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A Guide to American Generations of the Twentieth Century: From the Greatest to the Worst and Beyond (2017)

By socect (b.1966; Twitter: @TheRealSocect; Email:; I do not use Facebook)

We hear a lot of reference to generations in America – especially these days to Baby Boomers and Millennials. There is a lot of confusion over categorizing and dating the generations of the 20th century. As a member of Generation X or “GenX” myself (b.1966, at the leading edge of the core of that generation), I’ve always thought the attention to generations is somewhere between overblown and complete bullshit. But I’ve come to admit to myself that over the past century of rapid social, cultural, economic and technological change, Americans have been shaped by the generation into which they were born, and each generation has shaped America in different ways.

Look up generations (e.g. in Wikipedia) and you will find all sorts of varieties of dates. Moreover, many sources, such as Pew Research, give longer spans of time to some generations (especially Baby Boomers) and shorter spans to others (such as Gen X). Below is my simple scheme with each generation defined by birth dates within maximal, overlapping 25-year periods and 15-year cores. Importantly, there is no clean cut-off between generations. To say that a generation definitively begins or ends in a particular year is silly. Generations fade into and out of each other. And also, to make thing simple, all years here end in zeros or fives; in case you are wondering or critical – yes, I am aware the dates between one generation and the next overlap.

Born (Core) / Name
1900-1925 (1905-1920) Greatest Generation (a.k.a. GI Generation)
1920-1945 (1925-1940) Silent Generation (a.k.a. the Lucky Few)
1940-1965 (1945-1960) Baby Boomers (a.k.a. Me Generation; Worst Generation)
1960-1985 (1965-1980) Generation X (a.k.a. GenX; Slackers, MTV Generation)
1980-2005 (1985-2000) Millennials (a.k.a. Generation Y; GenY)
2000-2025 (2005-2020) Post-Millennials (a.k.a. Generation Z)

Anyone born during the twenty-five year span of the Generation might rightly claim to be part of it and identify with it. Each generation has a five-year overlap with its adjacent generations. Those born in these years are between generations, and depending on circumstances may identify more with one or the other (or both in different ways). Each generation has a 15-year core, individuals who are clearly of that generation and not of another. The first five years might be considered the “leading core”; the last five years the “trailing core” and the middle five years the “central core” of the generation.

Each generation is shaped by and shapes the events of its members’ life-cycle. The way I have defined the life-cycle here starts with childhood, being the first fifteen years from the first birth year of the core of the generation. Childhood is followed by subsequent fifteen year spans of coming-of-age, settling-in, middle age, retiring, and old age. Further below, these stages of the life-cycle and the years they span for each generation are charted and explained in greater detail.

This American scheme of generations is very “mainstream” and very American. It does not necessarily translate to other countries, although America’s global political, economic and cultural influence in the twentieth century means that many trends experienced and disseminated by these generations have had reverberations elsewhere. The scheme is also most applicable to the mainstream and White majority in America; African-Americans and other minorities have experienced these generations differently.

My presentation of these generations is also heavily biased by my own inclination to see the Baby Boom Generation as the “Worst Generation,” who’s self-centered and self-serving (“Me Generation”) dealings have had broadly adverse consequences for the country. The “Greatest Generation” (the Baby Boomers’ parents), along with the “Silent Generation” (mostly parents of GenX), overcame the depredations of the Great Depression and World War 2, oversaw a tremendous post-War economic expansion, made great strides in terms of Civil Rights and Gender Equality, and passed on to the next generation a country which was far better off in every respect than the one they had been born into. Then the Baby Boomers pretty much crapped up the whole thing (and are likely to continue to do so until they all die off). As an older GenX-er, I hope that we and the Millennials can emulate the Greatest and Silent Generations, and eventually undo all the damage that the Baby Boomers have done. (There are plenty of noble, self-sacrificing Baby Boomers who have contributed much to the world; here I am focusing on the experiences and legacy of the generation as a whole.)

Summary of the Generations

Greatest Generation (core b.1905-1920)

The core of the Greatest Generation were born in the first two decades of the twentieth century. They were children during the Great War (World War 1), in which their fathers fought. Due to WW1, their parents were known as the “Lost Generation,” particularly in Europe. They came of age in the roaring twenties. The Great Depression hit just at the point that they were beginning to reach the “settling in” years of their life cycle and they joined the armed services en masse to fight in the Second World War. The hardships of the Depression and War gave them seriousness; overcoming both gave them optimism tempered by pragmatism. In the post-War years, they oversaw and experienced the great economic expansion of the 1950s and 1960s. The working class had reliable, living wage (family wage) factory jobs backed by strong unions; but they were also strongly anti-Communist.

The Greatest Generation were born into an America of Black-White segregation and Jim Crow laws, but desegregation of the armed forces beginning in the Second World War marked the very slow and still incomplete process of dismantling White supremacy. Immigration into the United States peaked at the point they were born (1907) and declined throughout most of their lives. They and the Silent Generation oversaw the authoring of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act which led to much higher rates of immigration throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

Women of the Greatest Generation were the first generation to have the vote throughout their lives, coming of age at the time the vote was granted. They took up jobs on the home front during the mass mobilization of WW2. They largely returned to domestic roles after the war, but encouraged their Baby Boomer daughters to have aspirations beyond homemaking.

All Presidents from 1960 (Kennedy) through 1992 (with the election of Baby Boomer Bill Clinton), were of the Greatest Generation, including here Carter and Bush, Sr., who were “between generations.” All but one served on active duty and in combat during WW2 in the armed forces (specifically, the Navy). The one exception was Reagan, who did not serve in combat but in the propaganda unit of the military (he was not a soldier, but he played one in the movies). Kennedy was preceded by Eisenhower (1952-1960), who although from the pre-1900 generation, had led the Greatest Generation in WW2. Thus service in the Second World War was a hallmark of all Presidents in office between 1952 and 1992.

