ORTHODOX

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A (13ER-TYPE) REACTIVE GENERATION GROWS UP AS UNDER PROTECTED AND CRITICIZED youths during an awakening, comes of age as alienated risk-takers, burns out young before mellowing into midlife pragmatists and family-oriented conservatives, and ages into caustic but undemanding elders. Turn back the clock 13 years, and that's what Neil Howe and William Strauss, coauthors of Generations, 13th Gen, The Fourth Turning and Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, were predicting in the pages of American Demographics in April 1991. That syntactical mouthful appeared a good two years before this publication cited the term Generation X (May 1993) to refer to Baby Busters born between 1965 and 1976.

Fast-forward to December 31, 2004. At midnight, the last Baby Boomer will have turned 40, and the first Xers will enter their 40th year on earth. After giving Neil Howe a few frenetic days to think about it, we asked him to revisit his own theories and assumptions about the group of people who'd rather see themselves as individuals than as a generation, and by and large he still sees them as a generation. Whether X is a misnomer or not, the reality is that people in this cohort are about to start pouring into midlife, Howe says. Carl Jung, who spoke about midlife as the zenith of life, wrote: thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve us as hitherto. What was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.

Howe sees strength, moderate strength and weakness across seven areas of culture that will define this group's legacy. What Xers care about, they'll tend to have a strong impact on; and what they've shown no particular passion for up to now, their mark will be but a scratch.

From strongest to weakest in descending order:

  • The economy: Xers' unusually powerful influence is already detectable. They defied critics as they reshaped, revitalized, reenergized the business community during the mid- to late '90s. Their biggest contribution, so far, is that they invented the free-agent, job-oriented, performance-based business ethic that all other generations, willingly or not, have had to embrace. They'll reach CEO ranks at an unusually young age. But domination will create a fault line, an incendiary point.

  • Lifestyles: Xers invented free-agency, defined choosing one's own way of life, options, total modularity, design. Boomers individualized life. Xers took the next step, breaking individualization down to its bits and pieces.

  • Family life: Continuing a Boomer trend of increasing protectiveness of children, more time with children, Xers have evolved a traditionalism in family behavior that predates memory in terms of the strictures and protectiveness for children.

  • The Military: Again, medium impact vs. dominance. It depends on what Xers are asked to do, says Howe, who notes that a generation's military legacy can be important or not, depending on history. Xer traits will continue to transform the military into more mobile, fast-moving, tactically a more adept force, right for quick strikes, but vulnerable in prolonged occupation efforts evident in Iraq.

  • Culture: A lot of the actors, moviemakers, songwriters that belong to Gen X will continue to have influence. But, a lot of the edge as Xers defined it, will wear off. Cultural statements will become bland, less risky, like a little oxbow lake that a river leaves behind after it changes course. Millennials will look at Xers trademark fragmentation and dissonance as old-fashioned.

  • Politics: Xers had the lowest young adult voter participation ever. Their idea of civic activity is one-on-one volunteerism. It's a generation that has no great lobbying voice, and may never have one.

  • Spirituality: A reaction to having grown up in the shadow of the spiritual passions of Boomers, looking at what's real vs. the way you'd like the world to be. What will be interesting is to see what happens to people who've made an art of caustic cynicism when they hit midlife.

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