The Lineup of Generations

When you talk generations, the first thing most people want to know is where they fit.

This article traces the life stories of today’s six living generations, who they are and how they have affected America’s schools. Think about your own colleagues, students and family members. When were they born, and how has their generational membership shaped them?

The G.I. Generation (born 1901-1924) are today retired and emeritus. They were raised during the Roaring ’20s and came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. In midlife, they built suburbs, invented vaccines, laid out interstates and launched moon rockets. Civic minded and politically powerful all their lives (even deep in old age — think of the AARP), G.I.s built many of today’s bedrock, postwar social and economic institutions, including the standardized K-12 school system and comprehensive high school.

The G.I.s were themselves a generation of extraordinary educational achievement, and they hoped to institutionalize that success in a system that would guarantee steady educational progress for their own children and grandchildren. Those hopes ran aground when Boomer and Gen-X students passed through that system from the 1960s through 1980s. Today’s elder generation of senior citizens, G.I.s remind younger educators that once upon a time most people trusted schools, respected teachers and believed national progress depended upon a well-run school system.

The Silent Generation (born 1925-1942) are mostly retired, but still present as school board members, senior civic leaders and community volunteers. Children of the Great Depression and World War II, they came of age too late to be war heroes and too early to be youthful free spirits. Instead, this early-marrying, lonely crowd became the risk-averse professionals, sensitive rock ’n’ rollers and civil rights advocates of a conformist postwar era.

Midlife was an anxious passage for a generation torn between stolid elders and passionate juniors. Their assumption of national leadership, in the 1970s, coincided with fragmenting families, cultural diversity and institutional complexity. Many reacted to their own strictly sheltered childhood by giving greater freedom to their Boomer and Gen-X children.

The Silent were protected, well-behaved K-12 students during the 1930s and ’40s. Silent educators set the tone for the nation’s schools during the late 1960s through 1980s, dismantling G.I. rules, diversifying requirements, and experimenting with open classrooms and unstructured curricula. As K-12 parents, they were generally hands-off, trusting the school system to do its work. Skillful with discussion and process, many Silent educators continue to preside over school bureaucracies while mediating among their younger colleagues.

The Baby Boom Generation (born 1943-1960) are today’s most experienced teachers and principals and the majority of superintend-ents, school board members and local political leaders. They grew up as indulged youth during an era of community-spirited progress. Coming of age, however, Boomers rejected the outer-world system built by their parents in favor of inner visions and self-perfection.

The Baby Boom awakening climaxed with Vietnam War protests, the 1967 summer of love, inner-city riots, the first Earth Day and Kent State. In the aftermath, Boomer “yuppies” appointed themselves arbiters of the nation’s values and crowded into such “culture careers” as teaching, journalism, marketing and the arts. During the ’90s, they trumpeted family values and waged scorched-earth culture wars.

First-wave Boomers passed through schools during a time of strong civic confidence, when the teaching profession was at a height of public prestige. By the time the last wave arrived, schools were immersed in a raging controversy over social turmoil, youth anger and worsening outcomes. Boomers flooded into teaching careers in the 1980s and ’90s, bringing an intensive work ethic and an ideological bent. As parents, they have been an active, supportive and hovering group, viewing public schools as institutions of mission and meaning and colleges as essential destinations for their own children.

Generation X (born 1961-81) are most of today’s teachers and the newer principals and superintendents. They survived a hurried childhood of divorce, latchkeys and open classrooms. They learned young they were largely on their own and could not count on any institution, including schools, to watch out for their best interests. From grunge to hip hop, their culture has revealed a hardened edge. Politically, they have leaned toward pragmatism and nonaffiliation. In jobs, they have embraced free-agent risk, trust the marketplace over institutional intermediaries and matured into one of the most dynamic and resilient generations of entrepreneurs in U.S. history.

Gen Xers passed through grade school while the Consciousness Revolution was in full boil. Even as their school achievement leveled out, “A Nation at Risk” report accused Xers of being “a rising tide of mediocrity.” Schools curtailed supervision, de-emphasized the basics and dramatically lowered teacher pay. As today’s dominant teacher corps and rising political leaders, Xers are rejecting ideology to focus on productivity and measurable standards.

Gen X includes most of today’s hardest-edged K-12 reformers, including Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the D.C. schools, and KIPP founders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg. As parents, they are determined not to let their children experience the same problems they encountered. They have provided the most vocal constituency for school reforms that set standards, require transparency, impose accountability and enable all forms of parental choice.

Millennial Generation (born 1982-2004) are today’s K-12 students as well as entry-level teachers and staff. They arrived when “Baby on Board” signs appeared. As abortion and divorce rates ebbed, the popular culture began stigmatizing hands-off parenting styles and recasting babies as special. By the mid-’90s, politicians were defining adult issues (from tax cuts to PBS funding to Internet access) in terms of their effects on children. The media has cordoned off child-friendly havens; student achievement is rising; and educators speak of standards and cooperative learning. As this generation’s leading edge now graduates from colleges and starts careers under the wings of protective parents, rates of community service and voting among young adults are surging. (Sometimes this generation is referred to as Generation Y.)

Homeland Generation (born 2005-?) are now entering preschool and will include the babies born between now and the mid-2020s. Their always-on-guard nurturing style will be substantially set by Gen-X parents, who already are gaining a reputation for extreme sheltering.

— Neil Howe