The Greatest Generation began to enter retirement in the 1970s and 1980s. They have now mostly passed away. Those still alive from the trailing core of the generation are well into their nineties. The Greatest Generation were memorialized and the term popularized by journalist Tom Brokaw in his 1998 book of that title.

Silent Generation (core b.1925-1940)

In popular culture, the Silent Generation is the Generation of Don Draper and “Mad Men.” They were born into the Great Depression and children or just starting to come-of-age but too young to serve during the Second World War. Their war was the Korean War, which ended far more ambiguously than the Second World War (see the movie and television series “M*A*S*H”; a Vietnam-era take on the Korean Conflict). But they (the men at least) benefitted from “settling in” during the long post-War economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s.

Women of the Silent Generation were too young to be Rosie Riveters working in WW2 factories. They came-of-age and settled in during the 1950s, when a strong ideology of female domesticity was being asserted in popular culture. They were given very little encouragement to aspire to their own careers and faced incredible obstacles if they did so. For those who went to college, the main objective, or at least the expectation among peers, was to find a husband.

The Silent Generation, along with the Greatest Generation, spearheaded the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s. While Baby Boomers like to take credit for the Civil Rights movement as part of “the 60s”, all of the serious gains of the Civil Rights movement had been made by the early 1960s, when they were still barely coming of age. Martin Luther King (b.1929) and Malcolm X (b.1925) were both at the leading core of the Silent Generation. The Silent Generation also supported the “Great Society” programs (e.g. Medicaid, Medicare) of early Greatest Generation Presidents (Kennedy, Johnson).

At the time the Silent Generation was getting well “settled in” and approaching middle age, they were hit by the cultural upheavals and economic turmoil of the late 1960s and 1970s. They faced a much less settled and less prosperous middle-age than the Greatest Generation. In response to the Baby Boomer’s adolescent and promiscuous “Free Love”, the Silent Generation was the first to begin to normalize divorce. (Again, the television series “Mad Men” is an excellent portrayal of how the Silent Generation experienced the 1960s.).

Nevertheless, by the time the Silent Generation began to retire in the late 1980s and 1990s, the collapse of the American middle class had only started to unfold. They were in general beneficiaries of the long post-WW2 boom and able to retire from good middle class jobs with decent pensions, social security and Medicare/Medicaid to alleviate the scourge of old-age poverty that had hit earlier generations prior to New Deal and Great Society reforms. Thus author Elwood Carlson dubbed them “The Lucky Few,” in his book on the generation by that name. They were also the first generation in history to be numerically smaller than the prior generation (repeated by Generation X, in the wake of the Baby Boom). The trailing-core of the Silent Generation are now entering their eighties and most if not all of the generation will have passed away within the next ten years. No core member of the Silent Generation ever served as President of the United States.

Baby Boomers (core b.1945-1960)

America’s obsession with “generations” began with the Baby Boomers and a recognition that this birth cohort played an outsized role in shaping the culture, politics and the economy. They were also known as the “Me Generation” and for some of us (myself included) the “Worst Generation,” in contrast to the “Greatest,” who were their parents. The Baby Boomers are named for the remarkable fertility spike following the Second World War, when the Greatest Generation’s men returned from Europe and the Pacific and started to settle down and have children. Demographically, the Baby Boom Generation has been particularly dominated by its leading core, born in the early post-War years, as birth rates had begun to trail off significantly by the late 1950s.

Baby Boomers were children of the domestically-oriented 1950s, whose parents constructed a society aimed at protecting their children from the sorts of deprivations they themselves experienced in the Great Depression and war years. Boomers came of age in the 1960s and early 1970s, witnessing the tumult of the early 1960s, particularly around Civil Rights and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy. They were drawn to the alternative culture of the Silent Generation who produced Beatnik Poetry (e.g. Allen Ginsberg, b.1926) and invented Rock and Roll (e.g. Chuck Berry, b.1926, Elvis Presley, b.1935). By the late 1960s, they were rebelling against the “square” 1950s during which they were raised. Experimenting with drugs, sexual promiscuity, and dodging the draft became framed as “progressive social consciousness.”

Just as the Second World War and Korean War had left an imprint on the preceding generations, the Vietnam War defined the Baby Boomers. Members of the generation, at least those on the liberal or left of the political spectrum, took great pride in their opposition to the war. Although in retrospect, the anti-War movement of the Boomers seems to have been as much about self-interest as social consciousness. Prior to the war in Vietnam, the draft had meant that the entire American society invested itself in major wars. Opposition to the draft during the American War in Vietnam, led to the development of a “professional” (rather than “citizen”) military. After Vietnam under latter-day Greatest Generation (Reagan, Bush Sr.) and Baby Boomer leadership (Clinton, Bush Jr.), America would start going to war – particularly in the 1990s and onward – without a general mobilization. Instead, American Presidents who themselves had never served in combat would send for the most part only the most marginalized citizens (rural, working class, minorities and new immigrants) into harm’s way. The core of the Baby Boom has produced three Presidents (Clinton, Bush Jr., Trump), all from the leading years of the core (all born in the same year – 1946), and all essentially Vietnam War draft dodgers (Clinton and Trump through a variety of deferments; Bush through an Air National Guard commission arranged through his father’s political connections). Those who did serve in the war in Vietnam faced derision and ostracism when they returned from the war.

