2000), has recently completed an analysis of attrition behavior of junior officers based on popular characterizations of “boomers” and “Xers” as portrayed by Howe and Strauss (1993), Legree (1997), and Zemke et al. (2000). The use of this literature is not limited to the United States: a report of the Department of Defense Canada (Wait, 2001) also draws on work on generations by Adams (1997, 2000) to contrast “elders,” “boomers,” and “Gen Xers.”
In this letter we examine two key ideas presented in the popular literature: there are distinct generations with sharp differences among them, and there are large and dramatic differences among youth cohorts in different generations. For example, on “the next great generation” (Millennials Rising, p.4):
As a group millennials are unlike any youth generation in living memory…. Over the next decade the millennial generation will entirely recast the image of youth from downbeat and alienated to upbeat and engaged—with potentially seismic consequences for America.
We also consider the quality of the research and analysis used to support these ideas. The committee reviewed eight books that are heavily cited by the DoD in analyzing and characterizing generations and in designing recruiting and advertising strategies: Generations (Strauss and Howe, 1991), Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture (Copland, 1991), 13th Turning (Howe and Strauss, 1993), The Official Guide to Generations (Mitchell, 1995), American Generations (Mitchell, 1998), The Fourth Turning (Strauss and Howe, 1998), Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers and Nexers in Your Workplace (Zemke et al., 2000), and Millennials Rising (Howe and Strauss, 2000).
The popular generational literature (e.g., the “baby boomers,” “generation X,” the “millennials”) synthesizes information from demographic projections, surveys based on selective samples, magazine articles, and newspaper reports. This information is not a part of the peer-reviewed scientific literature.
The style of this literature is engaging and entertaining. Its message for millennials is often positive, even refreshingly optimistic. It communicates a buoyant enthusiasm for youth, for the future, and for the country. There is intuitive appeal to these ideas. Indeed, everyday language is sprinkled with associated labels. It is commonplace to speak of the “founding fathers,” the “Depression-era generation,” and “boomers.” Although such generalizations are the stuff of casual talk and common in the popular press, they are not the focused concepts and explanatory devices of social science research, and they rarely stand up under the careful scrutiny of that research. The seminal work by Ryder (1964; 1965) and the exhaustive review by Riley, Foner, and Waring (1988) explore the theoretical and methodological complexity and confusions in comparing the characteristics or life-course experiences of members of one age group with those of another without specifically defining explanatory variables but rather indexing them only by age and date. That is, one cannot use only people’s ages and fixed dates to compare cohorts; one must specify the events and experiences that are hypothesized to lead to cohort differences and systematically test those hypotheses.