What exactly is the difference between Millennials and Generation Z?
Generational labels are thrown round a lot. Society has always felt the need to assign labels and pigeonhole people – but what strikes me about the sudden emergence of generational labels is that no-one is quite sure what they mean.
I was born in the year 2000. So what does that make me? What category do I fall into? If the categories were purely about age, that would be one matter. The problem though is that the labels go further than that: they often mean that younger generations are compared quite negatively to older ones.
And that becomes another good reason to question their meaning.
Unsure what exactly “millennial” means? According to Google, you’re not alone…
Most of us sense an increased use of generational labels. The media is full of them. Our conversations increasingly make reference to them. But clearly there’s also an uncertainty around exactly what these terms describe.
Google Trends, the data-tracking function of the search giant, shows a dramatic increase in searches relating to the meaning of generational labels.
Searches such as “when were millennials born?” have increased hugely in the past six years, for example (see below). A similar increase is seen in searches for “what is generation z?”.
These are just two examples highlighting the growing confusion around generational terminology. Google Trends can furnish many more…
But if these labels are increasingly finding their way into everyday use, aren’t there “official” definitions in existence – for example in dictionaries and elsewhere? I took on the challenge of rounding up as many generational labels as I could find, and summarising what definitions – if any – exist to shed light on their meaning.
Let’s start with the “Lost Generation”…
This is really going back some way, and it shows that the need to tag generations is strong and has been around for some time. “The Lost Generation” came of age during the First World War – about a century ago. That means they were born in the last years of the 1800s. According to Wikipedia, demographers came up with the name to describe this group partly out of “a recognition that there was great confusion and aimlessness among the war's survivors in the early post-war years.”
…next, the “G.I. Generation” - also known as the “Greatest Generation”
The G.I. Generation that followed was shaped by the Second World War. It broadly refers to those born in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century and who grew up through the great depression and participated in, or lived through, the Second World War.
The “Silent Generation”
This is another label which appears to characterise a generation, in this case with the word “silent”. I can’t find out precisely where it came from, but I’ve read variously that the “silent” came from a tendency to put up with privations and stick to the ethos that it’s better not to complain. The birth year period for this generation is generally put at around 1925 up until the period close to the end of the Second Word War, so 1950. This puts this generation squarely ahead of the next…
The “Baby Boomers”
Now we’re getting into the territory of the better-known generational labels. “Baby Boomers” – or sometimes merely “Boomers” – is such a commonly-used term that it even featured as the name of a BBC sitcom, “Boomers”, which aired in the UK on BBC One between 2014 and 2016.
The word itself signifies the “boom” or surge in births which occurred after the Second World War. It may also relate to the period of economic prosperity enjoyed in many developed economies during the 1960s. A range of sources broadly agree that Boomers’ dates of birth fall into the period from after the war – 1945/6 up until the early 1960s.
Also known as the “MTV Generation”, this generation grew up as technological innovations, including a proliferation of TV channels, gathered pace. This was perhaps also the first generation to attract criticism and negative associations. There are references to Xers as the "slacker generation", and they are credited with being cynical, unambitious and disaffected. As more women entered the workforce during these decades, and divorce rates grew, Xers were also referred to as the "latchkey generation".
The term “Generation X” was popularised in 1991 by the publication of a book of that title by Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland. The book describes twenty-somethings growing up in a culture overshadowed by political scandal, relationship breakdowns and drugs.
And before “Millennials”, the “Xennials”
For those who are too old to be “Millennials”, but too young to be considered “Generation Z”, a micro-generation exists called “Xennials”.
Did you have an “analogue childhood and a digital adulthood”? If so, you might be a Xennial. They’re said to be born between 1977 and 1985.
And so, onto the “Millennials”
Now let’s talk about Millennials themselves. The word “Millennial” is probably the most-used of all generational tags. It’s also probably the most contentious – and the most pejorative.
There is also a fair amount of disagreement about what birth years constitute Millennial status. This group is also, but less commonly, referred to as “Generation Y”.
Wikipedia and the Cambridge dictionary both use the period of the early 1980s to the year 2000 as the birth range of this generation, whereas the Merriam-Webster dictionary and the Collins dictionary cite the early 2000s as when millennials began to reach adulthood, suggesting they are likely to have been born in the 1980s rather than the 1990s.
But how did it become so negative? The word Millennial itself is often used in negative contexts, but so are other terms used to describe the same generations, such as “Generation Me” and “Snowflakes”.
Millennials have also been referred to as the “Peter Pan Generation”. This seems to be more of an economic comment on their status, rather than a character description: it refers to the fact that it is generally taking this generation longer to reach milestones signifying adulthood such as moving out of the parental home, getting married and having children.
Lastly, “Generation Z” and the “i-Generation”
Finally comes “Generation Z”, the post millennial generation, also called the i-Generation. I think this is where I belong.
Born between the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, young adults and teens have grown up with technology all around them. It’s hard for them to imagine their parents’ childhood where the internet was new or unknown and smartphones and social media did not exist. They’re called the “hypercognitive generation” and are hugely confident in all aspects of digital communications and transactions. They’re thought to be the first generation whose lives are truly shaped by a mix of both online and offline experiences.
The generational tags of the future…
If I’ve learned anything from the process of looking into these generational labels, it’s that the use of them appears to be going in one direction: up. Is that a good thing? Given that the other trend is for the terms to apparently take on increasingly negative connotations, perhaps not.
For me, being pigeonholed according to my age-group isn’t altogether unwanted. Belonging to a group (however vaguely defined) unites you with those who are experiencing the same growing pains, and who are likely to view the changing world in a similar way.
Perhaps these and future generational labels can help us focus on what makes us similar – rather than our differences.
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