The sharp conservative turn of the 1980s belies the supposed social liberalism of the Baby Boom Generation. All the purported progressivism of the Boomers was spent by the end of the 1970s. As they settled in to adulthood, they turned to Evangelical (rather than traditional) Christianity, focusing on personal salvation, self-actualization (rather than community) and a virulent attitude toward liberalism, same-sex relationships and women’s reproductive choice. Hippies became Yuppies. Greed became good. The color blindness implied in King’s admonishment to judge others not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character became a blindness to ongoing discrimination and racism. “Feminist” and “Liberal” became a dirty words. The culture wars the Boomers started in the 1960s against their parents’ culture of the 1950s continued on into the 1980s and 1990s, but now more Boomers began to side with the conservative cause. The most liberal of Boomer Presidents, Bill Clinton, oversaw the ramping up of mass incarceration – particularly of African-Americans – in the 1990s and in the wake of the 1980s crack epidemic; while socially acceptable powder cocaine fueled Hollywood and Wall Street.

Boomers’ affinity for divisive culture wars from the 1960s through 1980s turned into an affinity for divisive, hateful politics in Washington D.C. and across the country once they came fully into their own in middle age (from Newt Gingrich’s 1994 revolution onward). From the 1980s through the 2000s, the Baby Boomers supported (under Reaganomics) and then oversaw (through Clinton’s welfare reform) a systemic dismantling of the social safety net and middle-class security that previous generations had constructed through FDR’s Depression-era New Deal and Post-War Great Society years. Working class Baby Boomers saw a serious reversal of fortune, with stagnating wages and the end of life-time employment in industrial jobs while tax reforms over several decades (under Reagan, then Bush Jr.) shifted wealth from the working class to the country’s most affluent. As they began to face retirement, they threw their support behind the ultimate expression of their generation – Donald Trump (a self-serving, self-indulgent, hate-spewing, born-into-privilege con-man), his promise to “make America great again,” and sought to blame anyone but themselves (Mexicans, Muslims, China) for the sorry state of the country they had been in charge of for the past several decades.

Generation X (core b.1965-1980)

Generation X or GenX first gained their name from a 1991 novel (Generation X: Tales from an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland, b.1961). The term was then mainly taken up not by members of the Generation themselves, but by Baby Boomer marketers seeking to define ways to commercially exploit the generation that came after them. Whereas Baby Boomers were defined by the post-WW2 fertility boom, GenX were born during a sharp fertility decline in the late 1960s and 1970s (their parents being late Silent Generation or early Boomers, more interested in indulging themselves than forming families). They were brought up as children during the period when divorce rates spiked to 50% and “broken families” became the norm. Before being labeled as Generation X in the early 1990s, they had been known as “latchkey children,” who stayed at home unattended by parents. They were also labeled “Slackers” and the “MTV generation.” The Greatest and Silent Generations were raised on radio (with FDR’s “fireside chats”). The Baby Boomers were raised on Network Television (ABC, CBS, and NBC). GenX saw the Network television of their childhood become Cable TV (MTV and CNN 24-hour news) as they came of age in the 1980s. They took to email and the Internet through the 1990s. Late Boomers (e.g. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, both b.1955) led the personal computing and Internet (web-browsing) revolution that GenX adopted. GenX invented social media (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, – all founded by GenX members) into which Millennials came of age as “digital natives”.

GenX came of age in the “Just Say No” 1980s, amidst the AIDS and crack epidemics. Left-wing Boomers sneered at them for being too cautious, conservative and career-oriented in an era when the prospect of life-time job security was becoming scarce for the middle and working class alike. Right-wing Boomers sneered at them for being too “Politically Correct” when they sought to reshape college campuses to be less hostile toward women and minorities. They were the first generation forced to take on severe debt in order to get a college degree.

GenX grew up and came of age in an increasingly diverse nation, with immigration ratcheting up, due to immigration reforms from 1965 onward, and increasing visibility of LGBT communities, particularly in the wake of the 1980s AIDS epidemic. GenX was also the first generation to be fully subject to Affirmative Action in education and hiring, attempting to undo centuries of entrenched racism and sexism. For White men, this meant having to cede, willingly or unwillingly, university places and other privileges to women, African-Americans and other minorities. For women and minorities, Affirmative Action meant being subject to questioning of whether or not they were “really qualified” for tertiary education or just “diversity hires” in professional employment. Meanwhile throughout the 1980s, the Boomers and the Reagan/Bush administrations were putting into place various forms of subtle “color blind” racism.

In the realm of Evangelical Christianity and other religions, Generation X has not gone in for the self-centered and other-hating sorts of extremism favored by Evangelical Baby Boomers. For example, Evangelical members of GenX are much less hostile to the LGBT community. “Love the Sinner but Hate the Sin,” has been their favored motto; rather than “Burn in Hell Sinner.” Women of Generation X took it for granted that they could go to college and have careers. They experimented with “Third Wave” feminism, which reasserted femininity (sexuality and “Girl Power”) in ways that had been anathema to “Second Wave” feminism of the Boomers in the 1960s and 1970s.

GenX did not have a War to define their generation as had each of the three generations preceding them (see Fight Club, 1999 starring Brad Pitt, b.1963 – “We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives.”). At least not until September 11, 2001. In the wake of Vietnam, America retreated from military engagement in the world, except in picking fights with small and massively over-matched foes (e.g. invading Granada in 1983). The largest conflict during GenX’s prime years to join the military – the first Persian Gulf War – was over in a matter of weeks (17 January to 28 February 1991). The United States has not activated the draft since the war in Vietnam, but after Ford eliminated selective service registration for Baby Boomers in 1975, Carter reauthorized it in 1980 just as the leading core of GenX was approaching 18 years old.

After 9/11, many trailing core GenX members, then in their mid-20s, enlisted in the military along with leading-core Millennials (and those born in the 1980-1985 “between” years of the GenX and Millennial Generations). Draft-dodging, Boomer President George W. Bush sent them into endless war in Afghanistan and into war in Iraq under false pretenses (what WMDs?). Fortunately, unlike the ostracism faced by those who served in Vietnam, GenX and Millennials have made it a point to thank those who volunteered for their service, in the absence of a draft or even a general national mobilization to support these wars.

At present, Generation X is in their middle age (c. 37 to 52 years old in 2017). For most generations, this is the period when they reach the height of their political, economic and cultural power in American society. But they are now being labeled by some as the “Forgotten Generation” between Baby Boomers and Millennials. There has so far been only one, partially GenX President – Barack Obama. While Obama (b.1961) falls between generations, his coming of age in the late 1970s through 1980s would arguably make him shaped more by the forces surrounding leading core GenX than those of the Baby Boomers (no involvement in war, early Internet, cable television, immigration and diversity, Affirmative Action, etc.).

Millennials (core b.1985-2000)

Earlier labeled “Generation Y” by Baby Boomer marketers, Millennials were born in the two decades leading up to the turn of the millennium and came of age in its first decade and a half. Their consciousness is shaped by September 11, 2001. The leading core of the generation were only 16 when 9/11 happened and the trailing core were just infants. They came of age during endless but largely out-of-sight and often out-of-mind wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are “digital natives” being children when the Internet first developed as a popular medium and coming of age with social media. They live in a radically more fractured media environment than their GenX or Baby Boomer elders. If demographic trends continue as they have over the past several decades, by the time Millennials get to their late middle age or retiring years (c.2050) the United States will be “majority minority” country (no longer majority White). They have grown used to YouTube videos of Black men being shot down in the streets by police; a sort of every-day violence largely invisible, particularly to the White majority, in previous generations. They have been saddled with even more severe debt than GenX, if they pursued college or other tertiary degrees. They started entering the workforce mainly during the Great Recession and “jobless” recovery that followed. The structures of social welfare, unions and other institutions that secured life for their Baby Boomer parents have been systematically dismantled by those parents, who also look set to blow up Social Security and Medicare by the time that GenX or Millennials can benefit from those programs. Millennials have come of age and now live in a society of vastly greater economic inequality than existed at any time since the Great Depression, which the Greatest and Silent Generation experienced. The middle class has been gutted, and it is unclear how or if a largely middle class society might be resurrected, in which the vast majority would live comfortably. At present, Millennials are entering their “settling-in” years (with the leading core in their early 30s). They have mainly only known Barack Obama and Donald Trump as Presidents. It can only be hoped that this will provide sharp instruction in the qualities to be admired and those to be distained in a national leader.

Post-Millennials (core b.2005-2020)

Just to be clear, “Millennials” are those born in the two decades preceding the turn of the millennium. Those being born now, in the first two decades of the new century and millennium, are of a new generation – sometimes called “Generation Z” – again, simply ticking off letters for every generation after the “Baby Boomers”. I prefer “post-Millennials” but only time will tell what moniker settles upon them. They will be the first generation wholly of this century. It will be up to GenX and Millennials to leave them a better country than the one into which we were born and came of age.

Life Cycle of the Generations

Life Cycle Greatest Silent Baby Boom GenX Millennials
Childhood 1905-1920 1925-1940 1945-1960 1965-1980 1985-2000
Coming-of-Age 1920-1935 1940-1955 1960-1975 1980-1995 2000-2015
Settling In 1935-1950 1955-1970 1975-1990 1995-2010 2015-2030
Middle Age 1950-1965 1970-1985 1990-2005 2010-2025 2030-2045
Retiring 1965-1980 1985-2000 2005-2020 2025-2040 2045-2060
Old Age 1980-1995 2000-2015 2020-2035 2040-2045 2060-2075


Childhood: Core of the generation are being born and in their childhood. Shaped by the attitudes, opinions and actions of adults around them, but little influence over the society and culture themselves.


Coming of Age: Leading Core of the generation are entering their late teens and twenties. Trailing core have entered their late teens by the end of this period. The generation has little political or economic power, but is creating and consuming popular culture. Often reacting and rebelling against the norms of the previous generation(s). Becoming aware of the society they live in.


Settling In: Leading Core of the generation are getting married, starting working lives and careers and moving into middle-age early in this period. By the end of this period the trailing core of the generation are all in their thirties and leading core are moving into their late forties. As a cohort, the generation begins to develop its economic power and settle into the ways in which it will exert social and political power over the coming twenty or thirty years, such as voting habits and religious affiliations.


Middle-Age: The leading core of the generation are solidly into middle-age (ages 45 to 60), the trailing core are finishing their “settling in” years (ages 30 to 45). The generation is at the peak of its productive working years. They are reaching the peak of their power politically, economically and socially.


Retiring: The leading core of the generation (aged 60 to 75) are preparing for and starting to retire; the trailing core (aged 50 to 65) are starting to retire by the end of this period. The professional class of the generation is at the peak of its power in terms of occupying senior political, social and economic positions in society (e.g. becoming Presidents and CEOs of industry). The working class of the generation begins to see its position in society fade.


Old Age: The trailing core of the generation are all retired (age 65) within the first five years of this period. By the end of this period, the trailing core are entering advanced old age (75+) and the leading core are all dead or entering very advanced old age (age 85+). Slowly declining power over the society and culture.


