Skipping a Generation

My last post generated quite a few comments. I think this generational issue—the affinity that Boomers share with Millennials—will continue to get attention in the next few years. I didn’t cover this issue in my e-book. It felt a little too detailed or theoretical to get into relationships among generations, but it is an issue that Strauss and Howe cover in their book, so here’s a little more detail for everyone.

In the comments, Maddie suggests that Generation X’s smaller size (compared to both Boomers and Millennials) explains why we are overlooked. The size issue is real, but I’m not sure it explains the Boomer-Millennial connection. After all, there are MILLIONS of us Gen Xers, and for a bunch of years, we were the ONLY young people around. They had plenty of time to see us. They just don’t connect with us the same way.

Cindy suggests that Boomers pay more attention to Millennials because they are their kids. She points out that she, as a Boomer, pays particular attention to what her daughter, a Millennial, is doing. That may be true, but Millennials are roughly split: half have Boomer parents and half (like my kids) have Xer parents. Similarly, half the Boomers have Millennial kids, but lots of Boomers have Gen X kids, and their connection is simply not the same.

Strauss and Howe offer an explanation. Historically they have noticed that strong connections seem to “skip a generation”:

Each generation has a formative, nurturing relationship primarily with other two-apart generations (dominant with dominant, recessive with recessive); each tries to cultivate in the second-younger generation a peer personality it perceives as complementary to its own.

In their theory, they see a four-part generational cycle. There are two dominant generations in the cycle (one coming from a national crisis and one coming from a “spiritual awakening” historically), and then two recessive ones (who come of age during neither a crisis nor an awakening). Boomers and Millennials are dominant, so they argue it makes sense for them to connect.

Note that not only do two-apart generations connect, the older one tries to “cultivate” a personality in the younger generation that is complementary—something that compensates for the older generation’s perceived imbalance. Strauss and Howe view this as a perhaps critical balancing force in human evolution. Reflect on this quote for a while:

The recurrence of compensating peer personalities is an important force for regeneration and balance in human civilization. What is it, in man, that makes this cycle a gravitational orbit around timeless norms of human behavior, with successor generations moderating the excesses of their elders? Why is the cycle not a centrifugal spiral, with successor generations lunging toward ever more dangerous extremes? We do not know. The answer may be rooted in a basic social instinct for balance between risk and caution, between reflection and activity, between passion and reason, or between the emulation of mothers versus fathers. We leave such questions to the anthropologists and psychologists. Whatever the reason, this instinct has worked to mankind’s benefit in the past and enhances the prospects for survival and progress in the future.


  1. 28.08.2007 at 7:55 am

    During a presentation about his generational research, I heard Arthur Brooks describe it this way: Just like a teenager establishes his or her identity by rebelling against his or her parents, a new generation establishes identity by rebelling against the one before. So the pendulum swings one way … and then the next generation rebels again, swinging the pendulum back again. That was his (very simplified, and probably based in part on Strauss and Howe’s work) explanation of why the Boomers and Gen Yers would tend to have an appreciation for one another.

  2. Kristi Donovan
    28.08.2007 at 8:40 am

    I wonder if there is a difference between Boomers who have kids who fit into the Millenial box vs. those who have Gen X kids, or no kids at all. For instance, are those who have Millenial kids more predisposed to embracing the radical change they will bring (are bringing) to the workplace, since they’ve been exposed to them since day one? Therefore, those who don’t have Millenial kids are not as interested in embracing those ‘complementary’ personalities?

  3. 28.08.2007 at 5:52 pm

    We Gen Xers have important common ties to both Boomers and Millenials. How many Millenials know the entire Rolling Stones catalog? How many Boomers know every line from Napoleon Dynamite? Pop culture aside, maybe there’s an opportunity here for Xers to broker professional relationships between Boomers and their kids.

  4. Maddie Grant
    30.08.2007 at 11:40 am

    Aha, I love a good argument. The quotes from Strauss and Howe only support my position (as a Gen-X slacker, obviously, not any other authority on the matter). They talk about generations being dominant and recessive. I say Boomers were dominant because of sheer mass numbers – and same with Millenials. Gen-Xers are the recessive generation, self-defined as anti-establishment. You can’t be anti-establishment if there are gazillions of you around, creating a new mass commonality. Boomers were the mainstream; we were punk rock.

  5. 04.09.2007 at 5:29 am

    Wow, thanks for all the comments.
    Lisa: yes, I think that is the point S&H make about natural balance.
    Kristi: yes, there’s much being written about “older” gen x versus “younger” gen x (and other generations too). Generations seem to be about 20 years in lenght, which means you have the older ten-year cohort and the younger. I think this roughly matches up with the Gen X kids/Millennial kids you’re talking about.
    Lindy: I like the idea of broker, and I don’t think it’s been written about much. But do you really know all the lines from Napoleon Dynamite?
    And, finally, Maddie:Boomers weren’t anit-establishent?! They INVENTED anti-establishment (in the sixties). Of course you and I weren’t born. We’ve experienced them mostly as middle and senior managers (when they WERE/ARE the establishment). I think it is definitely possible to have gazillions of you and still be anti-establishment. You’ll just get more attention.