Generational Tendencies in 2020 — What To Expect, Where We May Be Going

Baby Boomers/Me Generation (Born ~1944–1964)

Strengths: Financially savvy, strong work-ethic
Weaknesses: Narcissistic, susceptible to nostalgia
Platform of Choice: Traditional TV/Radio
Most Visible Celebrity: Donald Trump
Catch-Phrase: “Live to Work”

Gen X (Born ~1965–1980)

Strengths: Pragmatic, easy-going
Weaknesses: Risk and conflict adverse, cynical
Platform of Choice: Facebook, YouTube
Most Visible Celebrity: Keanu Reeves
Catch-Phrase: “Slackers Who Changed the World”

Gen Y, Millennials (Born ~1981–1994)

Strengths: Entrepreneurial, open-minded, optimistic
Weaknesses: Vanity-driven, susceptible to nostalgia
Platform of Choice: Twitter, Snapchat
Most Visible Celebrity: Lady Gaga
Catch-Phrase: “YOLO — You Only Live Once”

Gen Z, Zoomers (Born ~1995-)

Strengths: Pragmatic, strong work-ethic
Weaknesses: Emotionally detached, cynical
Platform of Choice: Twitch, Customized Social Media Feeds
Most Visible Celebrity: Greta Thunberg
Catch-Phrase: “OK Boomer”

Timeline of generations in the Western world as in its Wikipedia article with notable events by CMG Lee. The retirement and life expectancy ages are approximate due to variations in place and time.

Lately I’ve been interested in generational gaps and generational issues since I do believe it’s probably the biggest obstacle we face today after inequality and race. Yes, some of these are painting a picture with broad strokes and it should go without saying that there are always exceptions to the rule. But I do think there are certain tendencies in each generation worth talking about.

It’s worth noting that there are some similarities between the Boomers/Millennials and Gen X/Gen Z, since the mentality of each generation is shaped by a reaction to the generation before. Boomers and Millennials tend to be emotionally driven, Gen X and Gen Z more by practicality and pragmatism. This pattern has existed throughout the ages, likely even before — the predecessors to the Boomers were the “Silent Generation” who tended to be more pragmatic, after all.

How will these differences affect trends in an overall sense, however?

Politics/Leadership

It’s no question that the Boomer generation is currently the dominant force in US politics right now, who’s reign is likely to end when President Donald Trump exits office. (2020 or 2024.) While the collapse of institutional trust in recent years has validated Generation X’s sense of cynicism on some level, their challenge will be to utilize their sense of pragmatism to rebuild institutional morale after taking over for their Boomer predecessors after they retire.

The pessimism of Gen X leadership, however, may become self-defeating if left unchecked — which is why the optimism of the Millennials may be required to maintain a healthy balance. Millennials, on the other hand, often have trouble with organizational tasks due to their emotionally-driven nature— which is something that both the Gen X and Gen Z generation may have to compensate for in their own way.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement has been around for a very long time, but institutional powers never saw it as a real threat, for the most part — only in recent months has it seen the types of sustained pressure (political, cultural, economic) and results that it is getting today. This shift has likely occurred due to inter-generational cooperation that didn’t exist previously before.

Labor and Wealth Generation

William Levitt, the founder of the “Suburbia” concept, was a well-known and outspoken anti-integration advocate who supported redlining and other types of discriminatory policies. This is a large stain on the American Dream of homeownership that most Americans tend to avoid talking about.

The Baby Boomers have largely acquired their success through the “specialization” model, where a person goes to college, earns a degree in a major, gets a job in that major, then saves up enough money for homeownership, which is the primary wealth generation vehicle in the US.

Gen Xers are old enough to have acquired some benefits from that ladder, but are acutely aware of its unsustainability for the long-term. Millennials were lead to believe this ladder was possible for them but was shut-out, leaving them disillusioned. Zoomers already know that this model doesn’t work — at least, not for them. The catch-phrase “OK Boomer” emerged as a response to the Baby Boomers’ insistence that those paths are still viable, and is emblematic of how the youth feel about current leadership today.

Underneath all of this is the emergence of the 4th industrial revolution — the economic shift from energy to data, which is reflected in tech companies such as Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple having taken the lead over energy companies such as Exxon and BP. Data is now more valuable than oil, both in economics and culture, but the Western worlds haven’t quite figured out how to deal with that reality, yet.