Presidents and other Prominent Americans by Generation


Greatest Generation

Dwight Eisenhower, b.1890 (WW2 Army)

John F. Kennedy, b.1917 (WW2 Navy)

Lyndon Johnson, b.1908 (WW2 Navy)

Richard Nixon, b.1913 (WW2 Navy)

Gerald Ford, b.1913 (WW2 Navy)

Ronald Reagan, b.1911 (WW2 Army-Airforce First Motion Picture Unit)


Greatest/Silent Generation

Jimmy Carter, b.1924 (WW2 Navy through Korean War)

George Bush, Sr., b.1924 (WW2 Navy)


Silent Generation

No presidents born during the core years.


Baby Boomer Generation

Bill Clinton, b.1946 (Vietnam War, draft deferments)

George Bush, Jr., b.1946 (Vietnam War, Texas/Arkansas Air National Guard)

Donald Trump, b.1946 (Vietnam War, draft deferments)


Baby Boomer/Generation X

Barack Obama, b.1961 (No military service)


Other Prominent Americans

Malcom X (Civil Rights Leader), b.1925 (Silent Generation)

Allen Ginsberg (Beat Poety), b.1926 (Silent Generation)

Chuck Berry (Pioneer of Rock & Roll), b.1926 (Silent Generation)

Martin Luther King (Civil Rights Leader), b.1929 (Silent Generation)

Elvis Presley (Appropriator of Rock & Roll), b.1935 (Silent Generation)

Newt Gingrich (Divisive Politics), b.1942 (Silent/Baby Boom Generation)

Bill Gates (Microsoft Founder), b.1955 (Baby Boomer)

Steve Jobs (Apple Founder), b.1955 (Baby Boomer)

Brad Pitt (Star of “Fight Club”), b.1963 (Baby Boomer/GenX)

Evan Williams (Twitter founder), b.1972 (GenX)

Biz Stone (Twitter founder), b.1974 (GenX)

Jack Dorsey (Twitter founder), b.1976 (GenX)

Chad Hurley (YouTube Founder), b.1977 (GenX)

Steve Chen (YouTube Founder, b.Taiwan), b.1978 (GenX)

Jawid Karim (YouTube Founder, b.Germany), b.1979 (GenX)

Eduardo Saverin (Facebook Founder, b.Brazil), b.1982 (GenX/Millennial)

Andrew McCollum (Facebook Founder), b.1983 (GenX/Millennial)

Chris Hughes (Facebook Founder), b.1983 (GenX/Millennial)

Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook Founder), b.1984 (GenX/Millennial)

Dustin Moskovitz (Facebook Founder), b.1984 (GenX/Millennial)


Sources (beyond Wikipedia)





August 8, 2017 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On the Yale Faculty Resolution Criticizing Singapore

A bit of a preamble… over the past weekend, the Yale Faculty resolution aimed at the Yale-NUS College was front-page news over 2 days (April 6 and April 8) in Singapore. My reaction is as follows. It is a polemic (to match that of the resolution). It will probably make some think I’m a ‘running dog’ of authoritarian states, but I hope most readers will see that is not the point… So, here it goes…

As an American citizen, long-time resident of Singapore and National University of Singapore faculty member*, I am deeply dismayed by the widely reported resolution on the Yale-NUS college recently passed by faculty of Yale University. It is not clear what the objectives of this resolution were. Reading many articles quoting Yale faculty, there seem to have been multiple, cross-cutting reasons for their support of the resolution. Many of these have to do with internal debates over governance within Yale University. The unfortunate effect of the resolution outside of Yale, and specifically within Singapore, has been to reinforce the worst stereotypes of American high-handed arrogance and general lack of knowledge of the world beyond America’s borders.

While commentary around the resolution suggest that many of Yale’s faculty’s concerns were aimed at Yale’s corporate governance, the resolution itself says nothing of this. Rather, the resolution aims its criticism squarely at Singapore and the Singapore government. The wording of the resolution, citing a “history of lack of respect for civil and political rights” suggests that the vitriol is aimed not at contemporary Singapore, but a stereotype of Singapore’s past. Are America or any other country free from such histories? On a grand scale, Singapore would score pretty well against countries that have had systems of slavery, genocide against native populations, political repression (such as McCarthyism), and profit-driven military interventionism, just to name a few things that might make one wary of partnering with an American university that has long been a bastion of that country’s elite establishment.

Why is Singapore singled out for this criticism, when Yale has many overseas partnerships and involvements, for instance with the People’s Republic of China? Why do the Yale faculty attack Singapore’s history rather than engage with the vibrant, increasingly open society that Singapore has become over the past two decades? If the Yale faculty are concerned about civil and political rights in Singapore and at Singapore’s educational institutions, have they made any substantial attempt to engage with either the faculty at NUS or any of Singapore’s many active civil society organizations? In everything I have read on this subject, I have not come across any indication that any of the faculty members involved in proposing and passing the recent resolution have taken any such steps, beyond drawing support for their pre-conceived notions about Singapore from a fairly narrow band of writings and opinions on our city-state.

Had the Yale faculty bothered to engage with Singaporean civil society actors or their counterparts living and working in Singapore at NUS, they would have learned that their rush to judgment and aggressive resolution (at least they softened the wording from “demanding” to “urging”!) would have little effect and likely be counterproductive in Singapore’s public sphere. If their complaint is with Yale’s corporate governance, the resolution should have been about that. By making it about Singapore, it only reinforces the sense that questions of civil and political rights are issues that Westerners are bent on imposing on others, with no regard to the sovereign rights of non-Western nations to evolve their own democratic forms of governance which may not conform to the cultural liberalism of the West. Singapore and other post-colonial nations still remember a 500-year history of racist, imperial colonialism perpetrated by the West and are well attuned to hearing echoes of that history in statements such as the Yale faculty resolution. The Yale faculty, by contrast, seem largely tone-deaf when it comes to recognizing these concerns.

