Terms like “Gen X” and “Gen Y,” baby boomer, and millennial get thrown around all of the time, as if we know exactly what they mean.
But try asking someone in their early 30s what category they fall into. Few have a ready answer.
Beyond that, these categories are used to define broad swaths of people. For example, the youngest of the millennial cohort are 13 right now, and the oldest is, if you take the earliest start date, 33. Despite that, articles make sweeping generalizations.
It’s worth breaking down what each of these terms actually mean, even though some are still in dispute today.
The issue is that people confuse generations, which are specifically defined by birth dates, with “cohorts,” a slightly more vague grouping of people based on common experiences.
The divisions we know and reference are usually hybrids of the two. Here’s the breakdown of the terms used and what people mean by them.
The Greatest Generation
Also known as: The Depression Cohort, The Silent Generation (later), the G.I. Generation (early), the post-war generation, the seekers.
Approximate dates: Born 1901-1924 (early) 1924-1943 (later)
Defining characteristics: Grew up, and frequently were defined by their experiences growing up, during The Great Depression and World War 2.
“The Greatest Generation” is a term coined by Tom Brokaw to describe a group of people who helped fight and win World War 2, abroad or at home, and helped build the post-war prosperity that helped define the generations after them.
Regarded as having a sense of purpose and duty to country, and working extremely hard to better themselves.
Those too young to serve, called “The Silent Generation,” experienced the war as children or very young adults, and were described by the Time story that named them as “grave and fatalistic,” inclined to work very hard, but not say all that much.
Also known as: Boom generation, hippies (subculture)
Approximate dates: 1946-1964
Defining characteristics: Loosely, those born during the post war “baby boom” of the late forties and ensuing decade, where birth rates significantly increased.
Among their defining experiences were the first space flight, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and later, the Vietnam War and Watergate.
They developed some of the first counter-cultures, and though early boomers were known for their tendencies towards freedom and experimentation, that grew into a sense of disillusionment and distrust for the government for the latter members.
In the ’60s, the stereotype of the generation was a navel-gazing hippie, but now, the generation is more identified with those currently in power.
Challenges: They’re rapidly getting older and retiring, and not all of them have saved up enough to be able to do so. The fact that many in this generation led the institutions that caused the current financial crisis didn’t help.
Those who are still working, or are forced to work by their financial situation, face an unfortunate bias from employers. Companies don’t like to hire older workers, and they don’t like to hire those who have been out of the workforce for a long time.
Also known as: Baby busters, the MTV generation
Approximate dates: 1965-1980
Defining characteristics: Grew up in the political climate in the aftermath of Watergate and the Vietnam War, during a series of recessions, the Reagan presidency, the AIDS epidemic, and the end of the Cold War.
Research finds Gen Xers are more likely to be independent and value their own career over organisations. They value autonomy and freedom at their jobs, and are not as work-centric as older generations.
They’re more socially liberal than the Baby Boomers, and they’re the first generation to fully embrace the Internet.
In the ’80s, the stereotype was that the generation was intensely self-involved, greedy, and narcissistic. Now, since they make up so much of the workforce, it’s hard to pin it down.
Challenges: The older members of Gen X are currently at the top, or near the top of many organisations. As more and more Baby Boomers retire, they’ll have to foot the bill, and that bill’s getting ever larger.
Also, many don’t have skill sets that really apply in the current job market. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to change tracks, especially for those later in their career.
Also known as: Gen Y, Nexters, Generation Next
Defining characteristics: Grew up during a time of economic prosperity, then many entered the workforce during a recession. Surrounded by the rapid advance of technology, particularly the Internet.
More live with their parents, though the accusations of narcissism have more to do with the fact that all young people are narcissistic than any trait of the generation.
And their values are just about in line with those who came before them. Their attitude towards work differs; they expect quick advancement, and don’t expect to stay at any one organisation for very long, a legacy of living through the financial crisis and the resulting weak economy.
Also identified with the hipster stereotype/subculture, and with being glued to their smartphones rather than engaged with the world or their jobs.
Challenges: Facing a particularly difficult job market at the moment. Not that long ago, a college degree was a decent guarantee of a good job. Now, that’s not the case. Many recent graduates can’t get a job outside of retail and hospitality, let alone in their current major. Many have high student debt as well, as the cost of college rises and wages stay stagnant.
Not forgetting that the problems with Baby Boomers retiring that falls on Gen X, will fall doubly hard on millennials.
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