Updates on Generations and on College Debt

Shortly after posting earlier this week regarding my frustration with media misimpressions, I discovered two useful things. One supports my argument that the supposed student debt crisis has been blown all out of proportion (this Brookings Institutions report), and the other corrects my idea that the media refers to everyone born after 1980 as Millennials.

I want to start with the generational point. “Researchers,” I recently read, have named the generation of children born after 1996 the “Plurals.” Digging deeper, it appears this has primarily been market research work rather than academic research (although I confess to a cursory review), which makes some sense. Marketers are trying to sell things to tweens and young teens, and if the Millennial formula is no longer working, then it would be evident to them that something new is afoot. The name “Plurals” or “The Pluralist Generation,” appears to have been coined by the Frank N. Magid Associaties market research firm, and the characteristics of the plurals are explored in this white paper.

My own interest in generational consciousness is more one of historical development. There is some logic to the idea that in a culture subject to continuous change (a byproduct of industrialization and an ideology of perpetual growth such as we see in capitalism), each cohort of young people would experience a world substantively different than their parents’ world. The choice of the year 1996 as the watershed between Millennials and Plurals does mark a shift in historical consciousness. Children born before 1996 are old enough to remember 9/11 (although their experience of it would be significantly different than children born in 1982). My question is how is the Great Recession going to play out in terms of marking generational edges?

Marketing practices will help create generations (just look at Buzzfeed’s seemingly endless collection of “things only 90s kids understand” type posts), but what matters more to me is the effect of collective shocks experienced by young people between the ages of 14-25. When we believe the world works one way and then everything changes (as with the end of the Cold War, 9/11, the collapse of the housing bubble, etc), how is our consciousness permanently marked, and who else understands how our world was shaken? I think this is the heart of what we have labeled generations (and in this I follow Karl Mannheim), and to me the issue is less “how crazy different are kids these days” and more “how do people incorporate the values taught to them by their parents into a context that their parents could not have prepared them for?”