Generations are Fictions

In 2005 writer Jeff Chang published Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A history of the hip hop generation. This book was a landmark in the community for many reasons, including its unique and powerful insights. Tonight I want to share the Prelude Chang wrote, which serves as a great introduction to the book and provides a wonderful reason for any of my readers to go out and buy a copy of the book.

“Prelude” from Can’t Stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang. 
Generations are fictions.
     The act of determining a group of people by placing a beginning and ending date around them is a way to impose a narrative. They are interesting and necessary fictions because they allow claims to be staked around ideas. But generations are fictions nonetheless, often created simply to suit the needs of demographers, journalists, futurists and marketers.
     In 1990 Neil Howe and William Strauss- both baby boomers and self-described social forecasters- set forth a neatly parsed theory of American generations in their book, Generations: The history of America’s future, 1584 to 2069. They named their own generation “Prophets,” idealists who came of age during a period of “Awakening,” and their children’s generation “Heroes,” who, nurtured by their spiritually attuned parents, would restore America to a “High” era. In between were “Nomads” inhabiting a present they described as “Unraveling.” What Howe and Strauss’s self-flattering theory lacked in explanatory power, it made up for with the luck of good timing. The release of Generations intersected with the media’s discovery of “Generation X,” a name taken from the title of a book by Douglas Copeland that seemed to sum up for boomers the mystery of the emerging cohort.
     Howe and Strauss’s book was pitched as a peek into the future. Cycles of history, they argued, proceed from generational cycles, giving them the power to prophesize the future. Certainly history loops. But generations are fictions used in larger struggles over power. 
     There is nothing more ancient than telling stories about generational difference. A generation is usually named and framed first by the one immediately preceeding it. The story is written in the words of shock and outrage that accompany two revelations: “Whoa, I’m getting old,” and, “Damn, who are these kids?”
     Boomers seem to have had great difficulty imagining what could come after themselves. It was a boomer who invented that unfortunate formulation: “the end of history.” By comparison, everything that came after would appear as a decline, a simplification, a corruption.
     Up until recently, our generation has mainly been defined by the prefix “post-.” We have been post-civil rights, postmodern, poststructural, postfeminist, post-Black, post-soul. We’re the poster children of “post-,” the leftover in the dirty kitchen of yesterday’s feast. We have been the Baby Boom Echo. (Is Baby Boom Narcissus in the house?) We have been Generation X. Now they even talk about Generation Y. And why? Probably because Y comes after X…
     …There are many more versions to be heard. May they all be.

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