Monday, May 1, 2017

Generations and the Seminal Events That Define Them.

Good morning
"And the beat goes on....................."

In an article in New York Magazine by Jesse Singal, he posits that there are really two groups within the Millennial generation (roughly those born between 1981 and 2000) - what he terms Older Millennials (those born around 1983, which includes him), and Younger Millennials (those born in 1989 and after) - and that each is defined by when the seminal events that impacted the Millennial generation hit.  Those events are suggested to include the 2008 financial crisis and the rise of smartphones.

"Their impact can’t be overstated, and because of precisely when they hit, it really might be the case that in 2017 a 33-year-old is more different from a 23-year-old than at any other point in recent history. 
Take the financial crash. Many Old Millennials were either already in the workforce by then, or close enough to entering it that we were able to “sneak in” before the crisis had fully unfurled itself. Which means we were raised and educated during a period in which we were promised that if we followed the rules in certain ways, there would be gainful employment waiting for us in our early or mid-20s — which there often was. The same definitely cannot be said of Young Millennials. The crisis permanently rejiggered the world for them. They grew up, like us Old Millennials, assuming that things would more or less work out if they followed the rules laid out by adults, only to have the rug pulled out from under them entirely during a very formative period in their lives.
Then there are smartphones and social media, which hit the two halves of the generation in massively different ways. For us Old Millennials, the social aspects of our middle- and high-school-years were lived mostly offline. Sure, AOL Instant Messenger was a pretty big deal when it first caught on, but most of us didn’t even have cell phones until college, and smartphones until after. Think about all the stuff you go through between the ages of 12 and 22 in terms of your development as a person. Now think about how many of those experiences are affected by the presence or absence of a cell phone and social media.

That makes sense to me, and the same theory would apply to my generation of Boomers.  Older Boomers were just on the cusp of becoming young adults when the Vietnam War was central to American politics, while Younger Boomers were of the same age when Watergate was the dominant issue of the times.  While part of the same generation, those two events created different impacts on each segment.  The reaction to the Vietnam War, coupled with the change in lifestyle attitudes (dress, music, relationships, sex, and authority), laid the groundwork for how the second half of the Boomers dealt with Watergate and the Nixon Whitehouse and the American attitudes at the time.

So what?

The point being that broad descriptions of a generation can be misleading, if not outright, erroneous, as likely every generation has at least two sub-groups that share similar experiences and contexts resulting in shared attitudes and challenges faced, but which groups are very different beings depending on when within the generation they transition to young adulthood.   And it's very likely that there are numerous divisions within each sub-category depending on education, income, where one grew up, religion, ethnicity, and so on.  What is the value of knowing this?  I think the reality that no generation is a monolithic entity, and no universal characteristics or attributes can be easily assigned to the whole of what we have decided to call a "generation" is knowledge that might help us as we formulate strategies that target generations - whether as audiences, supporters, donors or whatever.  Talking about and fashioning approaches to Millennials, for example, for whatever purpose, should not presuppose they are uniform in either their experience or their thinking, let alone their behavior.   It's easy to deal with them as though they all think alike and act alike, but they don't.  The appellation "millennial" is really of limited use.  In discussions involving that generation, it's more a starting point, then the final destination.  I think perhaps we've been treating it as the end point.  We bandy about the term "millennial" as though 80 million people share lots of things beyond their birthdays.  Some do, others don't, but we treat them conceptually like they are a monolithic entity.  The same applies in retrospect to the Boomers.  I went to school at UC Berkeley.  We use to think the Boomers all across the nation were a united front; we were in this together.  How wrong we were.  We may have shared the same music and the same global events, but not much more.  Certainly not politics, nor even basic values.  In the last election some Boomers were for Hillary, others for Trump.  The only real value of even having a label like Boomers has devolved into a simple way to describe people of a certain age - and not much more. And that may be as true for Generation X and Millennials as well.  If we want to single out generations, we need to dig a lot deeper than a couple of shared decades.

But as an aside, all this does make me wonder what are the events that are now - or will soon be - impacting the current generation - those born after 2000, and which would then extend to those born up to 2020 or so.  I don't know what people are calling them - say, hypothetically, Generation Q.  The early part of this generation were still kids when both the 2008 financial crisis hit and smartphones were introduced and began to change the world. Both realities were part of the fabric of the country before they reached their teens.  In 2017 they are just beginning to enter young adulthood, and so the seminal events impacting that transition period are just coming to the fore.  It seems reasonable that the global populist movement (including Trump's election) and the global march towards authoritarianism might be one of the events that will define the first half of this generation.  We can only speculate on the ramifications of these developments and how the impacts will manifest, but it seems likely they will somehow impact the first half of this generation.  It may be reasonable to suppose that the growth of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, as they proceed apace, might be the events that will significantly impact the second half of this generation, but again, we can only speculate on how those impacts will be manifested.  These are just before the fact guesses.

The question of how those events (or others, and what they might be) and their impacts, will influence and impact our sector - in terms of everything ranging from public value of the arts, to public and private funding, to audience development, to job displacement, to artistic creativity and even to organizational management and leadership dynamics - should soon be something we begin to ask.  And we would likely profit from some early consideration of what it all might mean; not now, but in a decade.  It should be obvious by now that planning for the reality of a decade in the future, needs to begin immediately.

Of course, there may soon be other (currently unknown) developments that will eclipse and dwarf these two events and more dramatically impact the next generation (pandemics, nuclear war, climate change resulting in droughts and famines or who knows what), and we can't be absolutely sure until after the fact.  But the idea of investigating the reasonable possibilities seems like something all sectors will soon be embarking on, and so should we.

This is yet more fodder (in a very long list of things) for heavy consideration by Arts ThinkTanks.  Too bad we don't have one.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit