The economic success of the United States and Europe around the turn of the 20th to the 21st century is often ascribed to the so-called Protestant work ethic of members of the baby boomer generation born between 1946 and 1964. They are said to place work central in their lives, to avoid wasting time and to be ethical in their dealings with others. Their work ethic is also associated with greater job satisfaction and performance, conscientiousness, greater commitment to the organization they belong to and little time for social loafing.Hang on, I hear you say: the stereotypical Baby Boomer work ethic? The generation born between 1946 and 1964, that of Beatlemania and Woodstock, long hair, Free Love, anti-Vietnam-War protests and recreational drug use (and, at its younger end, shading into the fuck-the-system nihilism of punk), being associated specifically with duty, discipline and delayed gratification? That can't be so. Perhaps whoever came up with that idea skipped a decade or two, and was instead thinking of a slightly earlier cohort; perhaps their older half-siblings, the neatly groomed beige-suited Eddie Haskells who addressed their parents as “sir” and “ma'am”, or even the “Greatest Generation” who sacrificed everything in World War 2, only to watch their kids grow their hair, listen to that godawful racket, and generally not exemplify a particularly strong work ethic.
The other possibility is, of course, that the stereotype of the “Baby Boomer work ethic” is not so much about the Woodstock generation but about old people. Which is to say, that it reflects survivor bias; the likelihood that the ones left standing into advanced age either had their shit together from the outset or got it together. Presumably, of the generation that came of age in the heady Sixeventies, some will have fallen by the wayside (and, of course, Reaganism, AIDS and punk rock were just around the corner), some will have grown up and gotten with the programme (this was in the day before emoji and executive hoodies, when adulthood was a one-way transformation into a stolid mortgage-paying lump of joyless responsibility), and some, seeing that they had survived and succeeded, would have rationalised that they had been hard-working and responsible (and, thus, deserving of their success) all along. Which, of course, vacated the space of feckless irresponsibility for the younger generation, to whom it always belongs.
Of course, what this means is that, in some 20 years' time, we can look forward to a paper debunking the widely held stereotype that Generation X—the one most recently associated with MTV, “alternative rock”, Nintendo and the “slacker” stereotype—are inherently more moral, virtuous and upstanding than their shabby, feckless descendants. And then, eventually, it will be the millennials, the generation of selfies, Taylor Swift and crushing debt. And, in turn, every generation will, shortly before its death, briefly be the Greatest Generation standing.
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