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Month: December 2021

2021: Current Ages of the Living Generations

2021: Current Ages of the Living Generations

I have a New Year’s Eve tradition of posting the current age ranges of the living generations, strictly using the birth year boundaries defined by Strauss & Howe generational theory, which follow.

  • Greatest: 1901-1924
  • Silent: 1925-1942
  • Boomer: 1943-1960
  • Generation X: 1961-1981
  • Millennial: 1982-2004
  • Homelander: 2005-2021

Note that your birth year strictly defines your generation, but your age does not if you are on the cusp. What I mean is that, if you know someone is 39 years old but it’s the middle of 2021, you can’t be sure if they are a Gen Xer born in 1981 whose birthday is later in the year, or a Millennial born in 1982 whose birthday has already passed. But on December 31st, since everyone has had their 2021 birthday at that point (let’s ignore birth time for the sake of this argument), then age and generation correlate perfectly.

So now that it’s December 31st, 2021, these are the age ranges of the living generations:

Greatest: 97-115*
Silent: 79-96
Boomer: 61-78
Generation X: 40-60
Millennial: 17-39
Homelander: 0-16

*Based on this web site of the oldest living people.

Life in the Purple Zone

Life in the Purple Zone

I live in Pennsylvania’s 6th congressional district. It’s a safely blue zone district, but I don’t really live in the blue zone. It definitely feels like MAGA-land here. How can this be?

The answer can be found by taking a look at the map of my district. It consists of one blue zone county, Chester county, which is like a huge exurb of Philadelphia, and also the southern corner of Berks county, including the city of Reading.

Clubbing together urban Reading and the West Philly exurbs makes this a blue zone district, even though there are swaths of rural and semi-rural country throughout which are solidly red zone. It’s not even that it’s gerrymandered. This district used to be and was dependably Republican, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court redrew the districts in 2018. If you look at the old map, you can see how bad the gerrymandering was.

Still, though this may be a sensibly drawn district, which will almost certainly have a Democratic representative in Congress, from where I sit, it feels like a Republican part of the country. I live about where the two highways meet, at the bottom of Berks county. It’s much closer to Reading than to Philadelphia, in an agricultural region known as Twin Valley. You just have to drive this way or that for a couple of minutes, and suddenly you are in beautiful rural country.

This is farm land (you can smell it periodically), and in fact is near Amish communities, and we see them driving by in their horse-drawn buggies all the time. So it’s kind of rural Pennsylvania, which accounts for the high preponderance of red zoners here. In 2020 there must have been four or five Trump signs to every Biden sign (mind you, there were a total of four houses in town, including ours, displaying Biden signs). Another sure sign that we’re red zone here is the very small percentage of people wearing face masks in public.

Nonetheless, to some degree this area is aligned with Philadelphia. There are people living here who work in the Philly area; if not in the city itself then in one of the nearby towns. It’s kind of a bedroom community for commuters to Philly. Possibly this commuter demographic is a little more blue zone.

In addition, where we live is right off of the Pennsylvania turnpike, and also on a state route that is a major travel artery, so we get a lot of through traffic. There’s even a place that truckers use as a depot to keep their trucks stored temporarily, sometimes camping out in them. So this place kind of has a trucker/biker Motorway City vibe. I’m sure those folks are all red zoners.

On top of all this, a casino just opened here a few days before Christmas, so who knows what will happen to the vibe here because of that. We’ve buzzed by the casino recently and its parking lot tends to be full, and I think the clientele is mostly older folks from the surrounding area.

The house we live in was built in the nineteenth century, no later than 1876. Meaning that we know it existed then, but aren’t sure of exactly what year it was built – probably just a few years before that. It’s been modified since then but still has an “old bones” feel to it. There are places where it leans a bit, and the doors don’t all fit snugly in the frames. It doesn’t have a central air system, so we put air conditioners in the window in the summer and rely on baseboard heating in the winter. At least it’s got insulation in the walls.

All around, there’s a fair amount of old construction here, but also new development, meaning people are looking to this place for opportunity and growth. The infrastructure is old compared to what I got used to when I lived in North Carolina, where the oldest development was from the 1970s. Here there are still telephone poles carrying power lines! There are a lot of old churches and graveyards, as well as this interesting kind of historic site – iron furnaces from the heyday of Pennsylvania’s regional iron-smelting industry. There are at least three such sites a short drive from our house.

In summary, life here in the purple zone is like being in a strange borderland, where the old and new coexist on the same roads, and almost everyone is travelling through, though many come back time and again. There aren’t quite enough likeminded people around to feel like I fit in, but not so very few that I feel completely isolated. Maybe that makes this place a perfect microcosm of the United States of America.

Rights vs. Responsibilities in the COVID Era

Rights vs. Responsibilities in the COVID Era

Take a look at the remarkable chart below, which shows death rates from COVID-19 for six different groups of United States counties. What distinguishes the groups of counties is the partisan voting rate, and what is remarkable is how much higher death rates are in Republican leaning counties than they are in Democratic leaning counties, after the first big wave, which hit primarily coastal megacities.

