Talkin’ ’Bout Your Generation

By Steven Chean Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

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Talkin’ ’Bout Your Generation:

Ah yes, that time-tested evergreen, trundled out at holiday parties, family gatherings and pretty much anytime the alcohol starts flowing: “My generation is [glowing superlatives here]. Your generation is [insult here].” The argument is inevitable, considering the oceans of time and complexities of circumstance separating each epoch. After all, Grandpa may have checked out at Omaha Beach, but he certainly never checked in on Foursquare. Still, there’s one truth that binds us all: Whether you’re a member of the Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, the Baby Boomers or the Gen Xers, Yers or Zers, you must understand the defining characteristics of each in order to issue an informed verbal beatdown. That’s where we come in.

HEROES

John F. Kennedy, Julia Child, Jackie Robinson, Walt Disney, Margaret Mead, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Jack Kerouac, Charles Lindbergh, Louis Armstrong, Betty Friedan, Jonas Salk, Ronald Reagan

VILLAINS

Richard Nixon, Joseph McCarthy, John Dillinger, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Joseph Bonanno, Leona Helmsley, Charles Keating Jr., Ronald Reagan

WHAT THEY’RE KNOWN FOR

Character forged on the breadlines of the Great Depression, bravery tested via drop-kicking Hitler to the great hereafter, ingenuity demonstrated while building America into the greatest country on earth—in the midst of the Cold War, no less. Did we mention frugality, personal responsibility and humility? Well, those too.

WHAT WE THINK OF THEM

“It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced,” writes newsman Tom Brokaw in his aptly titled best-seller The Greatest Generation. They fought “not for fame and recognition but because it was the right thing to do.”

WHAT THEY’D RATHER YOU NOT KNOW

According to polls conducted as late as the 1990s, the Greatest Generation might not have been as great as previously thought. The majority of them opposed interracial marriage, objected to the proliferation of working mothers and supported discrimination based on sexual orientation.

SHINING EXAMPLE

Like many of his peers, Ted Williams walked away from baseball, at the height of his powers, when his country needed him. Was one war enough for Williams? Hell, no. He served as a Marines fighter pilot in World War II and went back for seconds during the Korean War. “He was a marine just like the rest of us, and he did a great job,” said fellow soldier and future astronaut John Glenn. “Everybody tries to make a hero out of me,” added Williams with characteristic modesty some 39 missions and one hearing impairment later. “I was no hero. There were maybe 75 pilots in our two squadrons, and 99 percent of them did a better job than I did.”

NOT-SO-SHINING EXAMPLE

Like absolutely none of his peers, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency for his role in the Watergate conspiracy—a scandal involving wiretapping, robbery, hush money and so much more that served as a public-image wrecking ball to American politics.

BOTTOM LINE

Somehow brave and bigoted, progressive and regressive.

HEROES

Martin Luther King Jr., Elvis Presley, Hugh Hefner, Jackie Kennedy, Bob Dylan, Muhammad Ali, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Malcolm X, Gloria Steinem, Warren Buffett, Andy Warhol, Clint Eastwood, Maya Angelou, Jim Morrison, Cesar Chavez

VILLAINS

Charles Manson, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, John Gotti, Jerry Sandusky, Bernie Madoff, Jim Jones, John Wayne Gacy, Dick Cheney, Ivan Boesky, Pat Robertson, Ted Kaczynski

WHAT THEY’RE KNOWN FOR

Baby Boomers carried the torch for racial and sexual equality, but the Silent Generation sparked the match, giving birth to the leaders who got everyone marching to the promised land in the first place. And though Boomers happily take credit for making rock and roll “classic,” it’s the Silent Generation who plugged in and brought the blues-infused monster to life in the first place.

WHAT WE THINK OF THEM

We don’t. After all, they’re not called “silent” for nothing. Born into the depths of the Depression, raised hard by a world war and made paranoid by anticommunist fever, the Silent Generation grew up, according to a 1951 Time magazine cover story, “withdrawn” and “cautious,” seen and not heard. (Being sandwiched between the history-book heroics of the Greatest Generation and the larger-than-life legacy of the Boomers didn’t help.)

WHAT THEY’D RATHER YOU NOT KNOW

Sure, they walked to school…uphill…in the snow…both ways. But their tales of hard rearing (which have come to be referred to as “old-school”) mask upbringings in the most stable families in U.S. history. Plus, they were the first generation to have unprecedented access to higher education, funded by veterans benefits earned during a time of minimal bloodshed.

