If it seems like every week you're seeing a new label applied to today's twentysomethings, you're not far off. Generation Screwed, Generation Limbo, the Me Generation, Generation Sell—the labels keep coming, testament to our endless fascination with the golden 21-to-35-year-old demographic. Presidential candidates go on The Daily Show to impress them, Campbell's develops a new line of soup to appeal to them, Hollywood produces endless streams of sitcoms and films—2 Broke Girls, Underemployed, Friends With Benefits, Friends With Kids—to enshrine them in our collective view as whatever Hollywood wants them to be.
It’s enough to make the 2010s feel like a particularly youthy decade—except for the fact that we've been here before. There's a long tradition in America of defining the younger generation with particular names, generalizations, stereotypes, and slams. And shows like Happy Endings pretty much pick up where Seinfeld and Friends—and before that, That Girl and The Mary Tyler Moore Show—left off.
"Nobody likes being told who or what they are," says Douglas Coupland, the writer who inadvertently spawned a series of catchy labels by calling his 1991 novel Generation X. "I think that to acknowledge a new generation is to acknowledge some degree of obsolescence in yourself, and that is very hard to do and often comes with undeniable anger." That's why, as he put it in an email, "generation discussions almost always turn ugly."
The time of life when it's hardest to label an entire generation is the twenties, when young people aggressively resist settling down and peeling themselves off into easy categories (suburbanite, creative artist, parent, whatever). The label of the "Greatest Generation" wasn't invented until Tom Brokaw used the term for his 1998 book—by which time the folks in question were already in their fifties or sixties and had already declared their generational greatness just by living their lives.
But the twenties are exactly when advertisers, marketers, and media trend-spotters most love you and are most eager to pigeonhole you with some sort of clever stereotype. So we end up with monikers like Generation Whine or the Why-Worry Generation—labels that don't need to be true as long as they're catchy. The stereotypes can be downright contradictory. Take any single esteemed publication—say, for instance, The New York Times—and trace its headlines over the past two years and you'll see that today's twentysomethings have been characterized as Generation Why Bother, Generation Sell, the Dumbest Generation, the Facebook Generation, the Go-Nowhere Generation, and Generation Glamour (referring to the women's magazine, but meant to encompass an entire attitude, too). They can't all be true, can they?
Coupland is vaguely amused that Generation X has taken on the imprimateur of bureaucratese. The Census Bureau now uses it as the official name for people born between 1964 and 1976. And successor generations have been given succesor names: according to the Census Bureau, people born between 1976 and 1994 are Generation Y, and we can probably assume that there's a Z just around the corner. (Babies born after 2005 or so are likely to cause a problem. If only Coupland had started at A!)
Traditionally, the thing that unites a birth cohort is going through the same historical events at the same life stage—especially during their youth, when social, cultural, or political events have the greatest life-long impact. So Baby Boomers are linked by their shared experience of the Kennedy assassination when they were in grade school or junior high, the Vietnam War in their late teens and early twenties, Watergate just as they were starting to vote.
The people we call Gen Y also have a commonality of experience, culturally and historically, such as having gone through the September 11th attacks as children or teenagers. This helps explain the euphoria on college campuses after Osama bin Laden was killed last year. I remember hearing a report on "This American Life" from the campus of Penn State, where students spent the whole night celebrating Osama's death. One student, Lexi Belcufine (born in 1990), explained it this way: “That feeling of being eleven and not understanding and being scared and confused and frightened is why everyone was so excited...We all carried that fear with us.” When you spend your adolescence trying to grapple with the realization that everything can change in an instant, uncertainty becomes a constant companion—much more so than it became for Americans who experienced September 11th as adults with an already-formed sense of life’s tenuousness.
The U.S. Census Bureau opts for pure numbers rather than trying to gauge when events bond a bunch of age-mates into something resembling a unified group. For them, it all depends on annual birth rates. "When birth rates average above or below 4 million per year for an extended period of time," notes a consulting company called Demo Dirt, "it represents a generational cohort that is only changed when the average birth rate crosses that benchmark again." Sometimes it's a boom, when the birth rate goes above 4 million a year—such as the Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964. And sometimes it's a bust, as with the Census-defined Generation X.
By this calculation, of course, some generations span longer periods than others—which flies in the face of our innate understanding of what generations mean. When the post-Gen X birth rate started creeping up again, for instance, the Census Bureau started counting a new generation, which it calls Gen Y (or Echo Boomers, or Millennials)—a generation that includes people who are now aged 18 to 36. But how much in common do 18-year-olds, still in high school and thinking about college applications and fake IDs, have in common with 36-year-olds, busy climbing the corporate ladder or taking their toddlers to the playground?
The exact age range of generations is secondary to Coupland; what matters to him is how we conceptualize them. To him, generations are linked not by common cultural memes or historical events, but by common technologies. Instead of Generation X, Y, or Z, he told me, "I’d like a nomenclature that was based on specific inventions and their passage through the culture such as recordable TV, video games, personal computers, Google or now, the cloud. Because I do think that’s where genuine, hard-to-change differences stem from."
The notion of generations is useful for demographers and social scientists, who rely on it for everything from school construction to studies of the "cohort effect" on lifestyle and health. But in common parlance, I think that the easy labeling of generations—from the Greatest through the Baby Boom to whatever we should be calling the generation that's young today—tends to confound more than it clarifies.