Well, this wasn’t supposed to get as epic as it did, but apparently there’s a lot to explain to Boomers about Millennials and vice versa, starting with an explanation of what each generation actually is. This is the first of multiple parts — although I have no idea how many there will be. As a Gen-Xer, I’m writing from the perspective of someone who has watched both groups from the outside (or from the middle, really) and can see all their foolishness.
I do get tired of Boomers and Millennials sniping at each other for a few reasons. First, because it’s a generational battle that’s gone on since forever on a sliding scale. Once upon a time, today’s Boomers were the stinky, useless, lazy youth (“hippies”) looked down upon by the generation that mostly fought in World War II — the end of which defined the beginning of the Baby Boom generation.
Or, in other words, Boomers were to the Greatest Generation what Millennials are to them now. Incidentally, the generation between the Greatest and Boomers were known as the Silent Generation — the exact analog to Gen-X today in more ways than one.
The second thing that bothers me is that neither generation exactly gets the terms right. Half the time, when Boomers bitch about Millennials, they’re really talking about youth today — i.e. Gen-Z, or Zoomers. And when Millennials complain about Boomers, they tend to bitch about anyone over 50 which, surprise, is about half of all Gen-X by now.
Kind of ironic, considering that the oldest of the Millennials have been slamming into 40 for the last year or two.
So, from a Gen-X perspective, here’s some advice for each generation in how to deal with the other.
Get the definitions right
Leaving any identifying labels out of it, here’s how things generally go, with the caveat being that during the 20th and 21st centuries, a lot of people have chosen to either start families and have kids later, adopt or foster them much later in life, or not have them at all.
Personal anecdotal evidence on the change in timing. My mother’s mother had her first kid when she was barely 18 and her last when she was almost 45. She had 13 in total, and my mom came fairly close to the end of her fertility cycle, but was pushing thirty when I was born.
So… I was born about six months before by mom’s mother turned 61 which, oddly enough, put her right in typical grandparent, aka Boomer to Millennial range.
Numbers without personal anecdotes: Barring teen parents or viagrafied old men who knock up 20-something trophy brides and rounding off, the general pattern has been this. The parents have kids starting at around twenty, although this is closer to thirty and then mid to late thirties as the century grinds on.
The kid window seems to shut from around forty to forty-five, or it did. Again, in modern times, medicine has made it possible and normal for people (read “mothers”) to have kids into their fifties.
But we’ll set the window at one generation to the next at 30 years, keeping in mind that this just accounts for breeding. Social generations are entirely different, which I’ll get to below.
Now, if the twenty through fifty pattern holds, this means that the kids will start popping out babies when their parents are anywhere from forty to seventy, and keep on going until their parents are seventy through dead. Well, a hundred, but Betty White couldn’t pull that off, so why expect that it’s possible for mere muggles?
And what about those kids’ grandparents? Do the math, and it means that most people with kids can expect to become grandparents at around sixty but at any time up to eighty. Or beyond.
What’s the important bracket here, though? Twenty years-ish. Twenty-one if you’re being pedantic. Why? That happens to be how long it takes a human to reach adulthood in terms of physical growth.
Oh, it’s not sexual maturity — that probably happened around 13 for boys and a bit earlier for girls. And it’s not mental maturity, because that probably doesn’t happen until at least 25 — hey, there’s a reason you can’t rent a car or run for Congress before that age.
But, at 21, all your long bones have fused, all of your cartilage that wasn’t going to stay that way has become bone, your brain is pretty much adult size even if it still has a shit-ton of connections to make, you’re not going to get any taller, your voice isn’t going to get any deeper, and your dick or tits aren’t going to get any bigger. Sorry.
Physically, you’re an adult. And in strictly biological terms, here’s what this means. You are now a direct threat to the other mammals who became adults… well, look at that — twenty-one years before you were born. But you’re also now a threat to all the babies popping out of wombs you didn’t put them in.
Sure, this is the simplistic biological description of it and ignores that fact that humans are actually pretty good at ignoring all of these biological imperatives — but, deep down, we don’t. We just sublimate that shit. Freud may have been full of it in a lot of ways, but his whole “Oedipal Complex” concept touched on exactly this.
Without the niceties of human culture and civilization, there’s really nothing preventing every 21-year-old boy from immediately killing his own father, fucking his mother, and becoming the new father figure to all of his siblings. (And, sadly, doing exactly what you’d think to each of them, depending on biological sex.)
