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"What's With Millennials?" Thinking About Generation Gaps

What are we getting wrong with generational labeling?

Key points

  • In determining what generation is what, all views agree that there is a range of years and a definition by an event or series of events.
  • Each person has their own specific experiences and influences regardless of what generation they were born in.
  • It’s human nature to cognitively structure our thinking—classifying, categorising, and constructing schemas to make sense of the world.

In a recent post, I discuss the pitfalls associated with having an unwarranted self-perception of being special, which can be coupled with tendencies associated with narcissism or entitlement. A few comments on the post seemed to pick up on the mention of entitlement and addressed how it might be associated with the "Millennial" generation. I could be wrong, but it strikes me that an increased interest has developed, maybe since the recession, regarding generation gaps.

In fairness, this isn’t particularly new. I recall growing up with baby boomers giving out about GenX and vice versa. "OK, Boomer" is by no means a novel insult, just presented differently. Of course, since I was little, a new generation or two or maybe even three (depending on the conceptualisation you follow) has come into existence and has been the focus of discussion. Does it even matter? Maybe not. Why does everyone get so riled up about it? Beats me. But, maybe the real answers to these questions would become a little bit clearer if we understood the concept better.

Naming Generations

Based on my understanding of things, we can thank writer Gertrude Stein for the beginnings of this naming tradition, having identified the Lost Generation as those "coming of age" during World War I and into the 1920s (i.e., born between the early 1880s and approximately 1900). Notable members include Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Arguably, the phrase was used as means of helping classify fellow writers and artists of the time with particular styles and experiences.

Interesting here is what lays the groundwork for what we know of as a generation—a range of approximately 20 years, generalised by having experienced some great event(s). Following the Lost Generation was the Golden Generation (born approximately between 1900 and 1925; i.e., those who fought in World War II) and then the Silent Generation (approximately 1925 to 1945). Baby boomers or "Boomers" came along after the close of World War II (1945–1965; named after the spike in birth rates following the war), and then we had Generation X. Though Millennials have been arguably the greatest focus of discussion in recent years, perhaps given they’ve been the generation "of age," I’d argue that Generation X is actually the most interesting.

Depending on who or what you read, GenX ranges from approximately 1965 to anywhere between 1976 and 1985. Also known as "latchkey kids," GenX is generally conceptualised as the first generation of children who came home from school to an empty house, due to increases in both parental divorce/separation and having two-parent working families. Perhaps the lack of a world war or massive shift in social paradigm is the reason for the blurring of lines regarding year range; maybe it’s why GenX seems to be a forgotten generation, even though its members are still very much among the living (and working). But, how is it that some cite the generation as ranging roughly 10 to 15 years and others as 20? This presents an important contextual question: Is a generation a function of time (i.e., enough so to develop to adulthood before the onset of a new generation); or is it a function of key events that define the era (e.g., the fall of Berlin Wall or Internet availability in nearly every home)?

Why should the range be 20 years? Convention? Maybe it is sufficient to say that a 20-year span is necessary for a generation to define themselves, developmentally, whilst accounting for whatever social and environmental factors that surround them. This is, in many ways, a reasonable conjecture. Alternatively, perhaps it’s a desire for anyone born before 1986 to not be labeled a "Millennial." That’s quite possible—sorry Millennials!

On the other hand, maybe defining generations by the events that occur during any time frame as markers rather than a set time frame (e.g., a shorter Gen X ensures that a 20-year Millennial generation [say 1981–2001] is able to give way to Generation Z and the post-9/11 world that helps define them). With that, the argument of pushing the range out a few years is also quite reasonable (e.g., 1985–2005) to ensure consistency in 20-year spans. But, maybe that doesn’t provide a clear solution either…

If we re-examine pre-Gen X, the Boomer generation is often broken down into two groups—one having come of age with the Vietnam War—"early Boomers"—and those who missed it—Generation Jones (i.e., 1955–1965). Arguably, Generation Jones might be considered a precursor or even the first stage of GenX (i.e., making the latter longer). But, then, coupling those instead would make the Boomer generation only 10 years. Again, we ask, is the amount of time arbitrary?

Parents' Generation

It is arbitrary to a point. In determining what generation is what, all conceptualisations agree that there is a range and that said generation is "defined" by an event or series of events. However, an important issue that is largely missing from most conceptualisations (and is of utmost importance from a psychological standpoint) is the issue of to what generation did one’s parents belong (though some [e.g., the Pew Research Center] do account for this to some degree, with respect to fertility patterns of preceding generations).

For example, a "first-born" in 1983 (though commonly labeled a Millennial) to "older" parents of the Silent Generation (e.g., born in 1941) shares a generation gap spanning across Boomers and GenXers. Based on the experiences of those parents and how they were raised (e.g., consider parenting and attachment styles), it’s quite reasonable to suggest that the 1983 children were raised with a style more consistent with one of the preceding generations. So, is that child really a "Millennial" given the significant influence that the family system would have on them?

With that, someone born in 1983 isn’t really a GenXer to the extent that those born in 1969 are, nor are they a really Millennial (e.g., neither owning a N64 nor liking Pokemon). As a result, a mix of the two has been proposed—a microgeneration—known as Xennials, who can be described as Ninja Turtle–loving, neon-color clothes–wearing, pog-smashing, NES-controller bashing, Hulkamaniacs who had become teenagers when the Spice Girls took over the world and who entered adulthood as the World Trade Center was attacked.

Great, now that this is all clear (relatively), where does this leave us? Well…at the very start. I ask again, Why do people get so riled up about all of this? People are people regardless of what generation they belong to—each person has their own specific experiences and influences regardless of what generation they were born in or what year they were born. The same can be said for sex, race, and creed as well.

It’s a part of human nature to cognitively structure our thinking—classifying, categorising, and constructing schemas to better make sense of the world. We apply these to help ease the cognitive load we face when making decisions. Sure, there might be trends in thoughts, feelings, and behaviours across generations, but, when we truly care about a decision that needs to be made in light of this, are we really going to make it based on a mental shortcut? So, I ask, is all the hub-bub surrounding generations simply a result of people’s desire for labels and cognitive ease?

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