The following was previously published in an earlier edition of Marketing Insider.
I was born in 1961. I always thought that technically made me a baby boomer. But I recently discovered that I am, in fact, part of Generation Jones.
If you haven’t heard of that term (as I had not, until I read a post on it a few weeks ago) Generation Jones refers to people born from 1955 to 1964 -- a cusp generation squeezed between the massive boomer block and Gen X.
That squares with me. I always somehow knew I wasn’t really a boomer, but I also knew I wasn’t Gen X. And now I know why. I, along with Barack Obama and Wayne Gretzky, was squarely in the middle of Generation Jones.
I always felt the long shadow of World War II defined baby boomers, but it didn’t define me. My childhood felt like eons removed from the war. Most of the more-traumatic wounds had healed by the time I was riding my trike through the relatively quiet suburban streets of Calgary, Alberta.
I didn’t appreciate the OK Boomer memes, not because I was the butt of them, but more because I didn’t really feel they applied to me. They didn’t hit me where I live. It was like I was winged by a shot meant for someone else.
OK Boomer digs didn’t really apply to my friends and contemporaries either, all of whom are also part of Generation Jones. For the most part, we’re trying to do our best dealing with climate change, racial inequality, more fluid gender identification and political polarization. We get it. Is there entitlement? Yeah, more than a little. But we’re trying.
And I also wasn’t part of Gen X. I wasn’t a latchkey kid. My parents didn’t obsess over the almighty dollar, so I didn’t feel a need to push back against it. My friends and I worked a zillion hours, because we were -- admittedly -- still materialistic. But it was a different kind of materialism, one edged with more than a little anxiety.
I hit the workforce in the early ‘80s, right in the middle of a worldwide recession. Generation Jones certainly wanted to get ahead, but we also wanted to keep our jobs, because if we lost them, there was no guarantee we’d find another.
When boomers were entering the workforce, through the 1970s, Canada’s unemployment rate hovered in the 6% to 8% range (U.S. numbers varied but roughly followed the same pattern). In 1982, the year I tried to start my career, it suddenly shot up to 13%. Through the ‘80s, as Gen X started to get their first jobs, it declined again to the 8% range. Generation Jones started looking for work just when a job was historically the hardest to find.
It wasn’t just the jobless rate. Interest rates also skyrocketed to historic levels in the early ‘80s. Not only couldn’t we find a job, we couldn’t have afforded credit even if we could get a job.
So yes, we were trying to keep up with the Joneses -- this is where the name for our generation comes from, coined by social commentator Jonathon Pontell -- but it wasn’t all about getting ahead. A lot of it was just trying to keep our heads above water.
We were a generation moving into adulthood at the beginning of HIV/Aids, Reaganomics, globalization and the mass deindustrialization of North American. All the social revolutions of the ‘60s and ‘70s had crystallized to the point where they now had real-world consequences. We were figuring out a world that seemed to be pivoting sharply.
As I said, I always felt that I was somewhat accidentally lodged between baby boomer and Gen X, wading my way through the transition.
Part of that transition involved the explosion of technology that became much more personal at the beginning of the 1980s. To paraphrase Shakespeare in “Twelfth Night”: Some are born with technology, some achieve technology, and some have technology thrust upon them.
Generation Jones is in the last group.
True boomers could make the decision to ignore technology and drift through life just adopting what they absolutely had to. Gen X grew up with the rudiments of technology, making it more familiar territory for them.
But we were caught in between. We had to make a decision: Do we embrace technology, or do we fight against it? A lot of that decision depended on what we wanted to do for a living. Through the ‘80s, one by one, industries were being transformed by computers and digitalization.
Often, we of Generation Jones got into our first jobs working on the technology of yesterday -- and very early in our careers, we were forced to adopt the technologies of tomorrow.
I started as a radio copywriter in 1982, and my first ads were written on an IBM Selectric and produced by cutting and patching two-track audio tape together on reel-to-reel machine with razor blades and splicing tape. Just a few years later, I was writing on an Apple IIe, and ads were starting to be recorded digitally. That shift in technology happened just when our generation was beginning our careers. Some of us went willingly, some of us went kicking and screaming.
This straddling two very different worlds seems to personify my generation. I think, with the hindsight of history, we will identify the early ‘80s as a period of significant transition in almost every aspect of our culture. Obviously, all generations had to navigate that transition, but for Generation Jones, that period just happened to coincide with what is typically the biggest transition for anyone in any generation: the passing from childhood to adulthood. It is during this time when we take the experiences of growing up and crystallize them into the foundations of who we will be for the rest of our lives.
For Generation Jones, those foundations had to be built on the fly, as the ground kept moving beneath our feet.