Nasty? Yes. Illegal? Of course — but that’s one of the things preventing it. An explanation for why frustrated young men go nuts every now and then? You do the math.
Now, as for defining the generations from Boomer onward, it really comes down to a matter of a defining event which is imprinted on the memory of each generation. Remember the event, you’re part of that generation. Don’t remember it? you’re not.
So… Boomers don’t remember VJ Day even though they were born before it happened. Likewise, no one from Gen-X remembers JFK’s assassination. Millennials have no memory of the assassination of John Lennon, and Gen-Z kids don’t remember 9/11. Truth to tell, 1/6/2021 will probably be the marker for the start of whatever comes after Gen-Z. Gen Omicron?
But look at the dates again, and it almost comes down in 20 year chunks, especially if you make the Boomers’ unremembered event Pearl Harbor. Otherwise, it’s 1945 (probably late, actually) to 1960; 1960 to 1980; 1980 to 1998; 1998 to maybe 2018? And there a lot of 18s and 20s in there.
For both Boomers and Millennials, the world has gone through enormous changes in their lifetimes, and I’d even argue that Millennials have seen even bigger changes in theirs because the pace of development in technology increases exponentially, and the internet has eliminated the delay in news getting around the world and opinion about it propagating.
When Boomers were born, it was in the wake (literally) of the latest technological advancement of the age — the atomic bomb — and this was actually a big part of where the “boom” in “boomer” came from. It wasn’t just the increase in birth-rate once all those American GIs came home and started taking advantage of government benefits.
But, for the most part, things stayed pretty much the same except for the rise of television when they were kids — the internet of their day — and the creation and advancement of the middle class.
Most of their parents and grandparents had either grown up in crowded apartment blocks in cities or in rural areas, many of them on farms. Their parents (well, mostly their fathers) went off during the war and saw the world. They also saw what America did, along with the UK and USSR, in kicking the ass of fascism and saving the planet.
And then, suddenly, cities were expanding and creating these new “suburbs,” some of which had sprouted up to support aircraft plants and other wartime industry — q.v. Van Nuys, California — and others of which were part of a post-war building boom.
Hey — they had to do something with all of that surplus materiel, right? I currently live in a place that was built in 1947, and every kitchen countertop is made of stainless steel left over from aircraft plants. Likewise, the original building colors, which have been preserved, came from tons of surplus military paint originally used on battleships, aircraft carriers, military housing, and so on.
So their childhoods were full of huge social changes, but the technology came much more slowly. The transistor radio was invented in 1947 but not really commercialized on a massive scale until the late 1950s (thanks to SONY) and becoming ubiquitous in the 1960s and 1970s. Prior to digital broadcasting and the like, most car radios were actually transistor radios.
Remember the word “transistor.” It was the shrinking of those down to microscopic size that eventually made the computer revolution and the information age possible, but the Boomers were all becoming parents by then, and other big changes were coming.
The most noticeable was the Space Race and humankind eventually landing on the Moon in 1969. It was a vindication of America’s place internationally post WWII, as well as a big win in the Cold War. But there were societal changes as well, beginning with the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-60s, the Gay (later LGBTQ) Rights Movement exploding after the Stonewall Riots the same year but a month before the Moon landing, and the Women’s Rights Movement, largely focused on passing the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
The world of their childhood was rapidly evolving. A lot of Boomers, especially the younger ones born in and after the mid-1950s, adapted to it and embraced it. A lot of the older Boomers did not.
Remember this, kids. It’s an important distinction.
So, summary: Some slight tech changes visible on the consumer level up to 1980, including a pretty big change in how home phones worked — the main ones being touchtone (or digital-ish) dialing instead of rotary (or analog); phones no longer being owned by the phone company, hard-wired into the wall, and rented by the consumer; new features like call waiting, caller ID, and the infamous *69 to ring back on a missed call.
The first cordless phones — not to be confused with wireless — came out in 1980, and they changed everything. Now, instead of having to sit or stand in one spot to talk on the phone because of that cord connecting it to the base unit stuck on the wall or sitting on a nightstand, people could now, for the first time, pick up the handset and walk around with it, unencumbered.
It was a far cry from home phones as Boomers had known them as kids, if their earliest homes even had them at all in the 1940s. And their parents either may not have had them at all, relying instead on the common phone in their apartment building lobby, payphones in the pharmacy or shop on the first floor of their building, or the public phone at the rural post office/general store.
A lot of those folk also got to experience “party lines,” which was a common residential phone number shared by multiple households, with each one distinguished by a particular ring pattern of long and short bells. For example, the ID for the party line could be two to four digits long, with the ring pattern made up of first long tones, then short.