For those of us living in Singapore, especially Singapore citizens, I hope it will be possible to recognize that the Yale resolution is a product of the peculiarities of American political culture. That political culture values free speech – the right to say anything you want, without regard to others – over responsible, informed or constructive speech. It is also a product of American political culture’s divisive tendency to speak out against others rather than substantively engage with them. And finally, we should recognized that Americans are generally more isolated in their understanding of the rest of the world than most others and recognize that this accounts for their trading on stereotypes founded in events more prevalent decades ago rather than today. I hope that Singaporeans will not make too much of these sorts of outbursts attested to in the Yale faculty resolution. Rather, I hope that the Yale-NUS College (which is unlikely to be derailed by this or other resolutions) can develop as a viable space within Singapore where those of us with a stake in Singapore can continue to develop an independent politics, aimed at prosperity, civic duty, and conscientiousness toward others, including a balance between free and responsible speech. In the long run, I hope for the sake of Americans at Yale and elsewhere that they may learn something of these values from Singapore.

*Note: The views expressed here are my own and not meant to represent the views of Americans, the American government, Singaporeans, the Singapore government or the National University of Singapore.

April 12, 2012 Posted by | Random Walks | , , , , | 3 Comments

Agamben’s Errors

Giorgio Agamben’s two treatises Homo Sacer (1998) and State of Exception (2005) have been popping up in many other texts I have been reading of late. So, I have been reading Agamben (in what little spare time I have). While reading Agamben is thought provoking, in this post I dwell on a few interrelated errors in his argument; places where I think he is simply wrong.

The following passage from Homo Sacer is where I focus my attention. In his final chapter (Threshold), he summarizes three provisional conclusions to his inquiry, the first of which is:

“(1) The original political relation is the ban (the state of exception as a zone of indistinction between outside and inside, exclusion and inclusion).”

This conclusion, Agamben argues,  “calls into question every theory of the contractual origin of state power and along with it, every attempt to ground political communities in something like ‘belonging,’ whether it be founded on popular, national, religious or any other identity.”

Agamben’s extended treatise on “the ban” and “bare life” are valuable contributions to social and political theory. But the argument state above is confused and problematic.

First, as an argument about “origins” it implies some sort of historical sequence. If that is the case, then to say that the ban precedes the (contracted) social or political community seems nonsense. I would be willing to grant either that they come into existence at the same moment, or (perhaps better) that knowledge of the contracted social-political body is brought to consciousness through the ban. In other words, we know what it (the community) is by what it excludes. However, to place the origin of the polis (the political community) in the ban and in so doing to exclude the contractual (relational) from that same origin is a discursive sleight of hand that ultimately makes no sense. We can accept Agamben’s argument that the political community requires the ban as origin of its existence (or knowledge of its existence). But Agamben seems to go further, to deny the pre-existence of some sort of social-political “contract” (relationship) prior to the ban. My question is: how does the ban take place if there is nothing to be banned from?

Second, and related, Agamben is crucially confusing and conflating a fundamental distinction between the communal (community, and here I would say polis) with the social (including but not limited to contracted relationship). The communal or community, in the way Agamben uses is, is clearly a matter of identity – of “belonging” – and a matter of ideational boundaries on who is included and who is excluded (banned). In this respect it is very much the sort of “imagined community” of Anderson’s influential writings. Community, however, is not the same thing as society – in the strict sense interconnected (networks) of social relationships. Sociality’s defining feature are relationships (of exchange). Society is stitched together through relational, exchange practices embodied in gifts (which also can be come fetishes – particularly in the form of the commodity fetish). Community, as I (and Agamben) are using it, has to do with identity and belief about belonging (and exclusion).

Therefore, the social (social contract, if you like) can and does exist as a pre-existing condition to the community (communal or in political terms, polis). The polis and the ban may have their origins in the same moment, but both are preceded by the social (society, social relations).

Update to this post: The critique of Agamben that I highlight above seems, to me, very close to Esposito’s critique in Communitas, which is currently on my bedside stand.

November 18, 2011 Posted by | Random Walks, Research | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Agency of Things

One of the basic ideas of actor-network theory is that not only people have agency but that non-human things do as well. This is a pretty simple idea, but also one that people have a hard time getting their heads around. An example occurred to me when I was on sabbatical in Thailand and sat most mornings at a Starbucks overlooking a small shrine along the road in the Siam Square area of Bangkok. I would watch as people passed the shrine, regularly turning and bowing (wai) to the shrine.

From an actor-network theory perspective, the shrine has agency, in so far as agency means the power to act on others in a system of relationships. Actor-network theory would insist that agency lies in the shrine itself, not for example, those who errected or maintain the shrine. If we conceptualize agency this way (and I see no reason not to), it raises a question: do we need to distinguish between agency and intentionality? The shrine, for instance, has agency. It acts on passersby such that the physically turn and bow. But it would seem odd if not absurd to suggest that the shrine has intentionality (whereas intentionality could be attributed those who created the shrine).

I post this now simply because it came up the other day in a conversation about ANT and then today I happend across these pictures buried in my computer files. So, there is just another musing… and a post to keep this blog alive…

October 27, 2011 Posted by | Random Walks, Research, Teaching | , , , , | 2 Comments

Anthropology Wiki Favorites 2010

Our semester is wrapping up here – it’s all over but the final exams.
Once again, I was very pleased with how things went using the Course Wiki for SC2218:Anthropology and the Human Condition.
The following page lists some of the favorites selected by me and my teaching assistant Dina:

Although it is hard to pick out a single favorite from all of these, I would have to say it is the following video, which absolutely nails the concept of “Commodity Fetish”:

I had a bit of a scare mid-term as the host Wetpaint had some serious technical difficulties. But fortunately, they sorted it out. I’m still a bit concerned about using Wetpaint going forward, as it isn’t clear how stable their business is? If anyone has thoughts on Wetpaint or alternatives, I’d love to hear them in the comments (or email). Overall, the integrated Wiki and social networking functions on Wetpaint work very well, though the interface for editing could do with some fixes (for example, it must be possible to maintain formatting of paragraphs and such if cut-and-pasting from MSWord, no?).