It’s not hard to draw the conclusion that this reflects the politicization of the pandemic, and how, in Republican-leaning parts of the country, there are lower vaccination rates and lower levels of compliance with mitigation rules such as wearing face masks and avoiding indoor gatherings. I’ve complained before about how insane this is, but here I want to give a little more thought as to why people might be motivated so differently in their behavior that they experience such disparate outcomes.

Here, I want to comment on how data like the above relates to two different ways of looking at the world. One is to see it from the standpoint of the individual, and their unique perspective. And the other is to see it from the standpoint of the collective of all people, which is what graphs like the above are doing. Graphs like the above are created by aggregating data – each week, a certain number of people die from COVID-19. Each individual death is a tragedy, and some deaths are unavoidable no matter how much we as a society try to mitigate against the spread of the virus. But looking at the aggregate data makes it plain how mitigation efforts do reduce overall suffering and death. That’s why we ask, as a society, for everyone to participate collectively in this effort.

The problem is, large numbers of people don’t want to see the world from this collective perspective. Their preference is to focus on the individual, and the rights of the individual. It’s like they see the dots on the graph, but not the curve. But one dot alone doesn’t give you any information, when you are trying to determine good policy. The curve, the collection of dots, is what lets you make an informed choice. The dots themselves just give you individual stories, what we call “anecdotal evidence,” which could be used to justify any policy. For example, as the graph above clearly indicates, some people in the counties with the lowest death rates do die from COVID-19. No place has a 0% rate. You’ll always be able to point to a case of a breakthrough infection in someone who was vaxxed and boosted and still got sick and died. But that one case alone is not enough to justify giving up on vaccination. To decide what overall policy is the most sensible based on one case and not the entirety of cases is foolish.

The same applies in other areas, like gun control. Simply put, firearms are a hazard and making them easier to access and carry around increases the risk to everyone of injury or death from firearms. It’s why we have this idea of sensible gun laws to regulate the use of firearms, making everyone safer, just as we regulate so much else in life. But a sizeable minority is obsessed with the individual right to bear arms, stymying lawmakers’ efforts to enact such legislation. This minority probably thinks that their arsenals will make a difference in upcoming political struggles. But however violently future political conflicts are resolved, what easy access to firearms will mostly do is increase the rates of suicide and homicide by firearm. I’m not even talking about mass shootings, I mean just ordinary incidents involving firearms.

Gun rights advocates will argue that it is unfair to deny them their individual rights just because of the negative consequences of other people’s choices. They are looking at the dots – you can’t take what’s mine based on someone else’s actions. For gun control advocates, the argument is that restricting gun rights will benefit the public in the aggregate. They are looking at the curve – overall suffering and death will go down if you change the rules. This is the same logic that goes into determining rules for the mitigating against the spread of the coronavirus. Restricting some rights, like the right to congregate indoors in large groups, will benefit public health, in the context of a highly transmissible and potentially fatal virus in circulation.

The zealous prioritizing of individual rights over collective good is what leads to memes like the one on the right, found on Twitter. It’s what leads to freedom derisively being called “freedumb,” when taken to the point of needlessly endangering lives. But those who won’t comply with mandates for the collective good aren’t really dumb, they are just prioritizing their rights as individuals over what is best for society as a whole. To them, compliance with authority smacks of submission to tyranny. They even have narratives based on historical occurrences to justify their resistance, even though the context is completely different now.

Maybe it would help for people to think in terms of both individual rights and individual responsibilities. Then you can keep your personal autonomy, but also recognize that your personal choices have consequences. Then you can see how you as a dot fits into the bigger picture of everyone else as a curve. Look again at the graph. It’s clear that for any one given individual, your chances of dying from COVID-19 are small. Not even half a percent of the country has. But if you are careless about transmitting the virus, you will help to kill some people. And that’s on you.

My War on Christmas Commentary

My War on Christmas Commentary

I joyfully celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday. I love the spirit of it, and decorating the house, and making beautiful Christmas trees (we have multiple trees this year), and getting presents for everybody and wrapping them in colorful paper, and indulging in traditional holiday food like spiked eggnog and three different pies, and watching the same old Christmas movies, and having Christmas Day off of work and pretending that Santa came the night before and ate his cookies and left the presents. I thoroughly enjoy all these chintzy, goofy, American ways of celebrating Christmas, because that is how I have celebrated it since childhood. It is the tradition that has been passed down to me, and I uphold it for the same reason anyone upholds a tradition: it provides a sense of stability, an anchor to the past that relieves the uncertainty of the future.

Our main Christmas tree this year. Ain’t she a beaut?

