The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Nov 012010

I have recently run into discussions where there is confusion about the date boundaries and sizes of generations. Even the word “generation” can sometimes be up for contention. On the definition of “generation,” I don’t get hot and bothered about it.  The etymological history of the word “generation” is sufficiently broad (having been applied to families, computers, eras, what have you), that people are pretty much free to call any arbitrary cohort group a “generation” if they feel like it.  Most of these definitions, however, are ad hoc.  Even the famous Census Bureau definition of Boomers (which they define as 1946-64) is ad hoc, determined entirely by an arbitrary uptick and then downtick along a broad fertility-rate swell.

Very few of these definitions pretend to adhere to general rules about how social generations arise in history—which is what Bill and I have worked hard to do.  If you would like a definition of a social generation that puts all generations on a level playing field, so to speak, and links generations in some reliable way to historical events and trends, you may like what we have to offer.  But if you don’t care for such a definition, you probably won’t bother.

Now, on how and whether America’s demographics is or is not linked to an “age of austerity.”  This is a question on which I have written a lot.

The demographic challenge facing America is not as severe as the challenge facing near all of the other developed countries (and even some of the developing countries, like China).  The reason is pretty simple: We have a higher fertility rate and we have a higher immigration rate.  Indeed, we are the *only* developed country experiencing  “replacement rate” fertility.  And we are the only developed country whose total population is projected to continue growing (albeit very slowly), and not turn negative, through to the end of the next century.  The U.S. fiscal situation is also helped by the fact that our pay-as-you-go cash pension system is smaller and less generous, relative to GDP, than those of other countries.  But this plus is more than offset by our super-expensive health-care entitlement edifice, which is much more expensive as a share of GDP than any other country’s and is growing faster as a share of GDP.  (I’m very disappointed by Obama’s missed opportunity here, btw.  Rather than fix this broken system, the administration put new fuel into it, made it larger, and then called it “reform.”  But I’m digressing.)

All that being said, it is not true that we don’t face the same adverse demographic trends that these other countries face.  We do, only to a somewhat lesser degree.  We also face it more suddenly than Europe or Japan because we experienced a larger-than-normal swing from a (relatively small) generation of new Silent (born 1925-1942) retirees to a (relatively large) generation of new Boomer retirees.  So whereas Europe and Japan have their “aging” spread out over many decades, the U.S. age wave is all compressed into the just the next two, the 2010s and the 2020s.  This aging will exert a severe multiplier on U.S. entitlement spending (again, Medicare and Medicaid especially) at the worst possible time—since we enter these decades already running vast deficits, with a weak economy, and with new strains on unrelated auxiliary benefit spending, like disability and unemployment.

If you’d like more detail on exactly how our fiscal projections compare to those of other countries, take a look at the presentation of results from our new CSIS study  for Prudential:  I think the numbers speak for themselves.  To read our Op-Ed on the GAP Index that appeared in a recent NYT, see

Finally, on the issue of generational size.  I think I’ve said this before on the: The “baby bust” that America experienced during the most of the Generation X (born 1961-1981) birth years resulted in a sizable dip in the number of births—but this dip is hardly visible anymore when you look today at population by age bracket.  The reason: Immigration.  Gen X is by a sizable margin the largest generation of immigrants per capita of all of today’s living generations.

Take a look at the table (for 2009) I’m inserting below.  It’s shows pretty much the same number of Americans by age bracket until you get to the early wave Boomer (born 1943-1960).  Normally, in a society with more traditional fertility, the number per age bracket would decline sharply across the entire x axis.  So the fact that the line is level until about age 50 is itself a sign of an aging society.  You can also see, anomalously, a slight rise in the late 40s and early 50s, which is a lingering sign of the “boom”—still visible, despite the rising mortality in these brackets.  But clearly it is *not* true that the Xer cohorts today are dramatically smaller than the Boomer or Millennial (born 1982-200?) cohorts.

Chart of US Population by Age group
Chart of US Population by Age group

We’ve always thought that including the 1961-64 cohorts as part of Gen X *clarifies* the generational distinction. This is the group which has no peer connection to the youth rebellion crescendo of the sixties and early seventies. This is also the group that includes so many of the iconic leaders of Gen X (including the guy who gave it its name). Plus, per my reading of the surveys, the arrival of this cohort into each new age bracket—starting with their filling of colleges and the military in the early Reagan years–has coincided with a seismic recognition that something big was changing in that age bracket. I noticed it as a teaching assistant at grad school back in 1980s… we Boomer Teaching Assistants all talked about it. And this was years before I ever thought about writing about generations.