Operators referred to them as ID + R + ##, where ID was the code for the main party line, “R” indicated “Ring Code,” and then the numbers indicated how many long and short rings. A typical reference might be something like “46R37,” which meant that the call was going to the Party Line 46 (within the local exchange), and the ring code was three long rings and seven short.
It got trickier outside of the exchange, but this is what phone prefixes were for. For example, if the exchange was “DIamond” (34), an operator would ask for a number like “Diamond 5250R42.”
It had faded away going into the 1950s and beyond with automatic switching and increased capacity eliminating the need for party lines in most places, so it was a childhood relic most Boomers were happy to be rid of. By 1980, most party lines in the U.S. were a thing of the distant past.
The development of telephones, the evolution of television from tiny little low-res black and white screens in furniture that weighed a ton to full-color large-screen self-contained sets with monoaural audio, space probes heading to other planets, the revelation of the (still future) Space Shuttle program, more people of color living near and working with white people (with the illusion of equality, of course), LG and maybe B people (but not yet TQ+) becoming more visible if not more accepted, and women finally dumping relics like not being able to have credit cards in their own names, adapting the term “Ms.” as an equivalent of “Mr.” that did not indicate marital status, and having been given the right to abortion in the early 1970s, the times, they were a-changing — although nowhere near as fast in the first 20 to 35 years of their lives as they would for Millennials.
And I’m leaving out a lot of developments, although many of them were just of the “Will you look at that?” kind of story on the news that had no immediate effect on most people, like the first heart transplant, the cardiac pacemaker, IVF Fertilization (the first test tube baby was a Gen-Xer born in 1978), and so on.
The comparable Millennial timeframe for 1945 to 1960: 1980 to 1995-ish, although Millennials were probably done being born around 1998.
The obvious thing is that the internet was just starting to become a thing as the last of the Millennials were being squeezed out, although the oldest of them met it in middle school, and so were the last generation to really remember and deal with both worlds. This gave them all a huge advantage — although it’s comparable to Gen-Xers, who pretty much met home computers on the same schedule and so were also primed to accept and adapt to the internet when they were much older than their Millennial counterparts.
In short order, Millennials blasted through their childhood media formats — vinyl LPs and cassettes — which rapidly became legacy items as CDs came onto the market in 1982 and dominated by the 1990s. By the early 2000s, CDs were fading out as MP3s and other digital formats took over.
Ironically, this was also when older Millennials began to feel that nostalgic itch, with vinyl eventually making a comeback, despite it being as environmentally unfriendly as CDs — and one has to wonder why it was vinyl only and never cassette.
Meanwhile, on the phone front, the first mobile network, 1G, was pretty much meant for big, clunky car phones and never hit with consumers — but 2G did, and from about 1993 on was when people first started carrying around those tiny flip phones that couldn’t do internet or data but could send SMS and make phone calls.
Within five years, these phones could receive media content, like ringtones, make mobile payments, and so forth, but pretty soon it would be time for the marriage that would change the world.
That would be the advent of 3G, cell phones being able to access the internet and so become smart phones, with the first commercial 3G network being launched on October 1, 2001. Ironically, this was when phones started to become bigger instead of smaller. Gone were the days of flip phones that shut up into key-chain size devices less then three inches tall. Now, it was the era of hand-filling devices with huge HD screens.
Then again, by now we were all basically carrying around computers in our pockets that replaced so many former devices that it was ridiculous — digital camera, video camera, music player, photo album, address book, telephone, email, gaming console, video streaming device, message and memo center, voice recorder, and so on.
Add some apps to that, and you could make it do a lot of other things — and the computing power in a typical modern smart phone exceeds even the most top-end gaming rig from the turn of the century.
All of this happened in just under 30 years if we start at 1993. Otherwise, telephones had remained mostly unchanged until the introduction of those cordless units back in 1980. The first small subscriber phone exchanges were started in the 1880s, but until cordless models freed us from being wired to the wall a century later, all phones basically did the same thing.
That 30-year figure is really a defining difference between Boomers and Millennials, though. For the Boomers, those 30 years came after all of them had already turned 30. For Millennials, those 30 years came starting from about puberty — or a bit after for the precocious ones.
That kind of timing can make for a huge difference in perception in of the world, but since this piece has already gone on longer than a Boomer’s current life, I’m going to break here and show how those perceptions have created two different worlds in a subsequent installment.