Yes, give or take a day or two and accepting that 2010 really was part of the teens decade of the 21st century*, as of August 31, 2016, we are two thirds of the way through that decade. With what is left only half as long as what has passed, the form and nature of that decade should be becoming established. What is it? Above all, it has been a decade of stagnation from a deep economic recession, a depressing event rivaling only that of the 1930s decade of the Great Depression, even if technically in the US the entire decade has been one of positive economic growth since the bottom was reached in 2009, the last year of the previous decade. But that decade was more the decade of terrorism, thanks to 9/11/01, with only its end marked by the crash and recession the slow recovery from which has dominated this decade, even if we still have terrorism and a political atmosphere overhung by it as well. The combination has soured the political atmosphere both here and in Europe.
From where I sit as a front end baby boomer who is still teaching economics at the university level, I am looking at this in terms of who my students are and in terms of generations and generational shifts. This decade has so far been heavily dominated by the so-called millennials, although they were emerging as important during the previous decade. Indeed, many would say the event that defines their consciousness is 9/11, the defining event of last decade, just as the Challenger crackup defines the Gen-X generation, and the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War defined the boomer generation, although as one gets to the outer edges of these generations these things get fuzzy, and the boundaries between them are not entirely clear.
One thing that is clear is that the influence of a generation has much to do with its numbers, with these effectively alternating with successive generations. The Greatest generation, who lived through the Great Depression, won World War II, and basically ran the show in the US for most of the Cold War, were a populous and dominating generation. Their successor, the Silent generation, with their low numbers reflecting the low birth rates in the Great Depression 30s and WW II, made much less of an impression. Then we had the noisy and self-important boomers, the children of the Greatest, who would rebel against their supposedly virtuous parents (who, despite their achievements, were also marked by being heavily racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic). They were followed by the ironic and low key and less numerous Gen-Xers, the children of the silent Silents, with the also self-important and numerous millennnials somewhat resembling their boomer parents. These periods of dominance are in some sense illustrated by how there were no US presidents from the Silent generation, with us going from G.W.H. Bush of the Greatest to Bill Clinton of the boomers. Between Trump and Hillary, we see a last gasp of boomers, although do not be surprised that the successor to either of them jumps over the self-effacing Gen-Xers to represent the noisy millennials.
Of course there are arguments about exactly where those generational boundaries are. So it is conventional to give the boomers two decades, being born from 1946 to the mid-60s somewhere, about 1965, give or take a year. That means they are currently in the 50s and 60s, just starting to move into their 70s with none left in their 40s, and with 1957 the peak year of births for them, their center of gravity, just about to hit 60. While the beginning point of the Gen-Xers clearly start in the mid-60s, it is more debated where their endpoint is, with this ranging from around 1976 to possibly as late as 1980, making people in their late 30s sort of a boundary case, up in the air. Many of these people think of themselves as millennials, but this may be a matter of wanting to be in the supposedly cooler millennials rather than the sort of pathetic Gen-Xers. I mean, lots of popular media may say they are, but are people 39 years old really millennials? Well, maybe, but of course this matter of giving the Gen-Xers a shorter time period while both the boomers and millennials get longer periods just emphasizes the dominated and outnumbered nature of the Gen-Xers, with the birth rate bottoming out in 1975 while it reached a new peak in 1990, clearly a core year for the millennials.
Which brings us to what I think may be an important emerging story for the rest of this decade, the social appearance of the post-millennials or Gen-Z, with indeed them now dominating the current set of undergrad students, with I think many people not realizing yet that another generation is in the works about to make their presence felt socially as they start graduating from college. Obviously this depends on when that endpoint of the millennials is, but some put it as early as people being born around 1996, especially if their beginning point was those born in 1977. So they are people basically in their 20s and 30s, although, again, those in their upper 30s may be hanger on Gen-Xers. Thus the endpoint of the millennials might be a year or two later, maybe those born in 1998, but if 9/11 is the defining event of their generation, well, those in 1998 do not remember anything from 2001 at all. They are getting to be something else.
