Monday, November 16, 2009

A simple framework for thinking about cultural generations   posted by agnostic @ 11/16/2009 12:44:00 AM

In this discussion about pop music at Steve Sailer's, the topic of generations came up, and it's one where few of the people who talk about it have a good grasp of how things work. For example, the Wikipedia entry on generation notes that cultural generations only showed up with industrialization and modernization -- true -- but doesn't offer a good explanation for why. Also, they don't distinguish between loudmouth generations and silent generations, which alternate over time. As long as a cohort "shares a culture," they're considered a generation, but that misses most of the dynamics of generation-generation. My view of it is pretty straightforward.

First, we have to notice that some cohorts are full-fledged Generations with ID badges like Baby Boomer or Gen X, and some cohorts are not as cohesive and stay more out of the spotlight. Actually, one of these invisible cohorts did get an ID badge -- the Silent Generation -- so I'll refer to them as loudmouth generations (e.g., Baby Boomers, Gen X, and before long the Millennials) and silent generations (e.g., the small cohort cramped between Boomers and X-ers).

Then we ask why do the loudmouth generations band together so tightly, and why do they show such strong affiliation with the generation that they continue to talk and dress the way they did as teenagers or college students even after they've hit 40 years old? Well, why does any group of young people band together? -- because social circumstances look dire enough that the world seems to be going to hell, so you have to stick together to help each other out. It's as if an enemy army invaded and you had to form a makeshift army of your own.

That is the point of ethnic membership badges like hairstyle, slang, clothing, musical preferences, etc. -- to show that you're sticking with the tribe in desperate times. That's why teenagers' clothing has logos visible from down the hall, why they spend half their free time digging into a certain music niche, and why they're hyper-sensitive about what hairstyle they have. Adolescence is a socially desperate time, not unlike a jungle, in contrast to the more independent situation you enjoy during full adulthood. Being caught in more desperate circumstances, teenagers freak out about being part of -- fitting in with -- a group that can protect them; they spend the other half of their free time communicating with their friends. Independent adults have fewer friends, keep in contact with them much less frequently, and don't wear clothes with logos or the cover art from their favorite new album.

OK, so that happens with every cohort -- why does this process leave a longer-lasting impact on the loudmouth cohorts? It is the same cause, only writ large: there's some kind of social panic, or over-turning of the status quo, that's spreading throughout the entire culture. So they not only face the trials that every teenager does, but they've also got to protect themselves against this much greater source of disorder. They have to form even stronger bonds, and display their respect for their generation much longer, than cohorts who don't face a larger breakdown of security.

Now, where this larger chaos comes from, I'm not saying. I'm just treating it as exogenous for now, as though people who lived along the waterfront would go through periods of low need for banding together (when the ocean behaved itself) and high need to band together (when a flood regularly swept over them). The generation forged in this chaos participates in it, but it got started somewhere else. The key is that this sudden disorder forces them to answer "which side are you on?" During social-cultural peacetime, there is no Us vs. Them, so cohorts who came of age in such a period won't see generations in black-and-white, do-or-die terms. Cohorts who come of age during disorder must make a bold and public commitment to one side or the other. You can tell when such a large-scale chaos breaks out because there is always a push to reverse "stereotypical gender roles," as well as a surge of identity politics.

The intensity with which they display their group membership badges and groupthink is perfectly rational -- when there's a great disorder and you have to stick together, the slightest falter in signaling your membership could make them think that you're a traitor. Indeed, notice how the loudmouth generations can meaningfully use the phrase "traitor to my generation," while silent generations wouldn't know what you were talking about -- you mean you don't still think The Ramones is the best band ever? Well, OK, maybe you're right. But substitute with "I've always thought The Beatles were over-rated," and watch your peers with torches and pitchforks crowd around you.

