An 18 year-old looks back on life. So do a Boomer and an X-er.

As he gets ready to go to college, eighteen-year old FWI intern Eric Reiner wrote of his goals for his working life, “So, no matter what I do, it will without a doubt not include doing the same thing day after day.

“…I have always hoped to find my own path in life, and to not fall into an already established career, such as an investment banker, lawyer, doctor, etc. I always thought of myself as the guy who ends up doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Not only does that address my need of change, but also would give me the free time I need when I need it. I see this as a reasonable path for me as I am the one who is always willing to try new things.”

Lois, a Baby Boomer, responded to Eric’s Millennial perspective:

“Unlike Eric, I never considered what my future life needs would be. I did not think about my family and work life and how it would intersect. I did not think about whether I wanted to travel, or what kind of work environment I wanted to be in. What I did think about was that I would not return to the safety of my parent’s home when I graduated. And, I knew needed to work, and make money, to support myself. ”

Lois expresses an outlook that I think was fairly typical for her time. The product of Depression-era parents, she wasn’t sure what kind of work she wanted, but she framed her career in terms of achieving independence from her parents and supporting herself financially.

I was born at the tail end of Generation X. My approach coming out of college was perfectly in between Lois and Eric’s. I craved excitement from my career. At 18, I vowed never to end up in the New Jersey suburbs in which I had been raised. In my twenties, I had amazing career opportunities but moved around a lot. I even moved to Africa. But I always supported myself—well. I worked very, very hard. But when I didn’t like a job, I quit it. I don’t know if Lois would say the same thing. Certainly, my father, raised during the Depression, simply could not fathom how I could quit a perfectly good job.

As I get older, I will not sacrifice precious family time to the altar of career success. Data says I’m a pretty typical X-er for that. But, much to my amusement, I think of the lovely house in the suburbs where I grew up and think, “Wow, I wish we could afford a house like that!” I’m reminded of Joyce Maynard’s (born 1954) famous article, “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life,” published in the New York Times in 1972. She wrote of her generation:

“If you want to know who we are now; if you wonder how we’ll vote, or whether we will, or whether, 10 years from now, we’ll end up just like all those other generations that thought they were special – with 2.2 kids and a house in Connecticut – if that’s what you’re wondering, look to the past because, whether we should blame it or not, we do.”

When you’re 18, you can be undecided and excited. When you’re in your thirties, it’s downright terrifying to be undecided (on this point, see one of my favorite blogs, Undecided). You crave some of what came before you, with key adjustments to suit your own life—X-ers, for example, over-index on desiring flexibility and under-index on wanting to be “well paid.” Still, according to the 2008 National Study of Employers, four generations in the workforce share more common values than they share differences.

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3 Responses to An 18 year-old looks back on life. So do a Boomer and an X-er.

  1. Interesting blog. Joyce Maynard is a member of Generation Jones (born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and Generation X). The essay you reference from 1972 was perhaps the first article writtten about GenJones; the central point of that essay is that she and her peers were the leading edge of a new generation, one which was fundamentally different than the Woodstock generation.

    Google Generation Jones, and you’ll see it’s gotten a ton of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) now specifically use this term. In fact, the Associated Press’ annual Trend Report forecast the Rise of Generation Jones as the #1 trend of 2009. Here’s a page with a good overview of recent media interest in GenJones: http://generationjones.com/2009latest.html

    It is important to distinguish between the post-WWII demographic boom in births vs. the cultural generations born during that era. Generations are a function of the common formative experiences of its members, not the fertility rates of its parents. Many experts now believe it breaks down more or less this way:

    DEMOGRAPHIC boom in babies: 1946-1964
    Baby Boom GENERATION: 1942-1953
    Generation Jones: 1954-1965
    Generation X: 1966-1978

    Here is an op-ed about GenJones as the new generation of leadership in USA TODAY:
    http://www.usatoday.com/printedition/news/20090127/column27_st.art.htm

  2. @Martin – I very much agree with what you are saying here although one has to take into account all aspects of the argument. We can all be to some extent guilty of adopting a rather blinkered view to these issues and for the most part, stepping back and observing the ‘bigger picture’ can almost always produce optimistic results.

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