Do you remember your first creak? That very first time that you simply stood up from where you were sitting and felt a twinge that made you think, “Oh man, I’m old”? On one hand, if there’s a thing that we all go through together, it’s aging. On the other hand, as you age, you may lose sight of where you actually fit in the scale of all of the people around you. It gets more complicated when you consider the various age groups that we like to label as “generations.” And those generational divides will surprise you, because everyone is older than you think.
Let’s start by looking at the (mostly) familiar, broadly defined generational categories. The seven “living generations” are:
- Greatest Generation, born 1901-1927
- Silent Generation, 1928-1945
- Baby Boomers, 1946-1964
- Generation X, 1965-1980
- Millennials, 1981-1996
- Generation Z, 1997-2009
- Generation Alpha, 2010-present
You might notice that Millennials, so often derided as tech-obsessed teenagers, are 26 at the youngest and 41 at the oldest. The top of GenZ are in their mid-20s. And the oldest members of Generation Alpha, the first cohort to be born entirely in the 21st century, are about to be teenagers.
One natural consequence of aging is that keystone events and generational signifiers will have occurred longer ago than you remember. A common “where were you” event in the culture is the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; if you were three on that date, then you’re 62 now. A similar event positioned in the minds of Generation X is the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, a tragedy that occurred 36 years ago. Babies born after 9/11 are about to turn 21. If it’s shocking to you that it was all that long ago, don’t worry; there’s an explanation for it.
According to a 2012 Hal E. Hershfield piece from Psychology Today, it turns out that events remembered in isolation will seem closer to the present than memories we remember in batches. That means that you might recall one particular birthday with clarity as a more recent event, but trying to recall what you did across a span of birthdays will make all of the birthdays seem like they occurred further in the past. Since we tend to reminisce about events one detail or one event at a time, we frequently find ourselves thinking that an old job, college, or even our teen years were closer to now than they really are.
Hershfield cited a research article from the Association of Psychological Science by Gal Zauberman, Jonathan Levav, Kristin Diehl, and Rajesh Bhargave. Writing in 1995, the group of academics tackled the idea of why events that occurred at the same time might seem separated in our memories. Over the course of three studies, they found that “event markers,” that is, certain events and circumstances around an occurrence, might make it seem closer or further away in our minds. Referencing the assassination of Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin versus the birth of one of the writers’ children, the group noted: “We label these event markers. For instance, for the target event “birth of a child,” a parent might bring to mind many event markers, such as doctor visits, birthdays, and piano recitals. In contrast, the assassination of a prime minister may bring to mind fewer event markers, because related subsequent events are not as accessible.” That also translates into events leaving stronger day-to-day impression might seem more recent, like when distant relatives are perennially surprised that you’ve gotten taller just because they haven’t seen you, even though they know your age and see you in photos.
An example that reinforces the mild shock we get by simply aging is when we hear about celebrity birthdays. A small sampling of the GenX personalities that turn 50 this year are NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, soccer legend Mia Hamm, wrestling and film star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and actors Alyssa Milano, Jennifer Garner, and Sofia Vergara. Boomers turning 60 include Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Wesley Snipes, Jim Carrey, and Jon Bon Jovi. On the upside, every one of those people from both groups maintains an active and vital career, and man, they look great. But it is a little startling to realize that members of the ’80s Brat Pack have hit their sixties.
The opposite effect is the ongoing assumption that certain groups are younger than they actually are. As previously noted, the group that suffers from this the most are Millennials. That may come in part from a misunderstanding of the term. Millennial was coined as a reference to those who would reach majority age near the year 2000, hence the starting birth year of 1981 for the cohort; however, there’s frequently a misunderstanding that Millennials were born around 2000, leading some to assume that a member of that group would be in their teens, rather than the youngest Millennials already being 22.
Those and other generational assumptions can cause some conflict. The infamous phrase “OK, Boomer” was coined online as a refutation of older people experiencing confusion or misunderstanding on a cultural issue. One of the central conflicts in that particular age gap has to do with perceptions around the costs of college and housing. A CNBC report from 2019 demonstrated that average college costs have grown enormously in the last 50 years. In 1972, a public college’s in-state tuition plus fees, room and board ran about $8,730 annually; by 2019, that number $21,370 annually. Minimum wage in 1972 was $1.60 per hour; it was $7.25 in 2019, but the cost increases in everything from food to cars to housing to health care have been disproportionately larger. A generation contending with larger costs and proportionately shrinking wages might not want to hear criticism or advice from a generation that operated in a different financial arena, no matter how well-intentioned.
Another piece of the misunderstanding puzzle is the sliding age ranges of the population. It’s long been conventional wisdom that the Baby Boomers outnumber every other group. The Pew Research Center, reporting on estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, notes a surprising fact. As of 2020, Millennials have replaced Baby Boomers as the largest segment of the population in the U.S. In their data, Millennials accounted for 72.1 million Americans, while Boomers were 71.6 million and GenX made up 65.2 million. A further note indicates that GenX is expected to pass the number of Boomers by 2028. Data from other sources like Insider Intelligence concludes that GenZ, our current teens-to-twentysomethings, will number around 68.2 million this year while also being “the most racially, ethnically, and sexually diverse generation in history.” No matter how you look at that data, it definitely represents a shift in the perceptions of the “age” of America.
Two facts outside the numbers are that no one person is wholly representative of their generation, and no one generation has a broad definition that applies to all the people in it. Generational conflict is part of the human dynamic, and many times, it arises from understandable concerns. Questions like “who will take care of me when I’m old” or “who will do this job when I’m gone” or “will the kids be all right” are as natural as aging itself. Maybe the key to understanding is simply acknowledging that central idea: everyone is older than you think. If you embrace that, and realize that each generation has a set of experiences that we can all learn from, maybe GenX will feel seen, the Millennials will feel validated, the Zs and Alphas will get a voice, and Boomers will be, in a positive way, okay.
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