INVESTIGATING HISTORY'S THUMBPRINT
ON THE IDENTITIES, OUTLOOKS & VALUES OF BIRTH COHORTS
Sociology 2306 Group Projects

Each term that this social psychology course is taught there is one overarching theme which also is the topic area for group research projects.  During the Fall 2001 semester this theme involved the concept of generations, of how the intersection of a  birth cohort's formative life-cycle stage with an historical "watershed event" (i.e., depression, war, or revolution) produces a distinctive identity among these individuals and a shared sense of being agents of social change.  Ironically, the course intersected one such watershed event: the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington.  Strauss and Howe's Millennials had their defining day just as Boomers had the JFK assassination and Silents had Pearl Harbor.

The following,  from the course syllabus, lays out the research problem and possible lines of research:

Is there such a thing as a “generational personality” that we keep throughout the life-cycle?  If one looks through the generational works at Amazon.com one would certainly think so, noting such titles as Managing Generation Y, Managing Generation X, Beyond Generation X : A Practical Guide for Managers , and Generations Apart : Xers Vs. Boomers Vs the Elderly (Contemporary Issues).  With the recent attention given to the World War II cohort, Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation,” comparisons of generational adequacies are invited. Have you noticed all of the games of intergenerational oneupsmanship: the five mile walk to school in five feet of snow stories; how the grandparents had to milk twenty cows and take them out to pasture before the school bus arrived for their hour-long ride to school; how parents had to study many more hours than you when they were in high school; etc. Last June, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, seeking to put into perspective the alcohol-related “plight” of the Bush twins, wrote the following of their grandfather: “When he was one year younger than the twins are now, he enlisted in the Navy, trained as a pilot and went off to war. He even got shot down.”

The existence of such comparisons implies the existence of a generational component to the identities of similarly-aged individuals. This “generational identity” is undoubtedly a stereotype but one many people take for real nevertheless. If one were to locate the strongest generational stamp on identities among all of those within a birth cohort, where would it be in the class structure (upper class, middle, working or lower) and regionally (i.e., on the coasts vs. the Midwest)? Would this stamp be greater for females or males?

As people live longer and the rate of social change accelerates the number of generations alive increases, the natural differences between age groups (e.g., between parent and child generations) become magnified, and the potential for age- and/or generational-group conflict increases. Last summer a Christian Science Monitor article reported on how mainline Protestant denominations are facing declines in membership (as older, more religious generations die off) and an aging of its clergy (as younger generations no longer enter the priesthood in rates of older generations). For these faiths, the consequences of such trends are, as they say, “no brainers.” Given generational differences in values, lifestyles and outlooks, is it possible that generational politics will replace the class-race-ethnic politics of the twentieth century?

Here are the summaries of the groups' presentations:

Comparing the Economic and Political Context of the Formative Years of Gen Y vs. the Boomers
Music as a Generational Totem: Comparing the GIs and Silents
The Forgotten Generations
How Cultural Icons Become Immortal
The Social Psychology of Remade Movies
Generational Differences in Values Orientations

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