The Gen X and Millennial generations in the US will have to stay adaptable and innovative during this transition or risk losing their lead to countries and companies in Asia and Europe. The US dropping to 2nd or 3rd place as the world’s economic power during the next economic downturn is a real possibility at this point — especially since upgrading infrastructure all over the country that has long been neglected will likely take some time. A speedy recovery is definitely possible, but only with the will to do so and the acknowledgment that American exceptionalism has largely become a myth at this point in time.

Systems Theory vs Specialization

Culture

From the 90s onward, both digital and traditional media has been reliant on targeted marketing as a consumer strategy — tailoring each message to the particular person, the particular demographic. Software and automation allowed for these trends to be accelerated greatly — a practice we call hyper-target marketing — which is the dominant methodology that exists both on and offline today.

These trends were not limited to commercial applications but also in the fine arts as well — “universal” themes fell out of favor, replaced by the particulars of individual expression. “Family friendly” themes of humanity, similarity, and commonness were replaced by themes of identity, differences, and disagreement — which can be seen in basically every avenue in the media today. There are two main byproducts of these trends — identity politics and social isolation.

Identity politics is a byproduct of hyper-targeted marketing, since it encourages people to differentiate themselves from others artificially — for every trait, every problem, every person, there is an identity specifically made for them. (And a product you can buy that will help solve your “problem”!) When people with similar identity tendencies meet there is a sense of camaraderie that may get established, but in most cases they tend to be short-lived since the emphasis is on differences, rather than commonalities. This is largely reflected in the protest and activist work of the Millennial generation, which has had a tendency to start off strong but fizzles out eventually due to in-fighting and disorganization. (But as said above, the Zoomers may be the ones to save them in the long run.)

Social alienation — a direct off-shoot of these practices in general — has become a common theme that can be seen everywhere: in social media, in video games, art, and every day conversations as a whole. When the emphasis is on differences rather than similarities, the logical outcome is that the sense of unity between identity groups — especially inter-generational groups — tend to go missing or unaddressed. Media platforms tend to reinforce these habits rather than alleviate them for the purpose of moving product, for the most part.

The “Social Distancing” rule — which the Boomers created as a response to COVID — does say a lot about how the generation is viewing the situation we are in right now. The Boomers could have easily called it the “Physical Distancing” rule —which is what it really is and what needs to get done to discourage the spread of COVID — but they have decided to add that emotional element to the rule on top of it. It is a response to the virus, but also an expression of the Digital Divide that exists in cultural practices today.

GenXers witnessed the transition from traditional TV/radio to the internet — and tend to be skeptical of both. They tend to lurk but not post too much — and if they do, there’s usually a practical reason for it. They tend to avoid social media battles and arguments online — which is why many call them the “Forgotten Generation”.

Millennials grew up around social media and is very comfortable being and staying online. Because they partially see their social media platforms as “home”, they will often defend it or try to make it “better”. Zoomers lack the optimism of their Millennial counterparts that reform is possible, so they tend to configure their feeds to their liking and engage these platforms in their own way. (Which makes them very difficult to figure out, for better or worse.)

One thing worth mentioning is that many Zoomers and younger Millennials have taken a liking to livestreaming services like Twitch, since it is the one of the few refuges online where the corporations haven’t quite figured out how to manipulate, as of yet. The “what you see is what you get” nature of broadcasting everything live and unscripted satisfies a desire for authenticity, intimacy, and trust that you normally cannot get online.

Older Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers grew up with the Grand Narratives that the media empires established for them, which many of them found difficult to let go. But given that it’s becoming apparent that livestreaming is going to become a big part of how the future of society operates as a whole, they’re now tasked with the problem of figuring out how to make the most that the technology has to offer.

Regardless of which generation you are a part of, what’s clearly missing right now is the existence of universal themes — things that apply to humans as a whole, rather than of the particulars of individual’s details. This requires us to see ourselves as being part of something bigger than ourselves, which unfortunately has become the anomaly, rather than the norm, today. If there is to be a “new normal” that comes out of 2020, this is the direction I’d like to see us being a part of — each generation has their strengths, after all, and there are ways in which we can make it work together, in harmony. But cooperation is a two way street — we have to meet each other in the middle, not stay holed up in our bunkers — physical, social, or otherwise.

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