Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008

(Re)Generation

What a difference a generation can make in worldview.

I am a Baby Boomer, one among 78 million people born in the USA between 1946 and 1964. My parents are part of the Builder Generation, having survived the Great Depression and World War II. And most of my students these days (the “traditional” ones, that is) are the offspring of Boomers, known as Generation-Y or The Millennials.

And about the only thing we can all say we have in common is that we are Americans.

PopulationThe Depression and the war shaped my parents in ways that most of us now find unimaginable. Frugality was not just fashionable, it was a necessity, and it was as much a national endeavor as it was a personal one. The war effort required redirection of resources of the natural and human kind, with copper pennies put on hiatus and Rosie the Riveter filling jobs normally filled by men.

It was that bootstrapping mindset that caused my parents’s generation to eventually prosper. They are now living out their golden years on the proceeds of the hard-earned savings.

The Boomers, though, have been an entirely different group. Bouyed by unprecedented national and family wealth during their early years, the Boomers have never gone without. The economic Shangri-La in which my cohort was raised has caused us to never settle for less than the most or the best, even if it means going into debt to do so. Living large has been the mantra of my generation, the embodiment of every marketer’s wildest fantasies. It was during those post-WWII years that Americans reproduced quite prolifically, with 4 million live births each year the norm.

Contrast that now with Gen-Y, and the world has once again turned. It was not until the late-1980s that we reached the 4 million mark again. Perhaps it was better birth control, the availability of abortion services, or just a new view on children, but my generation simply did not produce as many kids. And even though we did hit 4 million birth for a while there, the statistical significance of it was far less, and continues to decrease as our total population increases. For example, 4 million babies in a population of 150 million is twice the impact when the population is slightly over 300 million (as it is now).

And Gen-Y has a very different worldview from that of my generation. While unpopular wars may be a common thread between the two, I suspect Gen-Ys are tiring of their Boomer parents and their profligate ways. They are weary of corporate imperialism and ethical breaches. Increasingly cynical of the world in which they live, Gen-Ys are typified by a more short-term orientation and better-grab-it-while-you-still-can attitude.

As for my parents, they now live in one of those nice gated communities in central Florida, safe from the perils of the outside world, and everyone with the same type of grass, roof, shutters, and shrubbery. Seinfeld’s parents would have fit in nicely there.

My generation is starting to get old. We have become the parents we loathed a few decades ago, and are finally starting to think about saving a few bucks for retirement (which we may not be able to take). We swallow pills by the handful to try to restore our waning youthful traits after watching advertisements of smiling AARP members skipping dinner and heading straight for the boudoir cheesecake.

And while I cannot lay claim to knowing much about Gen-Y other than what I read or hear from my students, I suspect many are worried they may never achieve the same American Dream my Boomer friends and I did. They are probably even a little bit angry, blaming our consuming desires for using it all up and saving little for them.

But I always tell my students to look on the bright side. There’s 78 million of us who are going to need medicine, assisted living, and probably even Depends. Your chance is coming to stick it back to us, taking our money before we try to leave with it.

Just don’t lock me up in one of those gated communities.

Dr “Hard Pill To Swallow” Gerlich

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