I celebrate Christmas in this way, even though I am not a Christian, fully aware that originally Christmas comes from the Christian religion. I realize that “Christmas” essentially means “Christ’s Mass” and that it is part of an ancient liturgical tradition of celebratory days (“holy days” – i.e., “holidays”) and that it is the day that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. If it’s important to you to remember this about Christmas (“the reason for the season”), then by all means do so, as is your right in this land of religious freedom. But don’t expect me to care. I don’t think much of Christianity, which strikes me as a personality cult with an absurd theology. I say this as someone who believes in a spiritual dimension to reality, but doesn’t believe that Christianity quite gets it right. I especially don’t like the idea that you *have* to worship Jesus or you’ll go to Hell, which in my mind is the signature belief of Christianity.

So I celebrate Christmas, but as a secular holiday (if that phrase even makes sense), and I have accepted that this is what Christmas has morphed into in our time. Christmas has become a secular holiday and I’m OK with that, because I know that Christianity’s own traditions have morphed over the centuries. As you probably know, many of the customs of Christmas have pagan origins, such as Christmas trees, and the actual date itself, which is the same as the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Some current Christmas customs were added fairly recently in time (for example, Santa Claus), and in this globalized age Christmas has been appropriated by other cultures. I’m sure you’ve heard that in Japan, it is now a tradition to celebrate Christmas with food from Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants.

If the Japanese can accept their weird, secular version of Christmas, then I can accept the weird, American version. Modern day American Christmas appropriates Christian elements, but in name only, and has become something non-Christian, and frankly that doesn’t bother me. I know this somehow bothers some people, and right-wing pundits claim there is a “war on Christmas,” but really all that these pundits are doing is stoking controversy in a politically-motivated culture war, and their complaints are absurd and pathetic. Nobody is stopping Christians from celebrating Christmas religiously, even though Christmas has transformed into a global, secular phenomenon.

Our neighbors are having a Jurassic Christmas this year!

What Christmas has become in our time is the season of maximum consumption so essential to the survival of America’s retail sector, when we all live our lives surrounded by cheesy holiday music and there are all these displays covering people’s houses and yards, some beautiful and impressive and others ridiculous and tacky, but all delightful. It has become part of a long stretch of time we call “the holiday season,” which culminates in New Year’s Day, and is a time of generosity and charity and reaffirming familial bonds; the modern version of the winter solstice celebrations that all society’s have, to see them through the darkest days of the year. We don’t face the same privations that preindustrial societies did in harsh winters, but we uphold the feasting tradition anyway, because having an annual period of gathering and sharing and respite from routine is how we cope as a species with the travail of our lives. Having an annual celebration of peace and goodwill towards others is how we affirm our deep potential for good and the value of our mysterious existence in the Universe, and that celebration can be called anything, it really doesn’t matter.

If you want Christmas to be more about Christian religious practice that’s your business, but don’t ask me to get involved.

And have a Merry Christmas!

Life and Death on Social Media

Life and Death on Social Media

I joined Facebook in 2008. In the thirteen years since, I’ve “friended” a few hundred people, many of them people I know from social circles, but also extended family and old schoolmates that I haven’t seen in years or decades. In some cases reuniting with old friends has caused a new friendship to blossom, and in others it’s simply been a chance to catch up on what has happened in our lives since we graduated from school, so long ago.

In addition, in the thirteen years since I joined Facebook, some of the people in my friends list have died. Almost certainly, you have experienced, as I posted recently, learning about a friend’s death online. When a Facebook user dies, their profile will still be there online. Facebook, in fact, has developed a protocol for memorializing accounts. Because of the nature of the platform and its long term success, this protocol, like death itself, became an inevitability.

At this point in time, about 1% of my Facebook friends are deceased. I don’t bring this up to be macabre, but to point out that with the pervasiveness of digital life, we are witnesses online to every stage of the lives of the people to whom we are connected in our social networks, and that includes the final stage.

With respect to the very youngest generation, we begin to learn about them starting at the earliest life stage. Today’s children are online even before birth, in the form of ultrasound images posted by their expectant mothers. In childhood, before they have their own social media accounts, they appear in their parents’ profiles. Traditions have developed like the annual back to school snapshot, or the family Halloween group picture.

Today’s childhood generation is the first generation to exist fully on the Internet. It will encompass their lives from cradle to grave, like some device in a Black Mirror episode. For older generations, even early wave Millennials, there is some period of their lives before everyone was online. People my age and older experienced the rise of personal computing and then the Internet only as adults.

For early wave Gen Xers such as myself, joining social media has been kind of an enfolding into our youth, like getting into a hot tub time machine that takes us back to our connections and experiences from the 1980s. It’s as though the Internet, in its mission to envelop the world, is reaching into the past and pulling the pre-Internet timeline into the metaverse of digital memory. I’ve posted already about how, for me (and probably for other Xers as well) this has been an opportunity for reflection on our past and reevaluation of our future.

The Internet gives us an amazing power to connect with others and share our personal experience. It’s only to be expected that this would reach all the way to the end of life. I’ve seen posts from the terminally ill, announcing their remaining life expectancy, and I’ve found this off-putting. But upon serious consideration, I must conclude that if we are willing to engage with our social media connections as a daily custom, we should engage with them even as their days come to an end. Death, after all, is an experience we all share.