In recent years we’ve created labels that supposedly sum up the characteristics of
all people born within 15-20 years of each other, such as the Greatest Generation, the
Silent Generation, and the Baby Boomer Generation. Broadly speaking, people born
around the same time do exhibit certain traits that set them off from those who came
before, but the demarcation between “gens” is very fluid and fluctuates from source to
source. Moreover, these labels literally sprang from the imaginations of researchers and
writers. The only age cohort officially recognized by the U.S. Census Bureau is the Baby
Boomers (1946-1964), because it represented such a pronounced demographic spike.
These days the “gens” are coming so thick and fast it’s hard to keep them straight. Here’s a quick guide to help us better understand our children and grandchildren and their peers.
Generation X (1964-1982). A much smaller cohort than the Baby Boomers who came
before and the Millennials who came after, Gen Xers entered the world at a time of major societal upheaval: the Pill, Vietnam, higher divorce rates, the sexual revolution, the crack epidemic, and women flooding the workplace. So many kids were left alone after school they were termed “latchkey children.” Exposed to all kinds of new music and the videos to match, this group has also been dubbed the MTV Generation. As twentysomethings they were thought of as slackers, akin to the cast of Friends—unfocused and self-involved but fun. Later this assessment was revised upward. Now in mid-life they are seen as independent, resourceful, self-managing, adaptable, and somewhat cynical. This group also has serious entrepreneurial chops. After all, it’s the generation that brought us Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, and YouTube.
Millennials or Generation Y (1983-1995). Supposedly characterized by narcissism and
a sense of entitlement, this group is also referred to as Generation Me. On their way to
making up half the work force, Millennials often expect quick advancement without
paying their dues. As one manager said, “You’re not excellent just because you think
you’re excellent.” Highly educated, socially progressive, and much more likely to volunteer than their predecessors, Gen Y was the hardest hit by the Great Recession and have benefitted the least from the economic recovery. They are the first generation to do worse than their parents as they contend with onerous student loan debt, skyrocketing housing costs, and the decline of stable, full-time jobs. This cohort has also been termed the Peter Pan or Boomerang Generation because they live with their parents longer, get married later if at all, and avoid many of the responsibilities that used to be expected of people their age. Thanks to Millennials, “Emerging Adulthood” is now a recognized stage of life.
IGen or Generation Z. (1995-2012) Although each generation is more technologically
savvy than its predecessor, IGen is the first to be wired from birth. Their smart phones
and computers are where they live, making them more susceptible to social pressures and growing into on-demand consumers. This huge group, about as large as the Baby Boomers, engages in less risky behavior than its predecessors. Studies show that they drink and take drugs less, have fewer unwanted pregnancies, and even click on their seat belts more. They are also more pragmatic, pushing educators at every level to give them the tools to succeed in the real world. Even more so than the Millennials, they are avoiding such grown-up responsibilities as learning to drive, moving out of the house, and becoming financially independent. It’s too early to know how these virtual universe kids will turn out, but it’s going to be fascinating to watch.