The Events that Define a Generation

I’m doing some review of the literature alleging that individuals born between 1977 and 1994 (though these dates range quite a bit between scholars) are fundamentally different from generations that came before because of the rise of personal computing technologies. Some scholars have used the term “digital natives” for this tech-savvy generation and “digital immigrants” for everyone else. I find the entire line of argument deeply unsatisfying because of its use of stereotypes and lack of empirical support.

One interesting argument put forth by some scholars, including Diana Oblinger in a 2003 article in EUDCAUSE Review, is that certain socio-political events shape generations and cause greater homogeneity among people of the same age and increased heterogeneity between generations. These types of events are thus responsible for creating what social scientists call a “cohort effect,” whereby all people of the same age will retain a set of shared traits throughout their lifespan. So, for example, people my age (born in the early 1980s) may develop a preference for communicating via email, and we will likely retain this for the rest of our lives, including a reluctance to adopt new ways of communicating. A cohort effect is contrasted with a developmental trend or stage-based behavior, which suggests certain behavior is common among all people of a certain age. For example, all teens will go through some kind of stage whereby they decrease their dependence on their parents and increase their dependence on peers.

This cohort effect argument about events that shape a generation is interesting because it allows us to look to key events and see if they truly do shape a generation. Dr. Oblinger lists these as defining events for “Gen. Xers” (I’ve added in years for helpful reference):
The fall of the Berlin Wall (1989)
The emergence of AIDS (1981-1986 and beyond)
The emergence of the world wide web (1994-1998)
The Chinese crackdown at Tiananmen Square (1989)
The US stock market crash (1987)
The Chernobyl nuclear accident (1986)
The Exxon Valdez oil spill (1989)
The Challenger space shuttle explosion (1986)
The first computer disk being sold (1971 or earlier for floppy disk, much earlier for regular disk)

Aside from the fact that these events have an immense date range of nearly 30 years, we can look to current events to see if there are any parallels. Where to begin!

The emergence of the internet is still playing out today. Perhaps we might say the emergence of social networking websites or “Web 2.0.” These events have greatly shaped how we use the internet. The Chinese government’s massacre of protesters at Tiananmen Square could be compared to the Arab Spring, the massive protests sweeping aside governments in the Middle East; indeed, these protests may have even more of an effect, given the changes they are actually bringing about. The stock market crash of 1987 is nothing compared to our current “great recession.” Chernobyl = Fukushima, Exxon Valdez = Deepwater Horizon, Challenger = Columbia. And we’ll just ignore the bizarro computer disk entry.

If these events are so unique that they can cause a cohort effect, then we should expect today’s young people (born between, say, 1988 and 2000) to be identical copies of people from so-called “Generation X” (born between 1965 and 1977, though these dates vary). After all, both groups have experienced very similar events that Dr. Oblinger calls highly significant. So, if these generations end up very similar, it will be proof positive that Dr. Oblinger’s claims are correct. And if (when) it doesn’t happen, it will be proof that other historical events clearly shaped this generation (or perhaps we’ve incorrectly identified those events that shaped Gen. X).

In the end, there is no real way to verify the claims of Dr. Oblinger. From the ethical perspective of cognitivism, thus, Dr. Oblinger’s claims are actually not ethical. From a social scientific perspective, it simply means that her claims are not useful. And from a practical perspective, the suggested homogeneity of students (as Dr. Oblinger’s work is most frequently aimed at educators) is actually downright dangerous. You can trust that it is part of my mission as a researcher to do my best to refute Dr. Oblinger’s suggestions.