It’s become commonly accepted that generations emerge about every 20 years or so. And with each generation comes a new name. After WWII, men came home from the war and the country rallied together to make a lot of babies.
So many babies, in fact, that it created a “baby boom,” and thus the name Baby Boomers came to define that generation.
The generation after the Boomers was the first since the Civil War to see their standard of living decreased, in comparison to their parents. They were born into uncertain times.
Unlike the heroes of the Great War, this lost and wounded generation grew up during the era of political assassinations, Watergate, and the defeat of Vietnam. The country was in a much darker time. The name that stuck for them was Generation X, after the Douglas Coupland novel of the same name about a group of struggling, searching young adults.
As parents, this generation renewed the country’s focus on parenting and pushed to give their own children a better life than they had. As a result, their kids—those born from the early 1980s until the turn of the century, were called the Millennial Generation.
The name captures both the anxiety and the hopefulness that comes with a new century.
Now nearly all the school-age children and teens are members of a new generation. The Millennials are now in their young adulthoods and the oldest of this new cohort is coming up behind them as they begin college this year.
So what do we call these kids?
While I am not sure what name will stick, I have a plea as to what not to name them: Let’s stop calling them “Gen Z.”
There are two big reasons. I’ll explain both.
It’s Derivative—And That’s Not Good
Since the Baby Boomers, we’ve gotten serious about naming generation.
And since then, the early proposals were often derived from the names of previous generations. One of the early names for GenX was the Baby Busters as if the boom had gone bust. It was as if the generation could only be understood as a negative comparison to the previous generation. (Full disclosure: I’m embarrassed to say that my very first book back in the early 90’s had “Baby Busters” in the subtitle. Ughh!).
Once we settled on GenX, the name that was batted about for the next generation was Generation Y, which is even lazier. The message was that the next generation was simply the one that followed the previous one, no more or less.
And now, the laziest name yet: Gen Z. Having skipped Generation Y in favor of the Millennial Generation, we’re now just back to sequential lettering. This is especially strange since it also closes out the alphabet. What comes next?
The truth is that attempts to name generations after their predecessors have failed, so there’s no reason to think that Gen Z–or Generation Z–will stick. Let’s hope not.
It Tells Us Nothing About the Generation
The other reason is that Gen Z doesn’t tell us one thing about the soul and character of this new generation of kids who are now beginning to move into young adulthood. GenX stuck as a name because it so accurately captured the tone and overall vibe of that generation. It connotes a fuzzy identity and even fuzzier future.
Gen Z has no inherent meaning and tells us nothing about this younger generation.
We don’t know how these kids will be as adults yet, but there are some traits that are already emerging. They are hard-working, family-oriented, fun-loving, anxious, technologically-sophisticated, overparented, diverse, future-oriented kids. Surely there is a better name that can capture the spirit and culture of this generation.
“Gen Z has no inherent meaning and tells us nothing about this younger generation.”
So if it’s not Gen Z or Generation Z, what name should define this generation?
Perhaps it’s too early to tell, but we can begin giving a few some serious consideration. The kids themselves picked the name The Founders in a national MTV poll, because they believed they were going to be the generation that would have to rebuild and essentially re-found the country—economically, socially and morally.
I doubt that name will stick, but it’s a good notion. Forbes says a better name would be The Builders because they will build on the foundation the Millennials left them. Again, it’s a name that’s unlikely to stick.
I proposed the name the Parkland Generation, arguing that the response following the Parkland shooting was fundamentally different than in previous generations and characterized them as tenacious, scrappy, savvy with social media, racially-diverse, and smartly strategic. While it captures the character of the generation, it’s problematic in that it is named after a singular tragedy and it would be easy to politicize the name, especially since many of the kids involved have become staunch gun-control advocates.
So I don’t know if that name will stick either, but it gets closer to the character of the generation.
“Surely there is a better name that can capture the spirit and culture of this generation.”
The other name that has the most traction is iGen, popularized by Dr. Jean Twenge in her book of the same name. It’s uber-long subtitle reads, “Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy–and completely unprepared for adulthood.”
The name iGen has a double meaning. It refers to the use of technology (as in “iPhone” or “iPad”) but it also refers to self-centeredness—as in “I” am the center of the world.
To be fair, there’s truth to both aspects of the name. These kids are digital natives and technology mavens; they are also more narcissistic than previous generations of the same age. But before you cluck your tongues, rates of narcissism have been going up steadily for at least the past 50 years. So despite the partially pejorative meaning, the name iGen has a decent chance of sticking.
So maybe the name will be iGen, maybe the Parkland Generation, maybe something else. Wherever it lands, let’s not let it be the laziest, weakest name possible: Generation Z.
Can we all agree on this?