An opinion piece in the Washington Post touches on generational that might be of interest to the recent discussions around here about scientific generations. Author Neil Howe asks "Who is the Real 'Dumbest Generation'?". [h/t: Bora]
It is the prerogative of every generation of graybeards to look down the age ladder and accuse today's young of sloth, greed, selfishness -- and stupidity.
the underlying question is worth pursuing: If the data are objectively assessed, which age-slice of today's working-age adults really does deserve to be called the dumbest generation?
The answer may surprise you.
It doesn't surprise Your Humble Narrator one bit.
...it's Americans in their 40s, especially their late 40s -- those born from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. They straddle the boundary line between last-wave boomers and first-wave Generation Xers.
First, let us get our terms straight. Howe wants to call these folks early Xers and he's totally full of crap on that. I see over on the Wikipedia entry for the Baby Boomers that there's been some internecine strife amongst the Boomers.
Originally, everyone born during the 1946-1964 boom in births was considered part of the Baby Boom Generation, but over time, many experts have come to believe that two separate cultural generations were born during this period. The most common name used for the younger generation born then is Generation Jones. Many influential experts and publications now use the term Generation Jones, and the victory of Barack Obama, born in 1961, in November 2008 significantly increased the awareness of Generation Jones, with many experts pointing to Obama as the first Generation Jones President
The Wikipedia for Generation X is not much more helpful, detailing a number salad of possible birth years.
It takes no genius to imagine that the definition of generation slides depending on the point the author is trying to make and the generational affiliation of the author. It might be interesting to see just who is doing all the slicing and dicing on the Boomer definition. It is my belief that all this generational schism nonsense is coming from that more responsible parts of the Baby Boom generation trying to distance themselves from the less responsible parts. Nice Try! Sorry but the bad and the good don't cleanly distinguish on year of birth within the generation from what I can tell.
Me? I'm an originalist and consider the Baby Boom to be the 1946-1964 birth year cohorts. Period. I'm consequently comfortable placing the start of the Gen X generation with the 1965 birth year. Think of it this way, as actual, you know, generations. To be a genuine Boomer you had to have been born in 1946 at the earliest, everybody is comfortable with postWWII as the start because it is part of the definition of the "post war baby boom". Taking eighteen years of age as a handy reference point, we find ourselves in 1964. Why eighteen? Well, I think of that as a reasonable start to most general demographic data on the sharp uptick in women's reproductive success. You have to get down to 15 year old mothers to capture the 1961 timepoint. The idea that teen moms were huge contributors just for this selected time slice is idiotic and not backed by any demographic trends that I've seen.
This graphic on the total number of registered US births is one I located at Political Calculations. These data made a bit of a splash a year or so ago when it was observed in an AP piece that the total number of US births had finally exceeded the 1961 peak, you may recall a similar graph from those newspaper accounts.
I think the trends make a pretty good supporting argument for my position that the cutoff for the Baby Boom should be 1964.
This brings me to a graph I posted previously on the age demographics of the NIH research grant PI pool. In the 2002-2003 interval the Boomers were in the 38-56 year old bracket (the so-called later 1961-1964 Boomers were about 38-42). In 1981, the very front of this wave was just turning 36. So if you look across time you can see that the huge demographic bubble associated with the Baby Boomers is a very large part of the career numbers related to new investigators from the Generation X, a much smaller segment of the US population.
This PDF is available from the National Academies
Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of New Investigators in Biomedical
Research Committee on Bridges to Independence: Identifying Opportunities for and Challenges to Fostering Independence of Young Investigators in the Life Sciences, National Research Council
ISBN: 0-309-54964-7, 138 pages, 6 x 9, (2005)
Yay, Gen X. The smallest generation because the actual Boomers put off reproduction into their thirties, selfishly (from a certain perspective) aided by advances in reproductive choice/freedom and sustained by their DINK/YUPpie lifestyles. Squeezed by this demographic bubble on the career ladder, leading to delays in entrance and progression (more grad school, more "training", longer postdocs, fewer hard money jobs, etc in the science / academic setting). Preparing to be squeezed from below by the more numerous off-spring of Boomer Gen Y. (And, as a political aside facing the prospect of being left with a nice pile of debt in the GenX's most productive and well-paid adult years because of the Boomer's proclivity for spending money and reducing taxes on themselves during their well-paid adult years.) What fun.
In some senses this analysis can be taken as excuse making for the dismal experience of Gen X scientists as they've tried to eke out careers in the mold set by the Boomers and the prior generation of scientists. Some of this is just pure demographics. Still, I think my usual points about how those in power tend to make decisions and structure the world in ways that are good for themselves are still valid. The demographics give Boomers disproportional power to distort things.
The solution is obvious. Gen X scientists who do manage to grab a lever of power now and again need to provide some balance. Similarly, they need to prepare themselves for the coming vacuum as Boomer scientists retire in a (slow and painful) wave. We are just moving into the meat of our careers at a time of life when the Boomer scientists were starting to seize the reins of actual power- usually after a decade or more of peak scientific production. We need to be ready, Gen Xers. Ready to take more administrative and powerful roles over science even before we exhibit the same experimental chops as the prior generation. There are fewer of us to go around so we need to do more. We can not afford to hope that those scientist with the right stuff will just blunder into the right places when the time comes.
Take an interest in your local Centers and other Big Mechs- you may need to take one over or launch new ones for the health of your department. Get to know your Program Officers and other NIH people. Make your lateral connections and vertical connections within your field and outside of your narrow interests! Take an active role within your academic societies. Call your CongressCritter.
Oh, and getting back to the Neil Howe piece, his point was that the late Boomers are stupid and uneducated. He even gives some evidence. Here's a teaser, go read:
On both the reading and the math tests, and at all three tested ages (9, 13 and 17), the lowest-ever scores in the history of the NAEP were recorded by children born between 1961 and 1965.
...The SAT reached its all-time high in 1963, when it tested the 1946 birth cohort ... Then it fell steeply for 17 straight years, hitting its all-time low in 1980, when it tested the 1963 cohort
Americans born from 1958 to 1962 have the highest share that has never completed high school among all age brackets between 25 and 60. They also have the lowest share with a four-year college degree among all age brackets between 30 and 60, and they're tied for lowest in graduate degrees.
Once early Xers entered the labor force in the 1980s...the share of young adults entering professions such as law, medicine and accounting began to drop. Around the same time, economists began to worry about the stagnation of median income and the decline of household assets among Americans in their 20s. Today, they're worrying about the economic stagnation of Americans in their 40s.
Compared with earlier- or later-born students at the same age, these kids were assigned less homework, watched more TV and took more drugs.