By the way, why did cultural generations only show up in the mid-to-late 19th C. after industrialization? Quite simply, the ability to form organizations of all kinds was restricted before then. Only after transitioning from what North, Wallis, and Weingast (in Violence and Social Orders -- working paper here) call a limited access order -- or a "natural state" -- to an open access order, do we see people free to form whatever political, economic, religious, and cultural organizations that they want. In a natural state, forming organizations at will threatens the stability of the dominant coalition -- how do they know that your bowling league isn't simply a way for an opposition party to meet and plan? Or even if it didn't start out that way, you could well get to talking about your interests after awhile.

Clearly young people need open access to all sorts of organizations in order to cohere into a loudmouth generation. They need regular hang-outs. Such places couldn't be formed at will within a natural state. Moreover, a large cohort of young people banding together and demanding that society "hear the voice of a new generation" would have been summarily squashed by the dominant coalition of a natural state. It would have been seen as just another "faction" that threatened the delicate balance of power that held among the various groups within the elite. Once businessmen are free to operate places that cater to young people as hang-outs, and once people are free to form any interest group they want, then you get generations.

Finally, on a practical level, how do you lump people into the proper generational boxes? This is the good thing about theory -- it guides you in practice. All we have to do is get the loudmouth generations' borders right; in between them go the various silent or invisible generations. The catalyzing event is a generalized social disorder, so we just look at the big picture and pick a peak year plus maybe 2 years on either side. You can adjust the length of the panic, but there seems to be a 2-year lead-up stage, a peak year, and then a 2-year winding-down stage. Then ask, whose minds would have been struck by this disorder? Well, "young people," and I go with 15 to 24, although again this isn't precise.

Before 15, you're still getting used to social life, so you may feel the impact a little, but it's not intense. And after 24, you're on the path to independence, you're not texting your friends all day long, and you've stopped wearing logo clothing. The personality trait Openness to Experience rises during the teenage years, peaks in the early 20s, and declines after; so there's that basis. Plus the likelihood to commit crime -- another measure of reacting to social desperation -- is highest between 15 and 24.

So, just work your way backwards by taking the oldest age (24) and subtracting it from the first year of the chaos, and then taking the youngest age (15) and subtracting it from the last year of the chaos. "Ground zero" for that generation is the chaos' peak year minus 20 years.

As an example, the disorder of the Sixties lasted from roughly 1967 to 1972. Applying the above algorithm, we predict a loudmouth generation born between 1943 and 1957: Baby Boomers. Then there was the early '90s panic that began in 1989 and lasted through 1993 -- L.A. riots, third wave feminism, etc. We predict a loudmouth generation born between 1965 and 1978: Generation X. There was no large-scale social chaos between those two, so that leaves a silent generation born between 1958 and 1964. Again, they don't wear name-tags, but I call them the disco-punk generation based on what they were listening to when they were coming of age.

Going farther back, what about those who came of age during the topsy-turvy times of the Roaring Twenties? The mania lasted from roughly 1923 to 1927, forming a loudmouth generation born between 1899 and 1912. This closely corresponds to what academics call the Interbellum Generation. The next big disruption was of course WWII, which in America really struck between 1941 and 1945, creating a loudmouth generation born between 1917 and 1930. This would be the young people who were part of The Greatest Generation. That leaves a silent generation born between 1913 and 1916 -- don't know if anyone can corroborate their existence or not. That also leaves The Silent Generation proper, born between 1931 and 1942.

Looking forward, it appears that these large social disruptions recur with a period of about 25 years on average. The last peak was 1991, so I predict another one will strike in 2016, although with 5 years' error on both sides. Let's say it arrives on schedule and has a typical 2-year build-up and 2-year winding-down. That would create a loudmouth generation born between 1990 and 2003 -- that is, the Millennials. They're already out there; they just haven't hatched yet. And that would also leave a silent generation born between 1979 and 1989.

My sense is that Millennials are already starting to cohere, and that 1987 is more like their first year, making the silent generation born between 1979 and 1986 (full disclosure: I belong to it). So this method surely isn't perfect, but it's pretty useful. It highlights the importance of looking at the world with some kind of framework -- otherwise we'd simply be cataloguing one damn generation after another.

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