I’ve developed a rough rule of thumb that helps me remember who’s who
Are you (like me) confused by the many names and different dates ascribed to generations, in press coverage? Gen X, Baby Boomers, and so on. I’ve developed (for myself) a simple way to sort through it all, a way that enables me to identify their names and approximate dates, without having to look them up every time. I hope it helps you too, to relieve this little piece of confusion.
Of course everything here is necessarily approximate. But then so is the whole concept of different generations. It makes no sense to think of the last infant born under the name of one generation and the first infant born, one second later, under the name of a new generation to be markedly different in their habits or beliefs.
Wikipedia (my invariable starting point) defines a generation as “all of the people born and living at about the same time, regarded collectively.” Accurate, but not much help. In social science (Wikipedia continues) generation is also often used synonymously with cohort, meaning “people within a delineated population who experience the same significant events within a given period of time.” That’s more helpful, because it gives us a way to classify people by their experiences – which may also affect the way they behave and react to events, and so on. OK, now I have an understanding of why there’s a separation into generations.
But my mind can’t remember what are the defining experiences of a generation. So the dates are elusive. And so I came up with a simple and convenient rule of thumb that more or less fits press coverage.
These days we tend of think of children coming of age when they turn 18. OK then, we’ll separate the generations by 18 years.
A convenient and well-known starting point is the Baby Boom generation. World War 2 ended in 1945. The troops returned home and rejoiced in (ahem) activities that had been much more scarce for several years. And a large cohort of babies started to arrive in 1946. Hence the name Baby Boom. So far, so good.
These kids started to come of age 18 years later, in 1964. So let’s start the new generation then. And succeeding generations at 18-year intervals, so: 1982, 2000, 2018, and so on. (And, as I observed before, there’s no noticeable difference between the last 1963 baby and the first 1964 baby, so these are artificial and extremely approximate distinctions.)
What should the successive generations be called? Who knows? Well, there’s a mathematical convention of naming known quantities by the first few letters of the alphabet (a, b, c) and unknown quantities by the last few letters (x, y, z). So, if we don’t know, let’s call them Generation X, Generation Y, Generation Z. Or, for short, Gen X, Gen Y and Gen Z.
So now we have: Baby Boom 1946-1963; Gen X 1964-1981; Gen Y 1982-1999; Gen Z 2000-2017.
Oh look: those Gen Y kids started to come of age at the turn of the century, indeed at the turn of the millennium (from the Latin word “mille” meaning a thousand). So they’re now popularly called the Millennial generation.
And so we end up with:
- (Baby) Boomers 1946-1963
- Gen Xers 1964-1981
- Millennials 1982-1999
- Gen Zers 2000-2017
In that case we have a new generation to name, starting in 2018. Oh well, there’s no obvious sequel to Z, and it’s too early to note their characteristics, so we’ll let the future take care of that naming problem.
Anyway, that’s how I remember the names and dates.
For what it’s worth, my research (and you can guess that I researched it!) revealed some interesting angles.
For a start, Wikipedia notes that a generation is “the average period, generally considered to be about thirty years, during which children are born and grow up, become adults, and begin to have children of their own.” That sounds more like it to me – 30 years separating generations, rather than 18 – but perhaps experiences these days come faster than before, and grouping generations by their experiences therefore shortens the period. I don’t know.
Who started the naming process? Certainly it is very convenient to name them. Apparently it was Gertrude Stein, who first used the name Lost Generation for those who were born just before 1900 and served in World War 1. After that, William Strauss and Neil Howe (“generational theorists”) named the generation that fought in World War 2 as the G.I. (for Government Issue) Generation; but Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation” gives rise to the more popular name for them. And Douglas Coupland (a late Baby Boomer) named the generation that followed the Boomers as Generation X.
Going back even further, and using different criteria (more related to overall experiences), the US Population Reference Bureau uses these names and dates:
- 1871-1889 New Worlders
- 1890-1908 Hard Timers
- 1909-1928 Good Warriors
- 1929-1945 Lucky Few
- 1946-1964 Baby Boomers
- 1965-1982 Generation X
- 1982-2001 New Boomers
And the Center for Generational Kinetics uses these names and dates for the five generations currently active in the US economy and workforce:
- Up to 1945 Traditionalists or Silent Generation
- 1946-1964 Baby Boomers
- 1965-1976 Generation X
- 1977-1995 Millennials or Gen Y
- 1996-present Gen Z, iGen or Centennials
And no doubt in other countries there would be still other classifications, because experiences differ by country. For example, I read (I don’t know if it’s a facetious comment) that the name “meat mountain” is used in Sweden for those born in the 1940s because the finance minister said that they are a giant mountain of meat who will put a great strain on the budget, and that the 1970s children in Norway are the “dessert generation” because times were so good. In Armenia, those born after independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 are the “independence generation.” Israel has “Holocaust survivors.” South Africa has the “born free generation” for those born after the first post-apartheid election. And so on. The Millennials are the first generation that seems to share similar characteristics in many parts of the world; perhaps there might be a unification of names after them.
Anyway, there it is: different countries, different names, different dates. And that’s why, instead of trying to remember them all, I came up with my 18-year rule-of-thumb and remember Boomers, X, Y (or Millennials) and Z. That’ll do, for the moment.
Remember 18-year intervals after World War 2, and the names Boomers, X, Y and Z.
I have written about retirement planning before and some of that material also relates to topics or issues that are being discussed here. Where relevant I draw on material from three sources: The Retirement Plan Solution (co-authored with Bob Collie and Matt Smith, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009), my foreword to Someday Rich (by Timothy Noonan and Matt Smith, also published by Wiley, 2012), and my occasional column The Art of Investment in the FT Money supplement of The Financial Times, published in the UK. I am grateful to the other authors and to The Financial Times for permission to use the material here.