Defining and pigeonholing generations can be fun as long as you don't take it too seriously. Pop psychologists regularly publish books and articles explaining how the diverse experiences of millions of Americans can be neatly summarized by the era in which they grew up. Thus, you have the Greatest (or G.I.) Generation, the Silent Generation, the Baby Boomers, Generation Jones, Generation X, and the Millennials.
Ever since John F. Kennedy, at 43 years old, captured the White House in 1960, the presidency has been dominated first by the G.I.s (JFK through Bush the First) and more recently by the Boomers (Clinton and Bush the Second). If anything, this reality should give pause to anyone who seeks to explain presidential behavior and success in terms of generational values. George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter exhibited none of the boldness of Lyndon Johnson or Ronald Reagan. George W. Bush's callow recklessness had little in common with Bill Clinton's timid triangulation.
Still, the human brain is programmed to look for patterns, and it's difficult to convince people to stop thinking in terms of generational identity even after you point out that Bob Dylan and Wayne Newton were born less than a year apart. So let's go ahead and play along. How will their generational affiliation influence the behavior of the current crop of presidential candidates?
If you're into this sort of discussion, the first thing you notice is that two previously unrepresented generations are likely to face off for the grand prize in November. John McCain represents the Silent Generation's last chance to make it into the history books. The Silents, born between 1930 and 1944 (or thereabouts) have not only failed to produce a chief executive, they have coughed up just two major party nominees, the less-than-memorable Fritz Mondale and Michael Dukakis during the 1980s. If McCain is denied, the youngest of their tribe will be 68 in 2012 and the oldest 82.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, is the first credible candidate to be offered by Generation Jones (I hate the name, but it seems to have caught on), the post-Boomers born between 1956 and 1965. Superficially, at least, Obama possesses all the core characteristics of a Joneser, having avoided military service, snorted cocaine, and written a painfully introspective book about getting in touch with his feelings. Somewhere hidden deep within an old box of keepsakes is probably a little yellow smiley-face button.
We are rarely treated to a presidential contest between "father" and "son" generations, so the 2008 election (assuming Boomer Hillary doesn't crash the party) should at least be entertaining. The last time this happened was 1992, with Poppy Bush barely disguising his contempt for that draft-dodging, pot-smoking, moral degenerate, Bill Clinton. We now understand that Bush was probably just working out his feelings about his eldest son, but at the time it felt like Ali-Frazier III, the rubber match between heavyweight generations. The G.I.s won the battle of 1968, the Boomers knocked out Dick Nixon in 1974, and it was time for these two aging pugs to have one last go at it. (What we didn’t realize at the time was that the real battle in 1992 was between the left- and right-wing factions of the Boomer generation itself, a contest that continues to this day.)
What, then, should we expect from this latest intergenerational contest? Well, here are two descriptions, one of each generation:
"[They] appear to offer a more conservative and less secular approach to politics…"
"[T]hey became empathizers, mediators, and conciliators…[and] they preferred more intellectual approaches to problems, and tried to avoid nasty confrontations."
How about it? Which one better describes Barack Obama and which captures the essence of John McCain? I'm setting you up, of course; the first passage refers to Gen Jones and the second to the Silents born during the '30s. Neither candidate, it seems, is an exemplar of his generation the same way that Bush Senior and Clinton were of theirs. Indeed, strong evidence suggests that Obama's cohort, having come of age during Ronald Reagan's presidency and inexplicably fallen under the B-movie actor's spell, is the most Republican of any age group. Without their ballots, John Kerry would currently be running for re-election. The Silent Generation, on the other hand, is far more likely to support Democratic candidates at all levels.
What does all this mean? Hell if I know. But it does suggest that any pop psych "theory" that wants to lump John McCain together with Michael Dukakis probably shouldn't be given too much credence.