Needless to say, both our chapter on “The 13th Generations” in “Generations” (1991) and our book “13th GEN” (1993) were hugely influenced by this “dazed and confused” leading-edge cohort group, who were then in their late 20s… about where Millennials are today. Boomers, not. Imho.

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  • JPT

    I’ve taken issue with the Boomer/X dividing line here and on the Fourth Turning forum in the past. I’m a 1975 Xer, and I base it solely on the fact that I don’t relate to people born from 1961-1964 as Xers. It’s subjective, but it seems pretty clear to me. Since we are talking about “social” generations, I’m not sure there is a “right answer”, but that’s my purely anecdotal 2 cents.

  • HKA

    I agree with JPT. I just don’t think of those 1961-1964 Xers as “true” Xers. (I know that’s gonna draw some fire, but a lot of mid to late Xers feel that way.) However, I definitely don’t see them as Boomers either. It could be that the similarities are easier to see from the outside looking in. For instance, my Boomer parents, born 1946 and 1949, are constantly telling their younger siblings, born in the mid 50’s, that they’re not “real” Boomers, because they didn’t truly experience the 60’s. Of course the younger group adamantly disagrees. (I always roll my eyes and say, “You are all soooo Boomer, but it’s pointless to argue with you.”) I think Strauss & Howe’s assessment that the ’61-’64 cohort has more in common with X than with the baby boomers is correct. It’s like, their “St. Elmo’s Fire” was our “Reality Bites,” to be succinctly ridiculous. (I’m a little embarrassed by that last line, but I think I’ll let in stand.)nI also think Sean Love’s comments last month on subgenerational categories and same-parent cohorts are very insightful.

  • POW

    Look at the index from listed in the note. Note where countries Mexico and China where there is an inverse relationship. Think of the effect of this.

  • Michael Shores

    The search for a distinct dividing line is fruitless. Yes, there are seminal events, but they do not necessarily affect everyone in a culture. There are also demographic variations. For example, I was born in 1947 and technically a Baby Boomer. But I was born into an extended family in a small midwestern city, not into a nuclear family in a suburb of a coastal city. As a result, I seem to have much more in common with the Silent generation than with the Baby Boom generation. So, I think that one generation transitions into another generation over a period of a decade or more as regional, class and other difference are examined. I suppose the same is true of some of the transitions from one turning to another, even a 3rd into a 4th, especially when the fourth turning is heralded by a chain of events rather that one immediate shock.

  • jami

    I was born in 1964. I don’t feel a part of either group – boomers or X.rnWe are the Void Generation.rnThe Void may be hidden by immigration but we know who we are.

  • My brother (b. 1962) made an interesting list one day about the 61-64 cohort. It included several historic events including the draft ending in 1973 – when the oldest Xer was just 12. He said he and his older cousins often talked about the draft. It was defining for them, but not for him. rnrnI wish I knew even half of what you know. I’d be brilliant!

  • Also, a couple years ago, I was writing about Gen X for an Oklahoma magazine. I pulled Census data to verify numbers of Gen Xers in Oklahoma (including the 61-64 births) and discovered in Oklahoma, Gen X out-ranked Boomers in size. I found this especially interesting for a state that experienced a large brain-drain in the 80s and 90s when Xers were graduating college.

  • Cohort74

    What is the rationale for making the division 1961 and not 1960? I guess the idea was that 1960 kids have some (very dim) recollection of the Kennedy assassination, but that 1961 kids don’t?rnrnOr is it simply the Eisenhower presidency?rnrnPersonally, I don’t think of anyone born after 1959 as a Boomer. The distinction between the Xers of the 1960s and the Xers of the 1970s noted above are real. This the X vs Y debate (millenials are not Gen Y, they are Gen Z). The big difference I think is that 1970s kids (particularly the oldest child) were much more likely to have early wave Boomer parents, which gave them some different influences at home.rnrnIt is intersting to see that the 1970s cohort politicians are getting elected in numbers roughly similar to that of their much older 1960s bretheren, suggesting that the later cohorts of the Xers, which generally had better rates of school completion and earned more advanaced degrees (Xer educational achievement increased with each cohort, a mirror image of the Boomers, where it declined), will wind up making the largest Xer contributions.rnrn