Ours is a four-generation family. I am a "silent" or a "mature," born before 1946 ("duty, tradition, loyalty," are the watchwords to professional generation watchers, who like to find three nouns for each group). My esteemed spouse is a baby boomer ("individuality, tolerance, self-absorption"), our first two daughters are generation X-ers ("diversity, savvy, pragmatism") and our youngest daughter is a "millennial," a member of the cohort born between 1977 and 1994. One of the best researchers and generation-watchers, Ann Clurman of the Yankelovich Partners, suggests "authenticity, authorship, and autonomy" as the three nouns for the emerging millennials, also known as generation Y or the "echo boomers."
The comic overtones of dividing and labeling everyone this way are hard to miss, but there is some sense to it, too. The sharp break between the silents and the boomers, obvious to all, has fueled the search for clean dividing lines between the generations that came after.
Now the focus is almost entirely on millennials, 78 million strong and the largest birth cohort in American history. Speaking at the American Magazine Conference last week in the Palm Springs, Calif., area, Clurman described millennials this way: They are family oriented, viscerally pluralistic, deeply committed to authenticity and truth-telling, heavily stressed, and living in a no-boundaries world where they make short-term decisions and expect paradoxical outcomes. (The sense of paradox means that every choice results in some good consequences, some bad: Air bags save lives but kill people, too.)
By pluralistic, Clurman means that distinctions of race, ethnicity, and gender are of little interest to millennials--they tend to overlook differences and treat everyone the same. Part of the fallout is that opposition to gay marriage, strong among older Americans, is low among millennials. Authenticity and integrity are prime values. Millennials want very much to succeed in life, says Clurman, but "integrity trumps success." (Enron should have hired millennial executives.)
Yankelovich and other researchers have been picking up a renewed emphasis on family for years. The yearning for a good marriage is a dominant value among millennials, Clurman says, and 30 percent of those surveyed say they want three or more children. Indeed, one research company, Packaged Facts and Silver Stork, recently predicted a 17 percent increase in the U.S. birthrate over the next 10 years.