SHINING EXAMPLE

Perhaps no single American has brought his country closer to realizing its democratic dream than Martin Luther King Jr. In a few short years, the engine of the civil rights movement helped deliver his generation, and all those to follow, from the Jim Crow dark ages into the very real promise of justice for all.

NOT-SO-SHINING EXAMPLE

Never short on uninformed commentary, televangelist Pat Robertson has made something of a second career offering his opinion on lifestyles other than his own. To wit: “Many of those people involved in Adolf Hitler were Satanists. Many were homosexuals. The two things seem to go together.” Naturally he’s had plenty to say about feminism: “a socialist, antifamily political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

BOTTOM LINE

Shattered but sheltered. Seeking a different way and a better quality of life without fully recognizing their role in either

HEROES

Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Michael Jackson, Bill Gates, George Clooney, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jordan, David Letterman, Tom Hanks, Magic Johnson, Madonna

VILLAINS

O.J. Simpson, Donald Trump, Karl Rove, Sarah Palin, Jay Leno, Michael Moore, John Edwards, Rush Limbaugh, Mel Gibson, Kathie Lee Gifford, Michael Milken

WHAT THEY’RE KNOWN FOR

Powered by 40 percent of the U.S. population, Boomers changed the face of popular culture like no generation before or since—its movies and music, its cars and clothes, its power and politics. Taking up the cause for peace, love and understanding, they made a clean break with the past. Better yet, they did it against a backdrop of unprecedented chemical and sexual experimentation. And half a century later, they won’t let us forget it.

WHAT WE THINK OF THEM

It depends on whom you ask. According to a 2009 poll, 27 percent of people surveyed said Baby Boomers would be remembered for challenging an unjust war and changing social values. Another 42 percent claimed they would be remembered for rampant consumerism and self-indulgence. The rest simply weren’t sure or chose “nothing at all.” (We’re fairly certain all of them pondered the same question: Why won’t this generation just shut up already?)

WHAT THEY’D RATHER YOU NOT KNOW

A generation once defined by its unflinching idealism became equally noted for its narcissism and epic self-indulgence. Before long, the Me Generation, as they became known, had turned drug use into drug abuse, given us disco, tried to get rich on junk bonds and handed an unholy national debt to their children. And they’re still not done: By 2030, social welfare will buckle under the strain of one in five Americans reaching his or her conclusion.

SHINING EXAMPLE

Seeing Steve Jobs’s name on a definitive list of the 20 most influential Americans of all time—alongside the likes of George Washington, Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison—should come as no surprise. Who else so completely changed the way we live our lives? Before his death at 56, Apple’s founder revolutionized not only personal computing but also the wireless, music and film industries. And we had the feeling he was just getting started.

NOT-SO-SHINING EXAMPLE

Gordon Gekko, the character who claims “greed is good” in the 1980s capitalism-on-steroids classic Wall Street, is, the filmmakers admitted, partly based on Michael Milken. At his peak, Milken earned between $200 million and $550 million a year by bankrolling mergers and acquisitions with junk bonds. Since doing time for securities fraud, ponying up $600 million in fines and being diagnosed with prostate cancer, he has turned his moneymaking mind to the treatment of cancer and other diseases. If he funds a cure, we’ll call it even.

BOTTOM LINE

Apparently there is an I in team.

HEROES

Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Jay Z, Kurt Cobain, Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, Jawed Karim, Tina Fey, Judd Apatow, J.K. Rowling, Dave Eggers, Tiger Woods

VILLAINS

Kanye West, Lance Armstrong, Kobe Bryant, John Mayer, Gwyneth Paltrow, Alex Rodriguez, Charlie Sheen, Jesse James, Tiger Woods

WHAT THEY’RE KNOWN FOR

Slacking. And changing the world. The children of MTV and Reaganomics came out of the gate the radiant products of divorce, a broken political process, an AIDS epidemic, yuppie materialism and diminished prospects amid a cavalcade of financial meltdowns. Written off as detached and disenfranchised, they’ve shown serious entrepreneurial skills, transforming our lives with Google, YouTube, Amazon and more.

WHAT WE THINK OF THEM

Boy, that ambiguous X sure has come in handy. A generation devoted to fighting corruption, embracing diversity and searching for personal freedom has desperately sought a sense of security. The same group that excelled at education and volunteerism can’t seem to shake its slacker reputation. The young adults who put off having families of their own are hitting middle age only to confront the same nagging question: “How am I going to pay the rent?”

