The Naming Of Generations

Photo of Generation V girl looking at her smart phone.
Generation Z

I don’t mean that the entire generation is stupid, of course. I mean the name the media has applied to them is stupid.

Misnaming Generations

The Who will be performing a September 6 concert at the Excel Center in St. Paul this year. The British band represents the Baby Boomers and is perhaps the first popular culture icon to deliberately embrace the notion of generations with their song, titled, appropriately enough, “My Generation.”

My own generation, Generation X, is often represented by the late Kurt Cobain and his band, Nirvana and their hit single “Lithium.”

I’ve always associated Millennials with the DJ Girl Talk, who brilliantly mixes existing songs into entirely new ones. On “Oh No,” the first track of his album All Day, the song begins with Black Sabbath’s (a Boomer band) song “War Pigs” then mixes in samples from Ludacris’ (a Gen Xer) song “Move Bitch.” Girl Talk represents one of the hallmark characteristics of Millennials: Their desire to customize their world.

If we don’t understand generational dynamics, our messaging to specific generations will fail because we will likely not account for the language, imagery and cultural references that most resonate with them.

As marketers, we need to dig deeper to fully understand the generations we wish to reach.

Misunderstanding Generational Dynamics

While each of these musical groups do not fully represent their generation, what they do represent are cultural touchstones specific to each generation.

And that is one fundamental aspect of generations that is mostly lost on news media coverage and sadly, marketers trying to reach them.

What drives me crazy is that the same mistake is made every twenty years by the media when trying to name the newest generation. They view the newest generation as simply a younger version of the previous…and then misname it accordingly.

Defining Generations

The problem is that we rely more on date ranges to define a generation than we do shared cultural experiences, which is what actually defines a generation’s characteristics.

A generation spans roughly a 20-30 year period, or the average span of time between the birth of parents and that of their offspring. Thus, parents literally generate their children.

A looser definition is the time between birth and coming of age in young adulthood. This is probably more useful these days, given that people are starting families later in life than they have in the past.

You variously see the Baby Boom generation defined as born between 1946 and 1964, for example, or between 1943 and 1960. Those numbers are less important than identifying the culture in which they came of age.

For Boomers, the common cultural touchstones included:

  • The rise of television as a mass medium,
  • The assassination of President Kennedy,
  • The moon landing,
  • The Vietnam War, and
  • Woodstock.
  • Oh, yeah: And the unprecedented economic expansion America enjoyed in the wake of WWII.

The Baby Boomers were named at a time when marketing was maturing due to the influence of television. The name stuck because it described how large the generation was as GIs returned from WWII and started families.

How Generations Get Named: The Same Old Story

Every twenty years the story is told by media of how this new generation is completely messed up. The name of the generation and the details of the mess-up-edness changes but the story remains the same.

The Misnaming Of Baby Boomers

The misnaming of the Baby Boomers began as GI and Silent Generation journalists covered them as they asserted their influence on American culture through political protests, drug experimentation, the sexual revolution. They called Boomers the “Me Generation” and the appellation reflected the tone of the coverage of a self-absorbed generation.

Here’s the thing: ALL young people are self-absorbed. It’s one of the characteristics of being young.

The implication that this new generation is fundamentally no-good is common to initial coverage of a rising generation. This attitude illustrates the fact that each generation has its own unique characteristics and, because they are so different from the previous generation, they must of necessity be bad.

The Misnaming Of Generation X

My generation (I use the 1961-1981 time frame) was first called “Baby Busters” because our size was smaller than Boomers but notice the name implied that we were simply a younger (and smaller) version of Boomers. Xers are nothing like Boomers because we were shaped by vastly different cultural forces.

Boomers’ GI parents compensated for the economic deprivation they suffered as a result of the Great Depression and WWII with a determination that their children be spared such difficulties that resulted in post-war prosperity.

Xers, on the other hand, grew of age during a time of economic uncertainty. We were called the Latch-Key kids because there was no parent to greet us after school. We belonged to either a single-parent household due to rising divorce rates or both of our parents worked.

We were called “slackers,” for our alleged aimlessness and lack of ambition. We were even called “superpredators” who had “no conscience, no empathy” by Hillary Clinton.

It wasn’t until 1991 that novelist Douglas Coupland applied the name the stuck with his novel,  Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture.

The Misnaming Of Millennials

Millennials (1982-2002) were originally called Generation Y (and often still is) and, absurdly, Generation Next.

Again, the name Generation Y implies that they are simply a younger version of X.  

Whereas Gen Xers grew up during an era where Hollywood portrayed children as literally evil (Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, The Exorcist), Millennials grew up during an era when children were celebrated in film (Look Who’s Talking & Home Alone), with Baby On Board window clings and protected via child-safety laws.

Their helicopter parents caused Gen X journalists to portray them as coddled (because Gen Xers valued the freedom their latch-key status provided them). Having grown of age during an era of customization, they expected the same in the workforce. Those expectations made their desire for work/life balance made them appear uncommitted and unmanageable in the workplace.

They also grew up as school shootings proliferated. But the most profound cultural touchstone for this generation was the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent war on terrorism.

It wasn’t until the publication in 1991 of William Strauss & Neil Howe applied the name Millennials to them in their book Generations: The History Of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. It is this book that helped me understand generational dynamics.

What To Name The New Generation?

Now we’ve got a new generation appearing on the scene and everyone is calling it Generation Z. There’s that “simply a younger version” mistake again.

They’ve also been called iGen, attaching them to the popularity of Apple products, which is weird.

I have been calling them Generation V, for Virtual, because they have been and will continue to come of age during a period (2003-2023) where virtual experiences are everyday experiences.

  • Microsoft launched the online gaming service Xbox Live in 2002
  • Linden Labs launched the persistent virtual world Second Life in 2003
  • The persistent massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft was released in 2004
  • Facebook was founded in 2004
  • Avatar was released in 2009
  • Virtual pop star Hatsune Miku performs a live concert in Los Angeles in 2011
  • Oculus VR was founded in 2012
  • Google Glass was released in 2013
  • Pokemon Go was released in 2016

All of these are either technologies that enable immersive virtual experiences, the ability to develop relationships virtually, or both.

Augmented reality is coming into its own and virtual reality is not far behind.

Generation V has also never known a time when America was not at war. But even warfare is virtual, with drone pilots and augmented reality heads-up displays for soldiers and fighter pilots.

Finally, this generation has experienced a failure of our political system to solve increasingly pressing problems.

How will all of this shape them?

Ultimately, I don’t know.

I do know that they will be fundamentally different than Millennials and that virtual will be a big factor in how their generational character ultimately forms.

Additional Resources

You are a lost generation.

Gertrude Stein

Attributed to Missionary Generation author Gertrude Stein via Ernest Hemingway in the epigraph to his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises.