PRB Discuss Online: Are Some U.S. Generations Luckier Than Others?

(March 2009) Unique events, political climates, and social and economic conditions shape each new generation in every society. In his new book (The Lucky Few) and a recent Population Bulletin, “20th Century U.S. Generations,” sociologist Elwood Carlson examines shared experiences influencing recent U.S. generations, including the Lucky Few (born 1929-1945), Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), Generation X (born 1965-1982), New Boomers (born 1983-2001), and others.

During a PRB Discuss Online, Professor Carlson answered participants’ questions about why different generations of Americans experienced such different childhood family contexts, educational outcomes, marriages and family lives, military service, career paths, and retirement. What key factors are likely to determine the collective identity of Americans being born today?

March 24, 2009 1 PM EST 

Transcript of Questions and Answers

Lindsay Patterson: How were the divisions between each generation created? Are the years in which one generation ends and another begins meaningful for any particular reason?
Elwood Carlson: Some boundaries are well-established (Baby Boom from 1946 to 1964)—others are new but fairly similar to those used by Strauss & Howe a generation ago. The basic criterion was fluctuations in the birth rate/birth totals, so that boundaries set off large and small generations from one another following the logic of Easterlin’s “Birth & Fortune” book. Some historical events help define boundaries, but these also often influenced birth rates so it all works together. Details are described in the 2nd chapter of “The Lucky Few: Between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boom.”

Bruce Gregor: I haven’t read your book yet. Do you make a comparison between people born in the low birth rate era and children in any generation in one child families?
Elwood Carlson: The PRB Bulletin on “20th Century U.S. Generations” doesn’t go into a lot of detail on number of brothers and sisters by generation; it looks mainly at the presence of parents in children’s homes as far as childhood goes. The Lucky Few (the book) does have a graph and a discussion in chapter 3 on number of children in families, including one-child families (which were particularly numerous in the Lucky Few generation).

Gary Merritt: Japan, Korea, Taiwan, PRC, Russia, Pakistan, Australia and other countries went thru equally or more marked cohort transitions across the past 100 yrs compared to North America. Most (certainly some) have good demographic and related socio-economic data. In testing inferences/characterizations of USA ‘generation’ differences, which are most born out in int’l comparisons and which are least confirmed/replicated? [excellent paper!]
Elwood Carlson: The trick with international comparisons of generations (especially when using demographic criteria like numbers of people in each year of age) is that the birth rate fluctuations and episodes of mass migration that have affected some countries were not always at the same time or of the same duration or magnitude in different places. The MOST replicated one would of course be the baby boom heard ’round the world at mid-century, but even that didn’t really get everywhere—Eastern Europe pretty much skipped that postwar boom, or at least postponed it a decade or more. I haven’t looked into it, but I’d also bet that the small Lucky Few generation born during the Great Depression and World War II years could be found in many countries all over the world.

Fran Goldscheider: Woody, did you divide some of the longer groups up? I remember reading that the early boomers were quite a lot different from the later boomers (with the later ones having the most difficulty). I used to tease my brother (1939) by telling him HIS cohort had it much easier than mine (1942), ie I’m a ‘later’ lucky few. And those born in 1929, at least the guys, had to deal with Korea. . . .
Elwood Carlson: Hi, Fran! I’m so glad to see your question here! I did play around with some sub-dividing of generations (as have some of our colleagues, who have talked, for example, about the “depression kids” and the “wartime babies” as separate groups within the boundaries of the Lucky Few). But I’ve tried to resist the temptation to make every single annual birth cohort into its own “generation”—the logical end-point of such dissections. The generations in this PRB Bulletin are about the same length as those sketched (a GENERATION ago!) by Strauss and Howe, and have quite similar boundaries as well, even though the dividing line criteria were different in the two approaches and developed independently. But yes, I’d agree that such boundaries are only as good as the subject you are addressing with them. Since I was looking first and foremost at the demographic dimensions of generations, grouping together large and small series of annual birth cohorts seems to give the most “bang for the buck.” I have heard the criticism that President Obama, for example (born on the cusp of the END of the Baby Boom) is hard to include as a Boomer, while Presidents Bush and Clinton were definitely, clearly Boomers. I guess one shoe never fits all feet, does it!?

Jennifer Ranville: How is the level of commitment in relationships changing from the Lucky Few to New Boomers and what is the impact on marriage and family life?
Elwood Carlson: This is a very interesting question, but I have absolutely no idea what the answer may turn out to be. Maybe YOU have access to some wonderful data set that collected this kind of attitudinal information far enough back into the past so that we could actually compare many generations and answer the question? The trouble with so many of the issues I wanted to address with this study of generations is that we’ve only started to collect so many kinds of detailed information in the quite recent past, and so we can compare Generation X and sometimes Baby Boomers on a lot of dimensions–but as soon as we start trying to go back to the Lucky Few, or Brokaw’s Greatest Generation (who I called the Good Warriors) we rapidly find ourselves staring at a blank canvas with no data in sight. I would be fascinated to find out this answer somehow, though!

Barbara I: How do you define lucky? Do the various groups define it the same way? I am thinking that a group which experienced dire events might feel luckier than one which hadn’t, or vice versa.
Elwood Carlson: Your idea about RELATIVE circumstances, comparing what you find as an adult with what you were expecting based on your childhood experiences, is precisely the concept that lies at the heart of Easterlin’s book Birth and Fortune; he uses it to explain why the Lucky Few became parents of the Baby Boom. Personally, I would probably define “lucky” in the same way that most other Boomers like myself would—and it would be in many cases by looking at what we in the Baby Boom lost out on—plenty of space in the classrooms while we were in school, easy entry into careers with lots of people crowding around to offer us jobs, unexpected good fortune in early adulthood that led to the earliest marriages and most universal parenthood of any generation in U.S. history, widespread access to defined-benefit pension plans provided by companies that actually survived long enough to deliver on them, and so on. In short, the things that the Lucky Few enjoyed and the Boomers saw evaporate before their eyes. On the other hand, though, women’s education advanced dramatically in subsequent generations, each new generation is living longer than the previous one (with less disability in old age)—one of the caveats we probably have to take away from this subject is that each generation re-defines “lucky” based on their own era and their own world-view!

Mary W Mathis: The cutoff for Gen Xers is 1964; however, I have often thought that this is not an appropriate cutoff because many last year boomers actually experienced Gen X issues such as divorce, latchkey arrangements, and so forth. Is year of birth the only way to classify a generation? What are your thoughts?
Elwood Carlson: Using 1964 is certainly not the only possible boundary (see questions above) and every boundary will bring up anomalies. Latchkey arrangements actually started pretty early, though, when mothers of school-age children headed into the labor force in response to incredible demand from a growing economy (see the work of Valerie Kincaid Oppenheimer in particular). I’d guess many Boomers, not just the last few, shared some of the experiences you’re talking about. There IS a pretty clear boundary between the boomers and Gen X based simply on generation size, though, and in a lot of way, “size does matter.” Richard Easterlin’s wonderful little book, Birth and Fortune, outlines a very large number of such systematic differences, ranging from individualized personal attitudes to macro-economic conditions like the unemployment rate, that can usefully be defined in terms of these generations and their boundaries. Further, however, there’s also another answer to your question–there are at least two COMPLETELY different ways to define generations, in addition to birth year. The PRB Bulletin mentions one of these–the “family generation” that is individual and unique for each parent/child dyad, and does not translate into any kind of larger patterns in the population, would be one of these alternatives. The other alternative, NOT mentioned in the Bulletin or in my book The Lucky Few either one, is an unusual hybrid of these others: when we study immigration, it is the migration event itself that defines “generations” rather than birth year, and we talk about “first-generation” immigrants, their “second-generation” native-born children, and even the “1.5 generation” of people who came into this country as small children accompanying their parents. Here the timing of the border crossing trumps birth year in defining generations!

Ladislav Rabusic: This just a big “Hello” from Ladi (Brno, Czech Republic) to Woody . Congratulations, my friend.
Elwood Carlson: Thank you, Ladi—what generation are YOU, by the way?

Subhas Yadawad: Does it possible to make such a division like lucky boomers etc in the big contry like India?
Elwood Carlson: Every country has periods of high birth rates and/or rapid immigration, and periods of declining birth rates—these demographic swings can produce fluctuations in the sizes of successive generations in India as anywhere else. Just look at an age-pyramid of the Indian population, and you will see “bulges” of large generations and “gaps” where smaller generations occur. This changing supply of people can have dramatic effects on the lives of the people involved.

Rahat Bari Tooheen: The luck of a generation needs to be looked at from the conditions prevailing during the time a particular generation is living. Luck is a relative issue, and the question itself is volatile. On what basis can it be said that some generations are luckier compared to others?
Elwood Carlson: At least two of the previous questions above were on this same topic; the comments I offered for those questions are also relevant here. Please see the earlier comments?

Ashley Martin: Easterlin’s idea of relative income and it’s effect on different generations was presented in the Population Bulletin publication on 20th Century US Generations , with the recent economic downturn, what predictions do you have for Generation X and the New Boomers as they grow older and enter the job markert. What effects will there be on family size, education choices, and job opportunities.
Elwood Carlson: Richard Easterlin originally thought that the small size of Generation X would work to the advantage of its members, and it may actually have done so. However, the record for Generation X (continued marriage delays, few children born later in life, problems with men’s careers, and so on) testify to the importance of OTHER factors in addition to just generation size. We don’t live in a “ceterus paribus” world where all other influences remain unchanged, and things like an economic melt-down are bound to enter into the picture as at least as important as generation size! The New Boomers are now in school, with the oldest of them just starting to emerge and look for jobs and careers. They are the biggest generation so far in U.S. history, and this is not the best of times. It seems like we can make some pretty solid guesses about how that will work out, and personally, I don’t like the look of it very much.

Lanre Ikuteyijo: Since some migrants (especially regular ones)enjoy the priviledge of becoming citizens, which generation of immigrants would [you] consider “the luckiest” in terms of migration policies?
Elwood Carlson: This is a fascinating question, and one that gets more complex the longer you think about it. The waves of immigrants in the mid-1800s probably would NOT be the luckiest—many of them ended up fighting in the Civil War for the Union army. The even larger wave of immigrants who poured into the country at the beginning of the 20th century might be good candidates for “luckiest,” as they came to a country still actively expanding across the continent and “filling in” the population of the Great Plains and the West; life was unimaginably better for them than the world they left behind. On the other hand, maybe we should call the people who have come to the United States in the quarter-century and a little more after the mid-1960s the “luckiest,” for they had the good fortune to be trying to immigrate when the old racist quota system was demolished, and new opportunities for entry brought millions of people here in time for the long post-war economic “boom times.” It’s a tough call! What do you think?

Judy London: Do you have the size (in numbers) of each generation in the workforce today and projected out 10 to 15 years?
Elwood Carlson: I have the sizes of each generation immediately available (in spreadsheets) from all of the censuses of the 20th century down through the census of 2000, and for a lot of the years in between after 1962 when the Current Population Survey begins to be available as an on-line resource. In fact, YOU also have these figures available to you, thanks to the Integrated Public Use Microdata Samples prepared at the University of Minnesota, and available to all of us as a public resource over the internet. I have NOT done any population projections of these generations; that’s an exercise in creative writing that I haven’t yet had time to consider. I did use existing projections of estimated mortality rates to calculate how many people in the various generations would be alive at age 70, including Boomers and younger folks who aren’t there yet, so I could do the last couple of sections of the PRB Bulletin and the last chapters in The Lucky Few.

Sandy Alvarez: Recent changes in the Americans With Disabilities Act have been in favor of those with disabilities. Do you foresee a projected growth of more differently abled entering the labor market?
Elwood Carlson: Sandy, I certainly hope so! We are learning more about many different kinds of disabilities every day, and the more we learn, the more disabilities we are discovering throughout our society. Along with this greater sensitivity, some trends like the increasing prevalence of obesity and the cumulative effects of drugs and alcohol mean we have a rising share of our population in each new generation with some kinds of identified disabilities. Unless we make up our minds to allow everybody chances to become productive citizens, we will never be able to handle all the new kinds of problems we are learning to identify.

