Alright, we need to talk about generations, and how we classify them. Because it’s getting out of hand. They’re one of those inherently ambiguous things — there is no centralised body that sets official definitions, we all just sort of make it up as we go along. The problem is, some of the terms being used today don’t make sense, and it defeats the purpose of having markers in the first place.
A “generation” is generally taken to mean “People born about the same time, who grew up with a shared experience”. Given the ever-accelerating pace of change, however, “the same time” is an ever-shrinking unit of measurement, and a “shared experience” is applying to an ever-shrinking number of people.
Human history goes back about 100,000 years, or 7,000 lifetimes. And for pretty much all of that time, the world you were born into was more or less the same as the world in which you died. Agriculture came along about 10,000 years ago, then cities and writing over the last 5,000 years. Those were pretty big changes with significant effects. But still life remained relatively unchanged for most lifetimes.
Until about 200 years ago. The last 10 lifetimes. We’d had the enlightenment in the 1700s, paving the way for the scientific revolution in the 1800’s, which gave us a workably accurate understanding of the heavens above and the earth below. Suddenly, across the earth there were cities in the millions, and they were talking to and trading with each other. Industrialised, electrified, fired up and ready to go. Things began to appreciably change within lifetimes — even if it was just having a light at night, or being able to call across the country — the world in which you died was different to the world in which you were born.
In the last 50 years, things have started to change so fast that our nomenclature can barely keep up.
The first generation to even really have a name are called the Lost Generation. They were born before 1900, and came of age in WW1, which really shook the world like never before. The name is a little jab at some of the jaded artists hanging out around Paris, wondering what hell hath been wrought. A woman named Nabi Tajima was the last of this generation, and she passed away in 2018.
Out of that came the Greatest Generation, apparently because they went on to fight WW2, which doesn’t sound that great to me, but hey I’m not going to take that title away from any centenarians alive today.
Then came the Silent Generation. Born in the 20s to 40s — during the depression and WW2. They’re also called the Builders, because they literally built a lot of the World after the war.
Maybe they were so quiet cos they were too busy banging out the babies, since that’s where the next generation get the name. The Baby Boomers — People born in the 50s and 60s. They really should own the name, because they’ve watched the whole thing go boom. Had front row seats to the single greatest expansionary period in the history of the universe really, apart from the first few minutes. Plus they own pretty much everything else, so may as well, right?
After the 60’s had done their thing, the world kicked into another gear. The zeitgeist scrambled with its newfound liberation, computers poked their enormous heads out, the times were a-changing and there was no looking back. Folks just didn’t know what the fuck. So people born in the 70s got a cool new name — Generation X. It’s an apt title, evocative of the new world of punks and hackers.
And that is where the names stop making sense. Because the next generation, apparently, is called Millennials, and that includes people born from 1983, to the early 2000s. Now remember what we said at the beginning: “A generation is people born about the same time, who grew up with a shared experience.” The mid 80s and early 2000s are emphatically neither “the same time” nor “a shared experience”.
In the 80’s, the basic mechanics of life were essentially the same as they had been for the last 50 years or so. Kids used libraries for research. If you wanted to watch something, you had to be in front of a television at a certain time and it would be produced only by professionals and signed off by big distribution executives. If you wanted to speak to your crush, you had to call their house and ask their parents if you could speak to them. Or write them a letter. This is obviously a fundamentally different experience to pulling out a smart phone to snapchat a hottie, or streaming whatever you want on demand. That very transition — from the world of the 80’s to the 00’s — is one of the defining features of this cohort’s life experience. So using the same word to describe people born across this period is pointless.
There is a term for this generation which makes perfect sense — Gen Y. It naturally follows Gen X. Again, the name seems to fit. They grew up with muddled cocktails and street fashion. The workforce was showing signs of major changes to come. Mobile phones had begun to untether our communications. These are the last people born who can remember a world without the internet.
To round out the century, we have the natural conclusion of our pattern, with Gen Z. Kids born in the 90’s. And what a decade that was. Computers cement themselves in our homes and businesses, and the internet begins to emerge. Different to the 80s, certainly, but still recognisable. These are the last people born who remember a world without smart phones, and the first to enter the workforce in a world with them.
Then the clock ticks over to 2000, and that’s when we get to use the term “Millennial”. People born in the new millennium, into a profoundly different world. An internet connected computer was available to just about everyone on earth — even if you had to walk a few miles to your library to access it. The changes it would facilitate might not have yet taken place, but the door was opened, and that is an astonishing milestone, and the fact that it rounds out the thousand years is worth commemorating. Children born at this time deserve the name.
The oldest Millennial is currently 19. Most of the stuff written about millennials is actually about generation Y & Z.
Now a common argument is that the names of generations sometimes describe the time at which they came of age, rather than when they were born. And sometimes that makes sense. But when we are dealing with a marker as crisp as this, the occasion demands clarity. Not this wishy-washy ambiguity.
Over the next decade, the internet took hold, and transformed the world. When smartphones put it in everyone’s pockets, the mechanics of life actually changed in a fundamental sense, for better or worse. These kids being born now, in the 2010s, are Generation A. They’re the first ones to grow up native in this whole new world. I wish we could say that having the wealth of human knowledge at our fingertips is the defining feature of this decade, but sadly it’s more likely to be endless scrolling and fanatical fishing for likes. Two things which just 10 years ago literally did not exist, now almost dominate our lived experience, at least on a seconds-per-day basis.
It’s not just smart phones. We live in a world of Crispr. Uber, Airtasker, Tinder, AirBnB, Car Next Door — these have created tectonic shifts in the way we organise our resources and structure our lives and economy. Spotify, Netflix and SoundCloud have revolutionised the way we consume media. We’ve seen the democratisation of distribution — no one needs a big production company to share their content any more — distribution is democratised
Of course, the changes aren’t just technological either. The sociological shifts have been profound as well. Power structures have been shaken, tropes which have stood for thousands of years are being challenged like never before.
So as we enter this new decade, what are we to call the next generation? Let us hope for mindfulness. Let us hope they learn from our mistakes, and harness the powerful potential of this technology for good, rather than let it drain us to distraction. After A, of course, comes Generation Be. Maybe. I don’t know, it’s a bit cheesy.
To summarise, birth dates and their corresponding generations:
1880–1900: Lost Generation
1900–1920: Greatest generation
1920–1950: Silent Generation
50’s & 60’s: Baby Boomers
70's: Generation X
80's: Generation Y
90's: Generation Z
2010's: Generation A
2020's: Generation… Be?
Remember, there is no official body that sets these things. It is literally up to us. If this is the definition you want, just pass it on and hope for the best.
Of course, after all that, we should note that there are universal experiences which transcend time, and connect people across the centuries. No matter when we’re born, we’re all human. And that’s worth remembering.