It’s Time to Stop Talking About “Generations”
The concept gets social history all wrong
The discovery that you can make money marketing merchandise to teen-agers dates from the early 1940s, which is also when the term "youth culture" first appeared in print. There was a reason that those things happened when they did: high school. Back in 1910, most young people worked; only 14 percent of 14 to 17-year-olds were still in school. In 1940, though, that proportion was 73 percent. A social space had opened up between dependency and adulthood, and a new demographic was born: "youth."
The rate of high-school attendance kept growing. By 1955, 84 percent of high school-age Americans were in school. (The figure for Western Europe was 16 percent.) Then, between 1956 and 1969, college enrollment in the United States more than doubled, and "youth" grew from a four-year demographic to an eight-year one. By 1969, it made sense that everyone was talking about the styles and values and tastes of young people: almost half the population was under 25.
Today, a little less than a third of the population is under 25, but youth remains a big consumer base for social-media platforms, streaming services, computer games, music, fashion, smartphones, apps and all kinds of other goods, from motorized skateboards to eco-friendly water bottles. To keep this market churning, and to give the consulting industry something to sell to firms trying to understand (i.e., increase the productivity of) their younger workers, we have invented a concept that allows "youth culture" to be redefined periodically. This is the concept of the generation.
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