Now it must be recognized that there are important sub-groups within some of these generations. Thus I know that there are substantial differences between my front-end baby boomer group and those born nearer the end after 1957 or so and especially in the early 1960s. Likewise, among the millennials there is a sharp break between those who came out of college after 2007 when economic conditions became much worse than those who got out before. There is an especially damaged group who will probably suffer their entire lives for their bad luck in timing, those who graduated in roughly 2009-2013, the worst years of the Great Recession job markets. These are the people with high student debts and lousy starting jobs, if any starting jobs, with many spending time in their parents' basements playing video games, who will probably never catch up economically, even if they have gotten out into the job market finally. Those graduating in the last year or two are experiencing a different situation, one more like those who graduated prior to 2009. This past spring for the first time since 2008 I heard some graduating seniors rather self-satisfiededly talking about which of competing job offers they would take. Wages may have remained stagnant with inequality and student debt loads worse than ever, but there are now many more jobs with the Great Recession really over, even if for many it does not really quite feel like it. But it is, and the post-millennials will be the beneficiaries of that, even if the current stagnation really does turn into something more permanent or longer lasting than those more optimistic think. Thinking that it will has certainly become quite an intellectual fad, with some serious arguments behind it, even if we do get a pickup in growth rates sometime in the next few years.
So the question that is on my mind is what is the nature of this newly emerging post-millennial (or maybe Gen-Z) group that is now clearly to me at least dominant among current undergrads? I somehow feel that last year's seniors were the last of the clear millennials. Current seniors and juniors may be a transition group, but by the time one gets to current sophomores (born in 1997) and freshman, one is getting to post-millennials, closer to my oldest grandson, who at age 11 just entered middle school yesterday, than they are to my youngest daughter, who just turned 27 yesterday, part of the core millennial group, even as her older sisters at 41 and nearly 45 are definitely Gen-Xers. I can see and feel the difference with the current undergrads, even if I am not sure I can fully articulate it.
Besides not being so down about future job prospects, even as they continue to be plenty worried about high college costs and future indebtedness,with this latter problem only worsening as college tuitions continue to outpace inflation in their rise (with this perhaps having stopped after decades for medical care costs) for no good reason (they are not rising due to faculty salary or numbers increases). Of course part of it is indeed that they do not remember 9/11 at all. It is strictly history, so all this terrorism stuff is more strictly background noise, if annoying. However, probably a stronger aspect is a qualitatively greater involvement in a natural and engrossed way in social media and that world of technology. It is totally second nature in a way that it has not been even for the deeply embodied millennials. I am not sure I can pinpoint it or describe it, but I suspect that they have been an even stronger driving force in the new Pokemon Go fad than their millennial predecessors. They live more fully in this "augmented reality" that adds this odd social media-generated component to itself than their older peers in the earlier generations. Is this good or bad? I do not know, but I think it is a serious reality, this new augmented reality that will more truly be with the post-millennials than earlier generations, with middle schoolers reportedly playing by sitting in their homes on skype whle they play with games and other things, even when they live on the same street.
In any case, I think this generation will play an important role in defining the rest of this decade, even as it will probably be mostly one dominated by the millennials, as the boomers really move into retiring and the millennials finally begin to really move into decent paying jobs and forming families and all that.
*The technicality regarding 2010 is that properly speaking it was the last year of the first decade of the 21st century, for which we still do not have a universally accepted name, the "noughties" being not all that widely used. That is because, technically speaking 2000 was not the first year of the 21st century and third millennium, but the last of the 20th century and second millennium. Why? Because there was no year Zero. Of course at the time nobody was remotely aware of this question, it being some centuries later that the Roman Church established when Year One succeeded Year Minus One (or in those days, B.C., Before Christ) using the Julian calendar and Roman numerals, which had no zero or negative numbers. The Church would come to view those numbers as demonic or satanic, not really real, with the double-entry accounting-inventing Tuscans of the late middle ages finally having to convince the Church, especially the wealthy and powerful Medici bankers of Florence who loaned the Church lots of money, that indeed that negative net wealth is a real thing, and that adopting those Indo-Arabic numerals with their zero really made it easier to do that accounting. Or, as my late mathematician father, a gentleman of the old Deep South, once said in reply to a young woman during a public lecture who asked him if zero was a real number, "One of the finest, my dear, one of the finest."
Barkley Rosser (Jr.)