13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?

by Neil Howe & Bill Strauss

crashed by Ian Williams, 'tooned by R.J. Matson

published by Vintage Books, New York, 1993


>wait a minute, why do we have to be a generation at all? why can't we just peacefully take up our place on the palette of time without people like you coming along and calling us "post-whatever" and "neo-pseudo-classical-glurb"? I take offense. I may not have the demographical skill to summon up all three trillion of you boomers into one cohesive "impulse item rack" at walmart, but I like being nice and undefinable. you're taking the fun out of everything.

In 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?, Neil Howe and Bill Strauss, set out to define--and to help their fellow Baby Boomers and elders understand--the generation of Americans they call the "Thirteenth." It's "13er" Nancy Smith's "generation after. Born after 1960, after you, after it all happened." It's those born after the Boom, but before the Babies-on-Board 1980s, between 1961 and 1981 (I was born in 1977). It's those alternately tagged "Generation X," "Baby Busters," "Computer Babies," the "New Lost," "Nowhere," "Boomerang," or "MTV" generation. It's the generation with a terminally bad image, one no spin doctor press agent would have even tried to manage--especially when this book was published five years ago. Everyone hears about sagging test scores, rising violence, sexually transmitted diseases, the declining job market and the fact that this generation will be less well off than those which came before. It's a lot of baggage for ones so young and that's why we all, like "crasher," hate to be defined. But Howe and Strauss do not add to the litany of complaints; they view their subjects with both seriousness and compassion.

As a first step, they argue for a new name. They "take a number. Thirteen." We are, after all, the thirteenth generation to know the American nation, flag, and Constitution. But there are also the connotations that come with such an "unlucky" number. It is "a gauntlet, a challenge, an obstacle to overcome," fitting for all that with which this generation has been charged. I can't speak for all 13ers, but it's a name I can live with (even if it was coined by two Boomers, it's certainly better than the other choices). It connotes a sense of pragmatic acceptance of the situation at hand--the cards we've been dealt--combined with a strong sense of irony, which buttresses both determination and hope--we know it's not so much in holding a good hand but in playing a poor hand well. This is the credit Howe and Strauss give us.

The book is thematically divided into three sections which both stand alone and also combine to present a framework for understanding the whole. Part One defines Thirteeners in relation to the generations which have preceded them, for we cannot understand the 13th without an idea of what it means to belong to the elder generations. Each generation is shaped by its different historical experience, and as children of the Silent (and elder members of the Boomer) generation, the 13ers must face the legacy of the 1970s. Part Two: "The American Dream Has No 13th Floor" addresses the big issues--"money sex violence race politics. It's got it all"--as they have affected the 13th. And Part Three discusses 13ers' impact on America, from pop culture to predictions for the 21st century. Here the authors draw a lengthy comparison to the Lost generation--folks like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Mae West, Charlie Chaplin, Edward G. Robinson, Harry Truman, and the rest, born between 1883 and 1900--as well as to America's other "bad" generations--the Guilded (Mark Twain, John D. Rockefeller, et al. born 1822-1842) the Liberty (John Adams, Patrick Henry; 1724-1741) and the Cavalier (Increase Mather; 1615-1647). Not bad company, all in all. In their thorough study, Howe and Strauss effectively argue for a new and more positive way of looking at the Thirteenth Generation--a generation of survivors.

In format, 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? is not designed as a scholarly work; rather, it seeks a broader audience. The layout draws upon the style of magazines and web pages utilizing quotations from every-which-where, strung along the margins, cartoons, charts, graphs, and excerpts from online conversations with thirteeners, formatted as they would appear on a computer screen. The intention, no doubt, was to make the book accessible, intriguing, and "user-friendly." But it is frankly patronizing; it reinforces the "sound-byte attention span" image of the 13er generation. The chat zone dialogue with "crasher" and his buddies importantly allows for feedback from the subjects of the study, and many of the quotes found along the margins are truly fascinating, but many more add little or are repeated within the text. The charts, graphs, cartoons, etc. do not add much of substance. A few quotations, a few charts or illustrations would have been helpful and entertaining, but it's overkill. It detracts from the message of the work as a whole by catering to stereotypes. While the design may initially draw in readers, Howe and Strauss unfortunately risk undermining their own authority.

Still, I think this volume remains an important look at a generation which has been much degraded in the past. As a 13er myself, I do see much truth in the picture painted by Howe and Strauss. I may not be entirely comfortable with all of these two boomers' predictions, but I'm impressed with their very effort, and with the credit they give to Thirteeners. Perhaps I just feel flattered, but I think Howe and Strauss are on to something. They sum it all up by saying, "As a group, they aren't what older people wish they were, but rather what they themselves know they need to be: street-smart survivalists clued into the game of life the way it really gets played, searching for simple things that work in a cumbersome society that offers little to them." And I think we can find them.