November 20, 2010 Posted by | Teaching | , , | 2 Comments

The Tangled Webs We Weave

Two problems with Geertz’s classic “web” metaphor of culture.

I’ve been thinking about Clifford Geertz’s oft cited web metaphor:
“Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.” (The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973)

In teaching anthropology, I use that as one of the key concept of culture in the modern anthropological tradition (along with Tylors from 1871 and a few others)

Today I am reading Aiwah Ong’s article on cultural citizenship (Current Anthropology, 1996), in which she refers to “webs of power”; wondering to what extent that is a riff on Geertz (who, in turn, credits Weber)?

Two thoughts:
1. Culture and ideology generally refer to the same thing – ideation, and what Geertz is calling “webs of significance” (or webs of signification). The difference between the terms culture and ideology are not in the thing(s) to which they refer (their referent; denotation) but rather in their connotation. Culture hides or downplays power whereas ideology foregrounds it. Culture connotes the sort of taken-for-grantedness of the ways in which we think about the world; ideology makes explicit a sort of struggle over ideas (e.g. think of the difference between “advertising” – a form of culture and “propaganda” – a form of ideology). The problem is that neither of these ways of talking about ideation/webs of meaning is more or less correct. Both have some truth (value) to them, much of the struggle of “ideology” is in fact very hidden from view (“culture”); much of “culture” is actively struggled over (“ideological”).

2. One of the most important problems with the “web” metaphor is that when we think about a spider’s web (I take that to be the prototypical image) such a web has a master intelligence behind it – the spider. Spiders are singular entities, weaving their webs with specific intention and self-interest (to catch flies and eat them). But “webs” of culture, ideology and power are not spun by individuals alone by rather are complex-adaptive networks, spun by multiple agents not governed by a master intelligence or plan (unless one assumes a Diety or some such entity; but even then that is always cast as an unknowable, so for practical purposes there is not a master plan even if one believes in the existence of such in some ultimate sense). Bottom line – the “web” metaphor is a very engaging one; but misleading insofar as it implies a sort of singular agency. I do think that a lot of people (students; perhaps also scholars) project themselves into Geertz’s “web” as a singular agent – a liberal individual (spider!) who can ultimately control the web-spinning; or alternatively, the web image is taken as disempowering… we are flies caught in webs over which we have no control and from which we gain nothing. Neither of these implications of the web metaphor are correct or particularly useful.

October 18, 2010 Posted by | Research, Teaching | , , , , | Leave a comment

Is Nationalism the New Racism?

The great apartheid of twentieth century was an apartheid of race based on an ideology of racism. The great apartheid of the twenty-first century would appear to be an apartheid of citizenship based on an ideology of nationalism. Race and racism remain pervasive. But racism is a largely discredited ideology. Nationalism is an ideology with such hegemonic power that almost no one seriously questions it. Sure, we question the excesses of nationalism. But does anyone seriously question the ideological basis of citizenship? In other words, does anyone question the legitimacy of the territorial nation-state and its right to define citizenship as currently configured? I for one have trouble imagining a world organized in any way other than through nation-states. Some social theorists have for sometime been claiming that the hegemony of the nation-state is dead or dying. They are dead wrong.

Twentieth Century Apartheid


Twenty-First Century Apartheid

Throughout history, at least since the rise of complex agrarian societies, humanity has been divided between haves and have-nots. In the pre-modern, pre-industrial world the ideology of the divine-right-of-kings (or some version thereof) supported a social order of aristocratic haves and commoner have-nots. Over a millennium – roughly the past 1,000 years – popular democratic social movements overthrew the old order. The new order, exemplified by French and American revolutionary fraternal democracy, replaced aristocracy with democracy. The problem, however, is how to define the demos (“the people”)? In early (18th-19th century) European thinking, the people were a “nation” and a “race” (the German people, German race, German nation). Race and nation were synonymous. Race, however, became reduced to biology, in ways which have now been proven to be nonsensical. Nation and nationality took a parallel, but very distinctive path. Nationality became reduced to citizenship, at least functionally if not culturally. We still think (culturally) for example that proper Germans and French should be of “European stock” and Chinese should be of “Asian descent.” But to be a citizen – a national – of Germany, France or the People’s Republic of China is ultimately defined by one’s relationship to the government of the territorially-defined nation-state. If Germany or China grants one citizenship, then one is de jure German or Chinese.

What we see, in the world today, is nation-states becoming territorial zones of relative affluence and deprivation. In zones of relative affluence, the wealthy nation-states (crudely referred to as the “First World”), citizenship is increasingly becoming a thoroughly legitimized mode of defining social privilege and discrimination. Ironically, the meaning of “citizenship” is devolving from French ideals of fraternity (a brotherhood of man) to Greek and Roman forms of citizenship, in which citizens were a small, privileged group (of men) with standing in the city. Everyone else was a slave.

September 15, 2010 Posted by | Random Walks, Research | , , | Leave a comment

Anthropology Wiki 2.0

Back from sabbatical. Back to teaching…

The Anthropology and the Human Condition (SC2218) Wiki is back in action this semester. I had to give a bit of thought as to what to do with a “legacy” wiki. I decided to archive all the old materials and creat fresh pages for 2010. Much more of the course has moved “online” to the Wiki (all the assignements are there).

