Don’t you dare call me a baby boomer
In between 1946 and 1964, things changed. And so should how we talk about my generation.
I am a baby boomer, but I shouldn’t be.
Today the baby boom spans 1946 to 1964. The start is obvious and tied to the momentous end of World War II. You see a half million more babies born in 1946 than 1945, cracking the 3 million mark for only the third time since 1909. And it just keeps going like that, peaking at 4.3 million babies in 1957.
The end of the boom is murkier. When I was younger, demographers set it at 1960, sometimes 1961. I remember in college being glad it ended at 1963, because I was born in 1964, and who wouldn’t want to be first of a new generation? But ending it in 1964 has its logic: It was the last year more than 4 million babies were born in the United States until 1989. And it gives the boom a 19-year span, a corollary to what we think of as a generation. It’s a good place to stop.
But it’s also a terrible place to stop. A late boomer like me just doesn’t have much in common with the early boomers. They had Murphy’s Law, we had Moore’s Law. They had LPs, we had CDs. They had color television, we had Atari Pong and the Commodore PET personal computer. They had the Berlin Wall, we had Star Wars, the Strategic Defense Initiative.
You see the pattern here. The early boomers were still living in a world that was mostly analog. People born in the early 1960s came of age in a world that was becoming digital. In fact, I have more in common with people born up until about 1994 than I do with people born before 1955 — that’s the year Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee were born.
Here’s how we should really slice the postwar generations: Look at the digital technology available to them when they hit the ages of 12 to 14. The early boomers stay boomers; though they were born the same year as ENIAC, the first working all-digital computer, they don’t really have digital technology shaping their lives. All those born from 1955 to 1969 are the Pocket Protectors, because we are the first generation to get access to digital technology. From 1970 to 1981, it’s the Proto-Geek — kids growing up with digital technology in their classrooms and in their houses. Those born from 1982 to about 1995 are the Nerds Rule! generation. The World Wide Web is second nature for them.
Even these smaller slices are a bit arbitrary; really, everybody from 1955 to 1995 comes of age as digital technology is spreading into their academic, work, and personal lives. What follows is different. People born starting in 1995 turn 12 in 2007, the year the first iPhone appears. Smartphones make digital technology an appendage. That’s a gigantic shift. Someone born in my era understands apps, but we don’t necessarily think each new one is more useful than what we already have (I’m talking about you, Snapchat). Today’s kids can’t be bothered to answer their phones, and they think e-mail is archaic. Let’s call them Generation Cyborg.
I don’t know when Generation Cyborg will end and what will replace it. But my definition makes more sense than something like Generation Y (why? Because we like to name things). It happens that anybody can name a generation. There isn’t a group that sets generations, as the National Bureau of Economic Research does recessions. Generations are named by whoever comes up with one that sticks; a newspaper columnist reputedly named the boomers. Tom W. Smith, principal investigator and administrator of the General Social Survey, one of the country’s longest-running major sociological studies, says the generations after the boom are named “for pure convenience.”
Naming the generations for the technological shifts would fit into the model created by Karl Mannheim, the social scientist who argued that generations were shaped by massive shifts in politics, like a Great Depression, a war, the end of colonialism. His point was that generations are defined by the thing that changes their life experience from those born before them.
Technology changes lives. Smith says I could take my technology argument about communications and make it go backward, too. You could have a TV generation (pretty much the real boomers), a radio generation, a telephone generation, a telegraph generation.
I’ll think about that. I’m a little suspicious of a man who doesn’t text. But at least he didn’t call me a boomer.