“Gen Z” should make you cringe!

Adults have a number of misconceptions about youth generations. A glaring one is a tendency to think that a new generation will become a more intense version of the previous generation. That is rarely the case – new generations tend to sharply break with the old.

Let’s start by reviewing what a generation is. A generation is a cohort of people who share a common location in history. A generation progresses through life stages together and experiences key life events (childhood, adolescence, family life, retirement) at the same time. While our life stages change as we age, our generation does not. There is a commonality of experience and perspective that influences how a generation reacts to challenges presented by any given life stage.

While generational beginning and end points are hotly debated by academics, they tend to be bounded by historical events. For instance, the Boomer generation is known as the generation born after WWII ended as birth rates rapidly grew. Xers are those that were born during the subsequent demographic dip. Millennials began as an “echo” boom occurred as the large Boomer generation had their own children.

Generational change is abrupt and disruptive.  My own experience with this goes back to when the Millennial Generation (born 1982 – 2004) was coming of age in the 1990’s. At the time I was conducting studies of young people and was noticing clear breaks in the data sets. Inflection points often appeared when we graphed research measures by age. It took me years to realize these inflection points weren’t linked to a stage of development or age as they were migrating upwards over time. Eventually, I discovered these inflections were happening right at the generational break line – as soon as individuals born in the early 80’s came into the data sets, things changed.

It took me years to figure this out because this generation was most commonly referred to as Gen Y at the time. What does Gen Y mean? To me, it meant this new group would be a continuation of Gen X – only they would exhibit Gen X traits at higher intensity. I went to many youth conferences where speakers said precisely this. I often left puzzled, as what they were saying didn’t line up with what I was seeing in the data we gathered.

This new generation wasn’t behaving anything like Gen X. While Gen X was filled with latchkey kids who had developed a strong sense of individualism, independence, and self-worth, this new generation was all about teamwork, parental structure and oversight, and continuous feedback and validation. Calling them Gen Y seemed ridiculous as it implied they were merely an extension of Gen X. Thankfully, although the Gen Y moniker persisted, the term Millennial soon took hold.

Generations have unique characteristics and tendencies. These characteristics are almost never simply continuations of a previous generation’s characteristics. We can all agree that Boomers have not acted at all like their Silent Generation predecessors or that Xers haven’t been at all like Boomers. Millennials represent a further break with Xers.

There is no authority that has been commissioned to name a generation. Generations prior to Boomers weren’t really named during their time and many will claim that the Boomers were the first named generation. Prior generations were largely named by historians long after they had existed. For example, nobody called the WWII generation the “greatest generation” or the “GI generation” at the time – these terms took hold well after Boomers had been named.

Generational names evolve. Names often begin as something that underscore how adults don’t understand that generations are not just continuations of the previous generations. As an example, Gen X was most commonly called “the baby bust” generation at first, implying that they were  merely a consequence of a birth rate decline extending from the baby boom era. The term “Gen X” was popularized in a novel by Douglas Coupland. It became popular not because of the letter X but what this letter signified – a lack of a name for a largely forgotten generation, but also one that wasn’t particularly interested in being categorized or targeted.

The term Millennial was also established relatively late in the game. It was popularized in a book called Millennials Rising, and prior names either reflected a continuation of a parental generation (“the echo boom”, the “boomlet”) or of Gen X (“Generation Y.”). Millennials is a much better name and has largely taken over for “Generation Y.”

The whole purpose of naming generations from a marketing sense is that generations represent segments of consumers with unique needs. Our goal in naming them should be to show how they are distinct from each other.

Which brings me to Gen Z. This is a term we are seeing more and more, and I am tending to feel that those who use it are displaying a fundamental ignorance not only of generational change but even what a generation is. Gen Z tends to be used to describe today’s adolescents. But, because the youngest Millennial is currently 13 years old, the term Gen Z isn’t being applied to a new generation at all. It is being used to describe young, late-stage Millennials, which is sort of a segment of a segment.

The key characteristic of this microsegment (late-stage Millennials) of interest to researchers is that their parental generation has changed. Whereas the oldest half of the Millennial generation was largely parented by Boomers, the younger half has been parented by Gen X. This has some implications, but today’s teens are still Millennials and will exhibit Millennial traits.

The term “Gen Z” makes is cringe-worthy as it lays bare a fundamental misunderstanding of the generations. I even saw a study released recently on “Gen Z college students.”  Not sure I understand that, as the leading edge of the generation after Millennials is at most 12 years old currently. We are at least five years from the first member of the next generation showing up on campus.

“Gen Z” is also being used to refer to the generation that will come after Millennials (currently children aged up to 12 and yet to be born).  I have also seen this new generation referred to as “post-Millennial.”  And, what are we to name the generation that comes after this Gen Z? We’ve run out of letters, so perhaps we will have to use a spreadsheet convention and call them Generation AA.

Just like for previous generations, I’d expect to see today’s youngest generation eventually named in a way that describes who they are. I have heard some reasonable candidates:  The Homeland Generation, the iGen, The Pluralist Generation, etc. These all are descriptive. If the past is any indication, sometime in the next 10 years some name will achieve consensus (and it won’t be “Gen Z”).

For now please join me in cringing whenever you hear someone say the term “Gen Z.” J.

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