How Are Generations Named?
The arbitrary nature of generational names names and spans does not negate the reality that growing up during different eras can have a profound effect.
“Which generation am I in?”
That’s one of the most frequent questions that I get, as a generations researcher—and the answer is not as straightforward as you might think.
No official commission or group decides what each generation is called and when it starts and ends. Instead, different names and birth year cutoffs are proposed, and through a somewhat haphazard process a consensus slowly develops in the media and popular parlance. Because generations are often shaped by specific events, their labels and spans sometimes differ from one country to another; here, I’ll focus on the U.S.
Baby boomers are the most well-defined of the 20th-century generations, named after the post-World War II spike in the birthrate that began in 1946. Demographers—those statistics-loving sociologists who study these types of trends—set the end of the boom in births at 1964, making 1946-64 the usual span for boomers. Still, some argue that those born in the early 1960s were too young to experience the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s, and shouldn’t really be considered boomers. Boomers veered from being the hippies of the 1960s to the yuppies of the 1980s and by the sheer force of their numbers have shaped the culture toward their philosophical, political, and individualistic yet civically oriented vision.
The post-boomer generation, born in the 1960s and ’70s, went unnamed until the 1990s. Some journalists proposed “baby busters”—a clunky and derivative moniker that, unsurprisingly, did not stick. The label that did endure was Generation X, taken from the title of a novel by Douglas Coupland published in 1991. In the era of Richard Linklater’s movie “Slacker” and the grunge music scene of Pearl Jam and Nirvana, the vague and slightly cynical label seemed fitting. Gen X grabbed boomers’ individualism and purified it, situating it squarely within the winner-take-all capitalism of the 1980s and embracing the new opportunities for women and minorities. The birth year boundaries of Gen X are debated but settle somewhere around 1965–80.
By the early 2000s, it was time to name the next generation of young people. The easy solution was Gen Y, because, of course, Y comes after X. Just like baby busters, though, Gen Y didn’t stick. Neil Howe and William Strauss’ 2000 book Millennials Rising named the generation born in the years following 1980 after the new century, and millennials was the label that endured. This new generation was shaped by a cultural rise in self-focused individualism that fostered both its sense of entitlement and its embrace of equality. Millennials were also deeply affected by the Great Recession, which walloped their high expectations for their lives and futures as they were starting their careers.
Like most people writing about generations, I initially assumed that the millennial era would continue until those born around 1999. But about 2011, I started to notice some very sudden shifts in the large, national data sets I analyze (such as Monitoring the Future, a government-funded study administered by the University of Michigan that asks teens thousands of questions about their behavior, emotions, and drug and alcohol use). Members of this generation were the first to spend their entire adolescence with a smartphone, so I call them iGen in a nod to the iPhones three-fourths of them own, and define them as those born from 1995–2012. As with previous generations, it is taking a while to find consensus. Some have used Gen Z for this group, but others have argued that if millennials are no longer Gen Y, then Gen Z doesn’t seem to fit. Howe, who helped name the millennials, has suggested that members of this group be called “homelanders” after their upbringing in the time of Homeland Security. However, I doubt that anyone will want to be named after the government agency that makes you take your shoes off at the airport. As I document in my recent book, iGen, this generation spends more time online and less time with friends in person. Given the links between screen time and unhappiness, that might also be why members of this group are less self-confident and less optimistic than millennials were as teens. They are also at the forefront of a mental health crisis, with rates of depression and anxiety soaring among teens and young adults. With the oldest members of iGen only 23, it may take some time for this group’s moniker to be firmly established.
The truth is that generational labels and birth year cutoffs are merely convenient shorthand; although some generations clearly begin with a pronounced cleft from the earlier group, generations often bleed into one another. However, the arbitrary nature of generational names and spans does not negate the reality that growing up during different eras can have a profound effect. As just one example, millennials and iGens are significantly more supportive of LGBT rights than older generations are. Other large generational shifts appear in work attitudes, living arrangements, gender roles, and mental health. The generational names and spans may be squishy, but the evidence for generational differences is strong. Knowing what generation you are doesn’t perfectly predict your attitudes and experiences, but it can tell you something about how the culture and events of the time mold what you believe, how you spend your time, and what you become. No matter what generation you are in, the shifting winds of culture and technology affect you—for better, for worse, and almost always for both.