Sandy Alvarez: In this consumer driven economy, would you consider access to technology a driving force behind who is lucky and who is disadvantaged?
Elwood Carlson: Sometimes a wonder whether I’m “lucky” to be linked so directly to so many people through my computer and my cell phone, but when I consider the alternatives, YES, I think you’re right about that. And there is a very clear generational divide in terms of understanding and feeling comfortable with a lot of this new technology. John McCain wasn’t comfortable with emails. My mother has said more than once that she feels “left behind” by all this technology that she will never learn how to use. The same advantages (or disadvantages) can be found layered within each generation in terms of education/class/ethnicity differences, but the generational dimension of this contrast is a very important one.

Ashley Martin: Trends in family size and structure over generations are discussed in the PRB Bulletin but nothing about the effect of family planning on women’s options to pursue higher education or more demanding careers. What function do modern contraceptives play in these more “progressive” female roles that we see in later generations?
Elwood Carlson: You have zeroed in on my current research, Ashley! The shift in college attendance/graduation has been incredible over recent generations. For the Lucky Few, three men went to college for every two women. In Generation X, it is three women for every two men. There is a lot of research out there right now on WHY this switch has occurred; most of it has been looking at the changing occupations and wages available to men and women, or on the changing attitudes of their parents about college for girls and for boys in each generation. But I like your point more, and I believe that the reversing educational gender gap is very much related to the equally great change in reproductive choices. Now you tell me, which is the chicken and which is the egg? Many scholars are still scratching their heads over that one!

John Migliaccio: Quick note about the MetLife Mature Market Institute study “Boomer Bookends” which looked at national sample of 44 year old boomers and 62 year old boomers> Answers some of these questions. So are the Lucky few counterbalanced by the Unlucky many? This year had the highest live birth rate in US history. New boomers?
Elwood Carlson: Which years are you talking about, John? What year was the study you mention, and does “this year” mean 2009?

harriet mitteldorf: It is reported that 2008 had more U.S. births than any previous year.What do you think we can do to achieve a sustainable U.S. population living in balance with other species and our natural resources?
Elwood Carlson: Your question, together with John’s previous one, highlights an important difference—between birth TOTALS and birth RATES. We had a lot of babies last year, but mainly because there were so many people in the parenting ages. The actual RATES for women at each specific age are still not very high at all in historical terms. And the New Boomers are already the largest generation of Americans ever in history, not only because they are the “echo” of the Baby Boomers finally having their own children, but also because of all the immigrants who are once again arriving to “leaven the loaf” of American society. Harriet, I may have a rather unorthodox attitude about population size and ecological sustainability. I believe we CAN live in balance; indeed, that we must! But I also think that there’s still room for more people in America, and that we can grow some more in ways that will actually make our world MORE efficient, clean and environmentally sound, rather than worse. We can’t add people indefinitely, of course, but if you’ve been to Europe and come back to the USA, you realize that this country is still mostly empty.

Judy London: Thanks so much for this scintillating discussion.
Elwood Carlson: I add my thanks as well, to all the interesting people who joined in and contributed their questions. See you all in cyberspace, I hope!

For more information, see:

Tom Brokaw. The Greatest Generation. New York: Random House, 1998.

Elwood Carlson. “20th Century U.S. Generations,” Population Bulletin 64, no. 1 (2009).

Elwood Carlson. The Lucky Few: Between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boom. New York: Springer, 2008.

Elwood Carlson and Joel Andress. “Military Service by Twentieth-Century Generations of American Men,” Armed Forces & Society 35 (2009): 385-400.

Sharon Jayson. “Who Are the ‘Lucky Few'”? USA Today June 24, 2008.

Eric Zuehlke. “The ‘Lucky Few’ Reveal the Lifelong Impact of Generation” (2008).

Richard Easterlin. Birth and Fortune: the Impact of Numbers on Personal Welfare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

William Strauss and Neil Howe. Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. New York: William Morrow & Company, 1991.