WHAT THEY’D RATHER YOU NOT KNOW

While they’d have you believe they hold the patent on existential angst (grunge, anyone?), Gen Xers are actually “active, balanced and happy,” according to a 2011 study. Pessimistic about marriage? Bah. A higher percentage of them stay together compared with Boomers, and a majority claim to enjoy the institution. They’re social, hardworking, devoted parents—a generation that has grown into “technologically savvy, adventurous pragmatists.”

SHINING EXAMPLE

If the man once known as Shawn Carter had simply gone from rags to riches, he’d be like many who came before him. But in becoming Jay Z, a symbol of human potential realized, he’s like no one else. In a mere 20 years, the kid from Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects has gone from dopeman to superman—a hip-hop hall of famer turned visionary entrepreneur with a net worth of approximately $500 million. Businessman, family man, Beyoncé’s man, Jigga Man snapped the slacker stereotype without losing an ounce of integrity.

NOT-SO-SHINING EXAMPLE

On August 24, 2012 the United States Anti-Doping Agency concluded that champion cyclist Lance Armstrong had engaged in “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” In that moment the poster child for triumph over adversity, who inspired a generation to live strong, was revealed to be a one-man force of corruption—and a real a-hole.

BOTTOM LINE

The apathy and cynicism you’ve heard about—never mind.

HEROES

Mark Zuckerberg, Beyoncé, David Karp, Lady Gaga, Lena Dunham, Adele, Kevin Systrom, Serena Williams, Jennifer Lawrence, Frank Ocean, Sandra Fluke

VILLAINS

Kim Kardashian, LeBron James, Lindsay Lohan, Michael Vick, Casey Anthony, Chris Brown, Paris Hilton, Anne Hathaway, Ryan Braun, Aaron Hernandez, Justin Bieber

WHAT THEY’RE KNOWN FOR

They’re digital natives: Millennials who tried to quit social media showed the same symptoms as drug addicts in withdrawal. They’re children of the Great Recession, which has left them overeducated, underemployed perpetual tenants of their helicopter parents. Still, the generation most responsible for electing Barack Obama is nothing if not open-minded and optimistic about the future.

WHAT WE THINK OF THEM

Our opinion changes about as often as their Facebook status. A knowing, media-savvy generation, they grew up fast, sexting before it was even a word. The fact that fewer of them drive, uncertain as to whether they need or even want a car, simultaneously confuses and impresses their elders. Coddled from the crib, they lack the gumption to leave the nest and achieve. Yet, paradoxically, they’re entrepreneurial and have excelled outside the confines of the cubicle—though maybe not as much as their profiles would have us believe.

WHAT THEY’D RATHER YOU NOT KNOW

They’ve earned the nickname the Me Me Me Generation for a reason: They’re three times more likely than Boomers to have narcissistic personality disorder. Materialism and a lofty sense of entitlement—minus the means to realize their caviar dreams—have contributed to breathtaking delusions of grandeur. Moreover, Generation Y is arguably the most medicated on record, their hazy state and sedentary social-media lifestyle contributing to a rise in obesity and its BFF, diabetes.

SHINING EXAMPLE

“I think that I may be the voice of my generation…or at least a voice…of a generation.” So sort-of declares Hannah Horvath, a girl among Girls, HBO’s breakthrough dramedy. Hannah’s assertion may have more legitimacy than she seems to believe. Creator Lena Dunham does what television has never done before, honestly, unsparingly capturing the lives of a generation’s young women, albeit a narrow slice of white, privileged, self-obsessed young women. Love her or hate her (you’d be in good company either way), Dunham is a quadruple-threat writer-producer-director-star with a singular vision.

NOT-SO-SHINING EXAMPLE

In the annals of teen idoldom, Justin Bieber is unique in that he’s totally a product of social media. With his 45 million Twitter followers, his zany antics—urinating in public, spitting in faces, refusing to wear shirts, hoping Anne Frank would’ve been a “Belieber”—are inescapable, threatening to turn him into a pop-culture pariah in record-breaking time.

BOTTOM LINE

The most connected generation is still trying to make a connection.

HEROES

Suri Cruise, the Jolie-Pitt brood

VILLAINS

Honey Boo Boo, North West

WHAT WE THINK OF THEM

If Generation Y is optimistic, its successors are realistic. Can you blame them? They’ve known nothing but a post-9/11 world of terrorism, crippling recession, climate change and school violence. Understandably, they take their entertainment dark and dystopian, with characters rising above grim circumstances to create a better way of life for all. Watching their parents grapple with unemployment and their Gen-Y elders move back home will make them financially conservative and savvy. Hyperconnected from conception, they’re set to speed through childhood like a runaway train, likely emerging the most diverse, inquisitive, globally aware generation in history.

BOTTOM LINE

The jury’s still out.


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