The Real Generation Gap

By Samuelson, Robert J. | Newsweek, March 15, 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Real Generation Gap

Samuelson, Robert J., Newsweek

Byline: Robert J. Samuelson

Young adults are getting slammed.

The "generation gap" endures as a staple of American political and social analysis. The notion that the special circumstances and experiences of succeeding cohorts imbue them with different perceptions, beliefs, and values seems intuitively reasonable and appealing. It's also flattering. In a mass-market culture, belonging to a distinct subgroup, even if it numbers many millions, creates a sense of identity. In a 1969 Gallup poll, 74 percent of Americans believed in "the generation gap." A poll last year found that 79 percent still do.

Between then and now, of course, generations have shifted. Then it was baby boomers (those now 46 to 64) arrayed against the World War II and Depression generations. Now it's "millennials" (those 29 or younger) and Gen Xers (from 30 to 45) vying with boomers and the dwindling World War II and Depression cohorts. These generational boundaries are somewhat arbitrary, and other individual differences (income, religion, education, geography) usually count for more. Still, generational contrasts are one way to plot change and continuity in America.

Consider a study of the 50 million millennials 18 and older by the Pew Research Center. The report found some surprising and some not-so-surprising developments. Surprising (to me): almost two fifths of millennials (38 percent) have tattoos, up from a third (32 percent) among Gen Xers and a seventh (15 percent) among boomers. Not surprising: millennials are the first truly digital generation. Three quarters have created a profile on Facebook or some other social-networking site. Only half of Gen Xers and 30 percent of boomers have done so. A fifth of millennials have posted videos of themselves online, far more than Gen Xers (6 percent) or boomers (2 percent).

In many ways, millennials merely extend existing social trends. Since the end of the draft in the early 1970s, military service has become increasingly rare. Just 2 percent of millennial men are veterans; at a similar age, 13 percent of boomers and 24 percent of older Americans were. Every generation shows more racial and sexual openness. Half of millennials favor gay marriage; among boomers and older Americans, support is a third and a quarter, respectively.

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