2018 Update on Generational Data
Earlier this year, the 2017 American Community Survey Data was released from the Census Bureau. Naturally, I took the opportunity to update my own numbers on "generational" data, even though I love this piece that questions the whole point of it. I particularly loved this quote, which is something that I've bemoaned repeatedly on this site and tends to literally drive me insane:
Next, we need to quite using these nonsensical generations labels, because they don't mean anything. The start and end years are somewhat arbitrary anyway. (Kevin's note: I would say TOTALLY ARBITRARY). The original conceptualization of social generations started with a biological generational interval of about 20 years, which historians, sociologists and demographers (for one example, see Strauss and Howe, 1991) then retrofitted with various significant historical events that defined the period.
The problem with this is twofold. First, such events do not occur in nice, neat 20-year intervals. Second, not everyone agrees on what the key events were for each generation, so the start and end dates also move around depending on what people think they were. One review found that start and end dates for boomers, Xers and millennials varied by as many as nine years, and often four or five, depending on the study and the researcher. As with the statistical problem, how can distinct generations be a thing if simply defining when they start and when they end varies so much from study to study?
I would add to the comments that it’s amazing to me that serious researchers often fall into the trap of characterizing millions of people by completely arbitrary dates, applied without any rigor whatsoever. For example, I’ve often heard demographers say that 1964 is the last year of the Baby Boom, since it’s the last year that live births were above 4 million. And yet, it was only 1954-64 when the US had more than 4 million live births. 1946-53 were all under 4 million, and some under by a large amount. In case that math is tricky for you, 1954 was a full 9 years after the end of WWII.
And of course I can't let go the completely random choice of 1979 or 1980 as the endpoint for Generation X. Because - what, we saw a zero there and decided to stop it? Because it was the beginning of Reagan? If so, why didn't the Baby Boom end in 1960? The common trick of using 1979 or 1980 often leaves Generation X with 3-5 fewer years than other age cohorts. Wow - no wonder it's so small!
I agree with the article’s author that these definitions and stereotypes are silly at best, but if we are going to use them, can we at least apply a little rigor to he dates? Like, for example, assigning 18 years exactly to each age cohort? If we did just that, starting in 1946 would give 1946-1963 for Baby Boom, 1964-1981 for Generation X and 1982-1999 for Millennial. Hey - that also rather works out well.
If you stick to a modicum of rigor, it also means you can begin to draw somewhat more scientific comparisons. Did you know that if that simple adjustment was made, you’d find that there are 5 million more Generation X people alive in the US today than Baby Boomers? You might also learn for example, that it’s been about 15 years since the Baby Boomers were a larger age cohort than Generation X. Would that impact anyone’s thinking about generational stereotypes?
Again, I reiterate that I think these stereotypes are often silly and unproductive. But, I do think people should look at real data as to who exists in their country and community, and not rely on lazy tropes.
To that end, using my own simpler generational years noted above, here's some data:
Live births by Generation:
Baby Boom 71,794,354
Generation X 62,567,332
2016 population by Generation:
Baby Boom 69,649,673
Generation X 74,377,600
It's obvious that immigration to the US has played a role in the size of the different age cohorts. And, of course, that we grow old and people pass on. From my standpoint as someone that cares about correct information, what I encourage people to take from this is to not rely on narratives or lazy journalistic memes about who lives in your community. Do your own research, check your own numbers. You might be surprised to learn that in your community, the largest age cohort is Generation X.