The legions of ancient Rome were composed of ten cohorts each: cohesive units of 300-600 men who trained, ate, slept, fought, won, lost, lived, and died together. The strength was their ability to think, act, and react as a unit. Though composed of individuals, training and socialization equipped them to behave as if of a single mind when called to battle. Social demographers, students of the effects of population on society, use the term cohort to refer to people born in the same general time span who share key life experiences – from setting out for school for the first time together through reaching puberty at the same time, to entering the workforce or university or marriage or middle age or their dotage at the same time.
The six primary generations of today’s American lifestyle span a remarkable slice of American and world history. Three major wars, countless minor (?) ones, economic booms and busts, social upheavals, rocketing technological achievement, and even stepping beyond our planet are among the milestones that have directly and indirectly shaped the times.
I count myself fortunate to have a direct connection to all six generations. To me, understanding more about how each of them think, feel, and act is not just a mental exercise – it’s a necessary part of life.
- Builder Generation (1922-1945) My father and mother were born into the early part of this cohort. He entered military service just as WWII was ending; she was in college and then taught school; they were part of what some call “The Greatest Generation”. Think “American values” and you’ve got their number: civic pride, loyalty, respect for authority, and apple pie. My father passed away in 2012, and my mother in 2018. They may not be physically present with me, but who I am was shaped by their influence, and they impact me every day. Additionally, this cohort, as their generation moves into their twilight years, still controls a significant part of the economy and will continue to be influential in the years ahead outside of their numbers.
- Baby Boomers (1946-1964) My wife and I are late Baby Boomers. Born in the latter 50s, we are a part of what was until recently the largest cohort in US history. For over thirty years, the sheer size of the Boomer generation defined the organization’s social landscape in a majority-rules cultural takeover. We were the civil rights, empowerment, and diversity generation. Never content with the status quo, we are always redefining what it means to be old and cool and important and successful.
- Generation X (1965-1982) My oldest son and one of my daughters-in-law are Xers, even though they sometimes exhibit characteristics of the next cohort as well. Technologically adept, clever, and resourceful, the Xers are a deeply segmented, fragmented cohort. Their need for feed back and flexibility, coupled with the dislike of close supervision is but one of the many complex nuances of this generation. They are all about change- they’ve changed cities, homes, and even parents all their lives. Often seen as pessimistic with an edgy skepticism, many Xers are more positive about their personal future than the group as a whole.
- Millennials (1983-2000) My other three children, two daughters-in-law, and a son-in-law all fall into this cohort. They are the children of the soccer moms and little League dads, and endless rounds of swim meets, karate classes, dancing lessons, computer camp and … you get the picture. They consider themselves the smartest, cleverest, healthiest and most-wanted group to have ever lived. Born into the technology boom times, barriers of time and space have little absolute meaning to them. They are willing to work and learn. By sheer numbers (their total births eclipsed the Boomers by several million) they are going to dominate history in new ways. They are the hyper-connected: constantly connected to multiple devices in order to know what and whom they need to know.
- Generation Z (2001-2015) As the generation of the first six of my grandchildren, it is important to me to try to fully understand them. Technology is the hallmark of this group, which is the first generation to be raised in the era of smartphones and social media as a daily part of life. They’re growing up amid the promise of technological innovation – but also in the environment of economic uncertainty, a sharp decrease in well-defined and reliable career paths, increasing political divides, and the effect of decades of repressed racial tensions. The preeminent event of this cohort is the 9/11 attacks and the rise of terrorism around the world (and the U.S. response to it). Consequently, when compared to their predecessors, this group is both more cautious and more anxious.
- Alpha Generation (2016-TBD) I have two grandchildren in this cohort, and there is one more on the way! While it is too early to define the characteristics of this cohort in any meaningful way, consider the early memories of children born since 2016: They will assuredly recall adult populations that were divided, diseased, and depressed. Their early years were launched alongside the large differences of the Trump and Biden administrations; their memories will be forever marked by the pandemic, ongoing political polarization, and increasing international unrest on a scale not seen since WWII.
There are some indications that generational cohorts repeat every four generations, so we’ll just have to see. Led by the thoughts of William Strauss and Neil Howe published in the late 1990s, this idea of “cycles” is getting more attention now that their predictions of today’s Millennial cohort are proving to be on target more often than not. That will definitely be my radar in the future!
An interesting fact, and the origin of the title of this website: there are 27 years between each of the first born in the above first three generations of my family, thus 27gen.
Here’s the last time all of #TheAdamsFamilyExperience was together in one place: Thanksgiving 2021, in Greenwich, NY.
The next five years are going to be very interesting as each of these five generations exert influence on each other. I will be actively watching my own microcosm of society.
My latest reading on generations: The release of A New Kind of Diversity by Tim Elmore was much-anticipated. Elmore brings his decades of research and leadership experience to bear on what might be the biggest, most dramatic, and most disruptive shift the American workforce has ever seen: the vast diversity of several generations living—and working—together.
For the first time in history, up to five generations find themselves working alongside each other in a typical company. The result? There can be division. Interactions between people from different generations can resemble a cross-cultural relationship. Both usually possess different values and customs. At times, each generation is literally speaking a different language!