)
That right there is overlooking some of the major differences, since Millennials prefer things and virtual reality over people and real life. Much of what makes Gen X different was their largely unmediated upbringing. And not because of technological change — they had TV, movies, novels, magazines, comic books, video games, portable music players, etc. They just didn't live their entire lives in the world of media.
Those are the most striking changes I've documented over the past three or four years, off and on. Not hanging out with friends to play a sport, not getting a driver's license, not interacting with the opposite sex, not passing along folk / oral culture (schoolyard songs, games, urban legends), not spending your childhood outside, and so on. What cartoons were like then and now — sure, that's changed too, but that's not primary.
At any rate, the book seemed like a decent read from only having flipped through and skimmed pieces. It's not meant as an academic or journalistic book that treats things at an abstract level. It's almost all nitty-gritty details about what makes the two generations (mostly) different or (sometimes) similar, across a variety of cultural domains.
The authors are half-sisters born 14 years apart, one in '71 or '72, the other in '85 or '86. The co-authorship and family relationship makes the tone more sympathetic toward the other side — whether they deserve it or not. And it's not one of those generic, lazy tones that reassure us we're all formed from the same mold, just somewhat differently. They recognize and detail how different the gens are, they are just trying to make love, not war. Given how different — how opposite — the two groups are, though, that's a bit naive.
The older sister, Eve, is at the ground zero of her generation, but her sister Leonora is one of the earliest Millennials and probably not the most representative. Seems to me you need to get to late '80s / early '90s births before they feel more palpably Millennial. This is another weakness of the sister-sister co-authorship — to get a prototypical member of each gen would have required the younger author to be born about 5 years later. On the other hand, it's worth having a younger author who is still old enough to get reflective about the course of their generation's experiences.
I was surprised to see, at the very beginning of the book where they define their terms, that they echo my take on those born between '79 and '84. Canonical Gen X ends at '78 births for me, and I used to distinguish the '79-'84 cohort as Gen Y, with Millennials coming after them. But it seemed silly to have such a small "generation," so I just lumped them in with Gen X. Nothing unusual about sub-grouping within a gen — look at the early and later Boomers, for instance.
Why not lump them in with Millennials on the other side? I dunno, they just don't fall that way when you push them. The authors make the same claim, having asked around to lots of folks in that mini-range of Gen X. So I'm not the only member of that cohort who's noticed that we are more like peripheral, Johnny-come-lately X-ers, not really our own gen, and DEFINITELY not part of the Millennials.
We feel uncomfortable with our designated membership, not because we have beef with (canonical) X-ers, but because we always thought of "Generation X" as the cool older kids when we were 13 or 14, not us. Perhaps that was the influence of Gen X as advertising brand rather than as social group.
The '79-'84 cohort is distinguished by going through puberty right at the moment when the entire social-cultural momentum was grinding to a halt, and swinging back in the opposite direction, circa 1992. These folks spent half of their formative years (childhood) in the good old days, but another half (adolescence) in the Nineties. And yet they are not evenly pulled in both directions — they are more akin to people who went through puberty in 1982 than in 2002.
Evidently, childhood exerts a stronger influence on the developing, impressionable brain. Language is an obvious example, and also fits with the theme of socialization, a child figuring out what his community's norms are and fitting in with them. Switching languages at age 13 is not impossible, but is not easy, and will leave an accent.
Actually, the language analogy understates how hard it is because it's not like your first language was somehow the opposite of the second language. Most of the norms you're internalizing fall on a continuum, and they were swinging from one extreme toward that other during the early-to-mid-'90s. We're expected to be interested in people — no, just kidding! Interested in things! We're supposed to be sincere and open — no, just kidding! Ironic and closed-off! Girls are boy-crazy — no, just kidding! They suspect you all as crypto date-rapists! And so on.
I'm at a loss to convey just how dizzying of a mind-fuck that changing-gears period was for someone undergoing the transition from childhood to adolescence. Childhood experiences are supposed to prepare you for adolescence, so you can hit the social ground running. Then right as you're about to hit the ground, down becomes up, hot becomes cold, near becomes far.