generation jones part 2: debating with the joneses

This whole generation Jones thing has got me in a tizzy. Mostly because I am having an interesting off-site debate/discussion/conversation with a couple of generation joneser “advocates” (who are quite passionate in their desire to make Generation Jones a household discussion item).

The bottom line issue is I am a skeptical joneser. Maybe because I am an advocate of Strauss & Howe (S&H) 4th Turning Generations but possibly because I am always a little skeptical when people want to take a big well thought out thought/concept and try to break it down into pieces and disassemble the greater thought (with little end value).

So. Here’s the deal (with my thoughts on thinking about generations and attitudes and generation Jones in particular).

Depending on what you want to do with generational nomenclatures (GenXers, GenJonesers, Boomers, Echo Boomers, etc.) they can serve great cultural and umbrella sociological dimensional type thinking but rarely can dig down into shopper or actional behavior. So. Depending on what you want to do with these nomenclatures you can end up investing a lot of energy trying to tear apart the fabric of what we have named a generation and gained not a lot of actionable ‘stuff’ at the end of the day (and I know I don’t have a lot of energy to waste myself).

What I like (and agree with S&H 4th Turnings): Their basic premise is causal.

In other words, generations respond to events created through cyclical re-occurrence due to lack of relevant experience to what they are facing at the moment. What this means is that a generation affected by a specific event will take actions to avoid a re-occurrence of that event but each ensuing generation starts evolving back into behavior patterns that will re-initiate that type of event (S&H refer to that main critical event as a Crisis). The following is a brief overview of S&H in case you aren’t familiar:

–          According to Howe and Strauss, the marks between each generation are very clear and are based on their surveys of people born in these years. Each generation has a specific character called an archetype. The concept is that, for the most part, each generation is around 20 years and they follow each other in a specific pattern (Hero, Artist, Prophet, Nomad). This pattern has held true for the last 500 years of history with some year length variances. And the archetypes are overlaying the actual historical turnings: Crisis, High, Awakening, Unraveling. Once again these turnings have historically fit a pattern over the past 500 year of their study. If you accept their theory it allows you to extrapolate into the future based on the ages and attitudes of the generations.

Now. That may sound like a bunch of sociological gobbledygook but it is actionable.

While their extensive study suggests we are doomed to cyclical behavior it does permit us to understand why we do things we do (and as a marketer if you really invested energy in studying could be way ahead of the curve in new product innovations).

Most importantly it assists in understanding the overarching direction of our society. Their work also provides understanding what is happening in our society based on where we have been. Anyway. The following chart developed by a blogger (genXnation I think) does a nice job of showing S&H thinking:

generations and jones

Realistically it is this concept of the ‘turnings’ of Crisis, High, Awakening and Unraveling and the fact each of the turnings have overarching personalities (although that is not their word … I believe they call the collective persona as an Archetype) of Prophet, Nomad, Hero and Artist which represents the most important thinking.

So. While even Strauss & Howe (S&H) use generational nomenclatures (like Boomers, Silents, etc.) to assist them in the discussion the actual nomenclature is significantly less important than the underlying thinking.

Next. What I like about things like GenJones type generations: their basic premise is attitudinal.

While it would be a lot simpler to call each of the S&H archetype personalities a specific generation type (and we have attempted to do that in the past but everyone wants to try and slice and dice them to make some attitudinal adjustments based on birth date groupings) the reality is the early Artist archetype is going to assume some of the characteristics of the late birth Hero archetype (and so on) because it’s not like a light switch gets flipped on a specific date.

Therefore something like the GenJones generation which is firmly in an Unraveling turning (I am not sure anyone in the whole generational discussion is debating this) they are assuming some of the characteristics of Boomers and genXers (in fact the nice graph the GenJonesers provided me, and I included in the Generation jones Part 1, on the comparison of incoming freshman at UCLA, makes that point nicely).

In fact, if my memory serves me correctly one of these transition age groups was also identified with a nomenclature (I think they may have been called the Interbellum Generation – the group of people of the GI generation too young to fight in WWI but too old to fight in WWII … my grandfather was one of these).

Anyway. I guess the true point here is that there is a gradual shift from one generation to the next and not a specific point in time where everyone stops feeling one way and starts thinking another way. There is a period of time where the shift in generational attitude occurs. This certainly explains the “Generation Jones” people’s desire to call themselves a ‘generation’ (the following link shows to what extent you can actually take this “splitting the S&H generations” idea to with other theories that break the generations down even further).

Regardless. Another nifty chart from that GenX blogger shows the periods of transition between larger generations very well:

generations and jones shift

So this whole idea that there is a group of people between The Boomers (1943-1960) and Generation X (1961-1981) that has traits of both generations, but doesn’t feel it belongs to either, is certainly a viable idea. I just wouldn’t call it a “generation.” And I question whether there is any true value in trying to create a “generation” around this group. As noted earlier on the value of S&H generations study the opposite seems to be the fact here – I am unclear this new generation designation helps us understand the direction of our society. Breaking down the system into smaller parts may make some people feel they can identify with what is happening and how they act more clearly, but I am not sure if it helps predictive ability.  I believe we could get to the exact same place without having to wade thru an additional generation.

Look. I do not doubt the idea resonates with people born during this time (like me). Shit. Why wouldn’t it? I get to be in my own club. How fun is that.

Ok. Before I leave this topic for the day I have seen a couple of things written about Generation Jones and Strauss & Howe that I wanted to address specifically:

(comment): while Strauss and Howe’s work has certainly added to our overall knowledge, their work over time has become less relevant. The main reason why their work has lost a lot of credibility among experts is their insistence on sticking with static generational length, rather than evolving with other experts who continually point out that generations are getting shorter.

–          Sometimes these types of comments kind of drive me nuts. S&H didn’t add to overall knowledge they actually defined the overall concept. Therefore everyone is trying to edit the original idea. My good friend Luke Sullivan once suggested editing in this fashion as running the risk of building a Frankenstein. If people want to slice & dice the original great concept they should feel free to do so without disparaging the solid foundational concept. Experts can debate dates and names and stuff like that but that doesn’t mean the original experts lose credibility. Their overall turnings & archetypes (regardless of what nomenclature anyone wants to put on as labels) study is solid and credible.

(comment): when asked, people born 1954-1965 identify much more with this generation in-between, rather than with the surrounding generations –Boom & X –which are supposedly correct.
Generation Jones is catching on in such a big way because it’s true, and Jonesers clearly relate to it. It seems clear to me that within a short time from now, that Generation Jones will be clearly established. It already almost is, more or less. It has that feel of inevitability.

–          Somebody shoot me now. Of course people relate to the idea. It gives them an opportunity to say they are different. Or unique. Or whatever word you want to attach to it. It will catch on because it is “buzzworthy.” And, unfortunately, in today’s world if it has a buzz factor it is certainly inevitable.

Anyway. With all the serious thoughtful stuff out of the way.

I like to claim to be part of the GenJones club. It makes me feel good. And it makes it easier for me to write about shit I did growing up as part of that generation. So. On with generation Jones (just don’t ask me to consider it a “real” generation … unless you want to debate it … THAT I would do in a second).

Written by Bruce