What defines a generation?

Social scientists answer this question by clinically dividing generations into conventional year ranges. Following the influential Pew Research Centre’s conventions, we have the Silent Generation (1920–1945), Baby Boomers (1946–1964), Gen X (1965–1980), Millennials (also Gen Y: 1980–1996) and Gen Z (1997–2012). The provisionally labelled Gen Alpha—those born after 2012—is still too young to be researched meaningfully, given some members of this nascent generation are yet to be born.

While the year ranges vary around the edges, the labels have solidified and entered popular imagination, as the Millennial meme “OK Boomer” testifies. According to this generational schema, this writer is a member of Gen X. Marketers, who drive much of the interest in generational research, for obvious reasons, reliably inform me that Gen X is now ‘middle-aged.’ Sobering, yet undeniable, for I am staring down the barrel of 45 as I type these words.

An arbitrary year range might be an effective way of sorting generations for research. But this method fails to capture anything approaching the defining spirit of a generation, let alone the experience of growing up in a specific place and time. As far as the actual human beings that populate the year ranges stipulated by researchers go, it
is culture, technology and historical events that tangibly define their sense of generational identity. For Boomers, it was The Beatles, hippies, record players, drive-in-movies, colour TV and the Vietnam War that capture something of the essence of growing up in the 60s and 70s.

For this Gen Xer, it is grunge, Pulp Fiction, Michael Jordan, cassette tapes, VCRs, flannelette shirts and Airwalks that evoke something of growing up in the 80s and 90s. It also means that glorious, yet all-too-brief, ‘end of history’ moment in the 90s, a blissful hiatus between the possibility of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War and the post-9/11 world of suicide bombers.
For the kids of today, one imagines it will be China, global warming, some more China, and a certain pandemic better left unnamed. Gen X owns the distinction of being the last generation to reach adulthood in an analogue world—I didn’t even know what the Internet was when I graduated high school in 1994.

Admittedly, this approach to defining generations falls far short of scientific probity. In reality, generations are constituted by competing sub-cultures and divergent experiences—Madonna and Metallica are both products of the 1980s, after all. Still, the cultural, technological, and historical context in which we are raised, educated and formed provide us with a unique generational identity—streaming Pulp Fiction on your iPhone while riding your E-scooter just isn’t the same as watching it at the cinema in 1994, or hiring the video cassette from the video store.

Once you attain middle age, you slowly come to realise that the world that formed you no longer exists. It has faded, now to live on only in the recesses of your memory. It begins to dawn on you, for example, that your insistence that Nirvana’s song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is one of the most significant moments in music history is sounding a little retro, or worse, antiquated. You look around and realise that you have lost the cultural fluency you once enjoyed, as you behold man-buns, colonial era beards, tattoo sleeves, memes, Tik Tok, and the end of the planet.


Truth is, I am now an overeducated middle-aged grown-up, proud owner of an impossibly large mortgage, parent vainly trying to convince a Gen Alpha kid that there is more to life than an iPad, while patiently waiting for the last stubborn Baby Boomers to vacate their place at the top of the ladder so that my generation can have its shot at ruining society.

In some parts of the world, Gen Xers already find themselves at the helm of Socrates’ veritable ship of state, such as France’s Emmanuel Macron (b.1977), Canada’s Justin Trudeau (b.1971) and Australia’s Scott Morrison (b.1968). New Zealand’s very own Jacinda Ardern is also a Gen Xer, just. She scrapes in, being born in 1980 (some researchers draw the Gen X line at 1979, making her a Millennial!). If hype is anything to go by (or mania in the case of Jacinda), there is a lot of excitement about the emergent reign of Gen X. As in many things in life, America remains a perplexing anomaly—the 78-year-old Joe Biden belongs to the Silent Generation. At this rate, New Zealand will be on to Gen Z by the time the first Gen Xer gets his or her hands on the nuclear briefcase.

Baby Boomers are handing over the baton of institutional leadership to Gen X at a precarious moment. In his book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, American psycholinguist (yes, that is a real thing) Steven Pinker prosecutes a thesis that can be succinctly summarised as ‘stop whining, the world is fricking awesome.’ And yet even he gloomily notes that, “since the 1960s, trust in the institutions of modernity has sunk.” His book is a valiant attempt to medicate the institutional depression that has befallen late modernity… or is that post-modernity, or even post-post-modernity? The fact is the generations coming down the pipeline take a dim view of the legitimacy, utility, and purpose of the institutions that sustained Western civilisation until yesterday. Indeed, for many Millennials and Gen Zers the very concept of ‘Western civilisation’ is code for a morally bankrupt, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic regime dedicated solely to serving the interests of a wealthy, white, privileged, male elite.

This institutional scepticism is based on a complex mixture of well-evidenced institutional failure, on the one hand, and misperception and illusion on the other. Is there any graver institutional failure than the sexual abuse scandals plaguing the Christian churches? Or anything pettier and more pointless than trying to get one of your co-workers fired because they believe in a traditional view of marriage?

No doubt some institutional change is necessary. They are constituted by human beings, after all, and therefore capable of error, and worse, injustice. But today’s institutional scepticism is a cocktail of the sublime and the absurd.

For older generations, working in an institution was a form of civic service, if not duty. It was about other people, not the ego-driven self. For younger generations, it is an expression of personal identity. Institutions now stand for something. Their values are more important than what they actually do.

And those values better comport with those of its young work-force or the social-media activists who have made policing speech an artform, lest a public relations nightmare emerge. The pressure from today’s impatient, indignant, cancel-happy youth leaves the new wave of Gen X institutional leaders in a difficult predicament: undertaking prudent and necessary institutional reform, while at the same time preserving vital, yet increasingly unpopular, institutional continuity. As self-professed man of letters Russell Kirk wrote in The Politics of Prudence, before institutions were under assault, “permanence and change must be recognised and reconciled in a vigorous society.”