One innovation this term: I’ve asked all the students to use anonymous nicknames for the wiki. The idea is that everyone should feel free to contribute or comment without “losing face”. They give me (or their tutor) their nickname, so they get credit for their contributions. But they are otherwise anonymous; or at least relatively so.

Interestingly, an article just came out in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Wikis in the Classroom in Singapore. (Mike Wesch brought it to my attention… Thanks Mike!) It is pretty good and an interesting article. But I think it is much too sterotyped and sweeping in its generalizations about “Western” and “Eastern” (Asian) students. For example, it makes the claim that Asian students are particularly reluctant to edit each other’s work. I doubt very much (and Mike agreed, from experience) that American students would be much more enthusiastic about doing so. Still in all, the Chronicle article is well worth a read.

September 10, 2010 Posted by | Teaching | 3 Comments

Devout Muslims

I haven’t posted anything for a long time. So here is a little rant, just to prove I’m alive…

I recently read something about the Nigerian twit who tried to blow-up his underwear, and apparently along with it a plane flying into Detriot. In the newspaper, he was described as a ‘devout Muslim’. This made my blood boil.

Just a few weeks before, I spent a few days with a dear friend of mine – Aji – on a four day holiday. He and some other friends from Malaysia came to the Netherlands on a holiday, and I happened to be there at the same time. We had a great time, touring cheese factories, windmills and generally having a great time. I shared a hotel room with Aji. Every day, he prayed five times a day without fail.

Aji has two wives and seven kids (I think it is seven, I lose count). He does all he can to provide for them. He is the kindest soul I know. He teaches primary school in a rural town in Malaysia to Tamil-Hindu kids. When they ask to say prayers to their gods before exams, he has no problem with it. He is not so weak in his own faith that he has to be afraid of the faith of others. I don’t believe everything Aji believes. But I admire him for who he is and for who he tries to be – a devout Muslim.

When I read about the idiot on that flight to Detriot, when I read the news calling him a “devout Muslim” I want to scream: All you stupid journalists, next time you call someone a “devout Muslim” don’t use that term to refer to some pathetic inept twit who thinks killing a bunch of innocent people will be a great political statement and a fast track to heaven. A devout Muslim is someone like my friend Aji. Or the hundreds of millions of other Muslims, who are simply trying to be the best men and women they can be in this world and guided by their faith on that path.

So that is my rant for the day. I don’t have the faith of my friend Aji. But I pray to God that all of us of good will, devout or not, can come together to overcome the evils of the world. To non-Muslims, I can tell you, devout Muslims are not idiots trying to blow up planes. Devout Muslims are kind and generous people, who wish nothing more than to make this a better world.


January 22, 2010 Posted by | Random Walks | 2 Comments

Wang Gungwu and Histories of the Unique

There was a very nice write up about Wang Gungwu in the Straits Times today. I was struck by the following:

ST: His first love was literature… (but) he was left to choose between economics and history… Economics, with its abstract models, he found too theoretical. “I was more  interested in unique things and things that actually happened,” he explained. So he chose history.

This resonates with some points I’ve been thinking about regarding ‘assemblage’ theory. We in the social sciences create an overly sharp divide between abstract models and singular events; but the difference is important. If we take the idea of ‘assemblage’ to include temporality and not only spatiality, then history in the sense that Gungwu is talking about refers to assemblages across time (which are very important to understand; and which the Deluzean metaphor of “territoriality” in describing the structure of assemblages does much to obscure). Descriptive history (so badly and wrongly dismissed by some who fetishize hypothesis testing methods of knowledge) provides us with invaluable “assemblages” of events over time. This is unique and important knowledge, irreducible to “systems” (which are a necessary condition for and limit to hypothesis-testing itself… just because you can’t hypothesis-test a unique event doesn’t mean it is not ‘a thing that actually happened’!).

One of the most important contributions of the Complex Adaptive Systems revolution in systems theory is that it makes the systemic approach of “social science” entirely compatible with the reality of unique things and events (and texts and such) of the “arts” or “humanities”. A fundamental way in which dynamical (complex) systems work is that they produce unique things (unique gene sequences; unique individual humans; unique books; unique works of art; unique world leaders). Our understanding of reality can be reduced NEITHER to the system NOR to every unique event, person, or thing.

Example 1: The Malaysia political system is very likely to produce a Malay Prime Minister. The Singaporean political system is very likely to produce a Chinese Prime Minister. It is important to understand the system and to understand why. But no matter how detailed one’s understanding of the system, there would be no way to predict (except with a very short time horizon) that the system would specifically lead to Mahathir or Lee Kuan Yew being Prime Minister of  Malaysia and Singapore respectively. A purely systematic (e.g. hypothesis-testing-science) approach to knowledge will never allow one to fully understand the important influence of those unique individuals. At the same time, a purely interpretive or descriptive approach (e.g. political biography) will not provide a complete (or even very good) understanding of the systemic processes of Malaysia or Singaporean politics.

Example 2: The Sejarah Melayu or Shakespeare’s plays would never have appeared as such without the systemic regularities and patterns out of which were produced Malay court chronicles and Elizabethan theatre. Each of those general fields is well worth studying as a system (or assemblage, if you like). At the same time, it is of particular value to read the Sejarah Melayu or “Romeo and Juliet” specifically – one will never understand their importance fully just by understanding the “systems” that produced them.

So, those are just a few thoughts for the day…

Kudos to Professor Wang Gungwu on his award of an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by Cambridge University (the main subject of the ST article).

June 10, 2009 Posted by | Random Walks | Leave a comment