The productivity paradox — how poorly educated Generation X created the 1990s boom and the digital world

Looking at big tech firms in the world today it is striking how many of them were created by people born in a very short time. 1967: Indeed, LinkedIn, Ebay, Paypal, Slack; 1968: Baidu, Wikipedia; 1969: Xiomi; 1970: Myspace, Zoom; 1971: Tesla, TenCent, Hulu; 1973: Google, LeEco; 1976: Twitter, Kazaa, Skype: 1978: Napster; 1979: Youtube. These years fall within the narrowest dates for Generation X, 1966–1979.

However, if we take the traditional 30 year interval for a generation then we might take 1954–1984 as a slice, ending GenX with the end of the Cold War in 1991. If you can remember the Cold War you are Generation X, if you cannot you are a Millennial. In that case, we might also include the founders of Apple and Microsoft in our list, as they were both born in 1955, Amazon (born in 1964), Tiktok (born in 1982), Instagram (born in 1983) and Facebook (born in 1984). They would have been seven years old when the Cold War ended in 1991. In either case Generation X are the cyborg generation who found the world analogue and left it digital. As Steve Barrera put it, “latchkey kids created a world they could live in without leaving their bedroom.”

The paradox is that while their impact may be world altering it was not meant to be. Characters such as Beavis and Butthead from MTV, Bill and Ted, Wayne’s World show a generation that it basically stupid and unashamed of being so. In the UK they were the generation joining in Pink Floyd’s ‘Another brick in the wall’ and shown on domestic TV as scruffy and rude in ‘Grange Hill’. ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’, ‘The Breakfast Club’ and ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ give us a sense of their educational disenchantment.

Sure enough, in my late teens/early twenties they were rioting in LA against racism (1992), in London against the Poll Tax (1990), in Tiananmen Square against centralised control (1989), in Berlin against the Wall (1989), in Eastern Europe against communism (1990). This was not unexpected. Reports in the press pegged my generation as addicts, including consumption of cider in the park and glue sniffing while truanting school, as prone to underage sex and teenage pregnancy, and as vandals, putting graffiti in public spaces. In 1983, the U.S. Department of Education published a report called “A Nation At Risk”. It spoke of the “rising tide of mediocrity” in public schools. In the summer before I went to university I decided to read an intelligent bestseller. ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ by Allan Bloom basically informed me that I was intellectually lazy and dull.

To be fair to the commentariat there was evidence to support their judgement. Strauss, 2005, mentions the following:

Perhaps the most revealing comment on Gen-X school achievement came from a late-1980s study by Pepperdine University’s Michael Gose, who asked long-time teachers who had taught boomers in the 1960s and Gen-Xers in the 1980s to compare the two student generations in 43 measures of aptitude and achievement. The teachers rated boomers higher, sometimes much higher, in fundamental skills, academic inclination, task orientation, morals and ethics, communication skills and willingness to work hard for the purpose of learning. At first glance, the result was a boomer rout: 38 to 4, with one tie. But the few realms where Gen-Xers outscored Boomers were telling: skills in negotiation, defenses to prevent extreme dependency on parents or authorities, interacting with adults on an equitable basis and knowing where to go for business, consumer or personal wants and needs. The Gen-X students of the 1980s, Gose concluded, were “more aware of what’s going on, how institutions work, how to manage social relations, how to cope with adults and how to get things done,” and these students were “sharper than ever, even if not in quite the same ways I, as one of their teachers, would like them to be.” Meanwhile, this generation the U.S. government had labeled as mediocre became the greatest entrepreneurial and job-creating generation in U.S. history.’

What?! When the cohort of people born in 1945 entered the workforce in 1970 they brought with them a productivity decline that was only reversed when the next generation entered the workforce in 1990. A decline started before the financial crash of 2008 at around the time when the next generation entered the workforce. This is not to say that any generation is superior or inferior to another, something especially bizarre when their genetics are identical. The explanation in terms of productivity of human capital lies I think in the different social experiences different generations encountered and in particular, their educational experiences. Strauss again:

Open classrooms were the rage, along with new math (anti-basics) and self-esteem movements, experiential learning, “sensitive” and “accessible” textbooks and the Summerhillian concept that IL children learned best when left alone with learning tools. In line with reformer Roland Barth’s theory that no minimum body of knowledge is essential for everyone to know, standards were weakened. The average amount of time children spent on homework fell to half what it had been two decades earlier.

I submit that it will be difficult for any government to promote such a model of teaching and learning. This is because there is assumed to be a political trade-off between the political rebelliousness promoted by such active learning and their economic productivity in later life. However, in reality, Generation X has proven to be liberal, freedom loving socially, economically and politically. Equally significantly, they appear to carry their productivity with them into later life.

I think that there may be a second issue which is nature of revolutions in academic thinking. Kuhn famously identified the problem in relation to science. People become so wedded to a particular model that they are unwilling and unable to admit its weaknesses. The educational establishment has moved on from such ideas to favour variations of direct instruction, particularly in government funded education.

However, the story of productivity rates suggests that the hypothesis that greater knowledge would be economically beneficial was wrong. It would suggest that skills are more important for the economy than knowledge. Therefore, the educational establishment is right to say that direct instruction promotes better learning than the open classroom. At the same time, it is true to say that the pedagogy of the open classroom leads to greater economic productivity. Given the importance to raising productivity it is time we revisited the educational experience of Generation X.

Notes: Strauss.

The School Administrator August 2005 11 “Boomer teachers have dominated America’s K-12 classrooms for the past two decades.” 12 The School Administrator August 2005

Writer, activist. Architect para 67 of UN Declaration Against Racism 2001, introduced 'worldviews' in UK RE education. PhD International Studies, FCollT, FCIEA