Speaking of prudence, this is an appropriate juncture to say something about the term ‘institution.’ For many, it is just another name for ‘organisation,’ which is to say, ‘a body of persons organised for some end or work.’ Institutions certainly can be conceived as a type of organisation. But they are also much more than this. American political scientist Yuval Levin, in his passionate defence of institutions A Time to Build, describes them as “…the durable forms of our common life,” the “frameworks and structures of what we do together.”
In other words, institutions are formative in a way that mere organisations are not. They also serve as a stabilising force in society in a way that mere organisations do not. A Rotary Club can do good in the community, but it’s not formative in a way that schools and universities are, for example. Nor is it integral to the stability of society in the way that parliaments and courts are. Institutions, by virtue of their formative and stabilising nature, have a profound impact on the kind of society we form and inhabit. The formative nature of institutions is aptly, if a little facetiously, illustrated by writer Matt Purple’s observations on American schools:

Curricula are formative, directly shaping how the young view themselves and the world around them. For that reason, they’re social goods. If schools choose to teach that America is systemically bigoted, that 1776 is irredeemable, that victimisation is chic, that your truth supersedes the truth, that everyone the world over is either a racist or an anti-racist, then what will emerge off of the conveyor belt are little monsters. And those monsters will one day make up our society, a society they’ve been given no reason to admire and preserve.

In other words, institutions matter. Their social impact extends well beyond the boundaries of their immediate remit and operations. Collectively, institutions are integral to that most important, and most overlooked and undervalued, social good: order. It is tempting to think that the alternative, and thus solution, to institutional failure is to simply get rid of them, or perhaps rebuild them all from scratch. The former prescription leads to one destination, and one alone: chaos. The latter is to call for revolution, typically a recipe for violent chaos in the short term followed by years of soul-crushing oppression in the long term.

Swedish management scholar Staffan Furusten reminds us in Institutional Theory and Organizational Change that the influence of institutions does not flow only in one direction. He makes the observation that institutions in turn are shaped by the society in which they are embedded. Furusten calls this the “institutional environment,” his term for the ideas, rules, fashions, ideologies and norms that shape and constrain the operation of institutions. The institutional environment determines what is legally, socially and psychologically permissible for organisations.

To state the obvious, Gen Xers are arriving at the summit of society in an institutional environment that is far from auspicious. Not only do Gen X leaders confront a widespread crisis of faith in the legitimacy of institutions and the flirtation with revolution it provokes, they also confront unprecedented demands from young institutional employees and ‘stakeholders’ (I use the term loosely). These are the demands that institutions bend, twist and conform to the high-maintenance personal needs and dogmatic social ideals of their most junior and inexperienced employees.

I’m talking, of course, about Purple’s little monsters, the prod- ucts of infantilising parenting and an education system that prioritises ideological activism over truth and knowledge. Our institutions are rapidly being populated with university-educated activists possessed of an overweening sense of social responsibility and a grossly inflated sense of their own abilities. Urgency and ignorance are not an effective combination of attributes for achieving anything.

All this leaves Gen X with an enormous and awful responsibility: to salvage what institutional legitimacy remains, restore what institutional legitimacy has been lost (preferably by running institutions with wisdom and competency—a more effective combo than urgency and ignorance), discern what prudent institutional changes are necessary and achievable, while resisting the temper tantrums and foot stomping of an exuberant, yet badly misguided, youth.

Perhaps the most daunting task before today and tomorrow’s Gen X leaders is mentoring the next generation of leaders that will follow them. I have spent my entire professional career working in institutions. I spent 13 years working in several different departments and agencies of the federal government of Australia in Canberra, and the last seven in a university. Throughout my institutional career I have had the privilege of serving under some very fine Boomer mentors. Men and women committed to the idea that institutions transcend personal needs, wants, egos and predilections. I learnt firsthand that for every spectacular and depressing institutional failure dripping in saturation media coverage there were many unheralded institutional successes, contributions to that aforementioned prerequisite of human flourishing: order. The question is: Will Gen X, indeed can Gen X,
mentor effectively future Millennial and Gen Z leaders? We will learn the answer sooner rather than later. That much is certain.

It is a common prejudice for every generation to sheet the blame for the world’s ills and woes to the generation that preceded it. It is also a common prejudice to regard the generations that succeed you as representing a decline from a higher standard. While Boomers and Millennials provide plenty of fodder in this regard, the sad truth is that Gen X is not innocent. In spite of many Gen X women delaying childbirth until their 30s (one of the social changes witnessed in Gen X), the fact is that many Gen Xers are the parents of Millennials and Gen-Zers, and if not their parents, then at least a good portion of their teachers, at school and university. Gen X has served as a transitional generation, a bridge between some of the worst ideas concocted by Boomers and their manifestation in Millennials. Thus far, we Xers have done precious little to stem the tide and everything to facilitate it.

For better or for worse, Gen X is entering its moment in the sun and with it a disproportionate responsibility for our future. Our characteristic blend of cynicism and individualism, while uber cool, is not exactly well suited to the task. So, I confess to feeling more than a little pessimistic about the prospects of Gen X salvation. But the task before us is real. It is also consequential. How may Gen X leave behind a more vigorous society for our children and grandchildren? The first step towards salvation is comprehending and acknowledging the true nature of the challenge and stakes at hand.

The Political Animals

Dr Jonathan Cole

Dr Jonathan Cole is Assistant Director at the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia, where he works on political theology: the intersection of religion and politics. He is a political junky and podcast tragic, bringing the two together in the happy marriage that is his own podcast, The Political Animals: https://anchor.fm/politicalanimals. He also tweets up a storm at @polanimalspod.