Talking about generations has always been a tricky proposition. In fact, many believe that all that generalizing — you can’t slap a label on an entire group of people without at least some degree of generalization — is a largely useless exercise.
Still, populations are polled and numbers are crunched. Interviews are done and demographics broken down, all to come up with some commonality, some defining characteristics of each generation. And some way to compare generations to each other.
Marketers use the information. The government. The media. All sorts of people glom onto it.
And so each generation assumes a name and characteristics:
An illustration of the Greatest and Silent Generations (Photo: Prov910/Shutterstock)
The Greatest Generation won World War II and set the U.S. on it's way to becoming a world power. Born before World War II, the generation includes members of, and has been known as, the G.I. Generation and the Silent Generation. In 2014, according to the Pew Research Center, the Silents numbered almost 27 million.)
An illustration of Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y. (Photo: Prov910/Shutterstock)
Baby boomers came right after World War II and inherited a world ripe with promise. Named for the spike in birth rates after the war, this group includes, by some reckonings, everyone born from 1946-1964. Generation Jones and the Me Generation would be in the back half of this group. In 2014, according to Pew, there were more than 74 million boomers in the U.S.
Generation X includes those born starting in 1965. They're often described as "latchkey" kids who often fended for themselves while their parents worked. Also known as the MTV Generation, Gen Xers are said to accept social diversity and strive for a world not centered around work. In 2014, according to Pew, there were about 64.5 million Gen Xers in America.
Millennials are the group born after about 1980. Diverse, less religious than their predecessors and, according to Pew, "on track to become the most educated generation in American history," millennials are also know as Generation Y and other names. Pew reports more than 68 million adult millennials in the U.S. in 2014.
An illustration of Generation Z. (Photo: Prov910/Shutterstock)
Generation Z are still kids. The age range of what may be the most diverse population group in American history will start with those born in the late 1990s. But starting dates for this generation — along with the characteristics and label of the group — are still being tossed around. The iGeneration? The Plurals?
No matter which generation is poked and prodded, no matter which is yours, the basic question remains: How well do the generational buckets that we're tossed into actually portray us?
"Most of the popular literature on the subject of generational differences appears to rest on limited data," wrote two University of Georgia scholars in a 2008 paper, "almost always conducted by survey methods characterized by a lack of reliability and validity data."
That paper, entitled "Generational Differences," appeared in the journal Instructional Technology Forum. The authors — Thomas C. Reeves, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Georgia and Eunjung Oh, Ph.D., now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois — concluded that "the gross generalizations based on weak survey research and the speculations of profit-oriented consultants should be treated with extreme caution in a research and development context."
Reeves and Oh were trying to determine if scholars could use the research into generational differences in furthering education; whether some demographic secret, some uncovered generational trait, would unlock a way for teachers to better reach students.
But Reeves and Oh cite a basic criticism of generational typecasting: It's difficult to make definitive conclusions about large generational groups, especially when sloppy, inadequate or inconclusive research is used. And especially when those who are conducting the research and assigning people to different buckets have ulterior motives. Like making money.
The usefulness of labels
Still, dismissing findings out-of-hand might be foolhardy, too. Generational labels, as imperfect as they are, can serve a purpose.
Take the case of millennials, for example. This generation is said — based on ages and research — to be the first to have grown up with the Internet. millennials are technologically savvy. They live, interconnected, like no other generation ever has.
Wouldn't knowing that — and knowing specifics, like how millennials communicate, who they are, how they’re educated, where they live, how much money they make, what they like and what they like to do — be a boon to advertisers and marketers trying to reach them? Future employers trying to fit jobs to them? The media?
Even with the acknowledgement that not every Millennial is connected to a screen 24/7?
Wouldn't knowing that kind of information, maybe, help us to better understand ourselves?
Reeves and Oh understood that in their attempt to use the information in bettering education.
"There may be merit in examining the preferences of today generation of college students and workers for instructional designs that utilize video games, instant messaging, podcasts and other cutting-edge technologies in higher education and the workplace," write Reeves and Oh.
"Today's younger university students and workers have spent large amounts of their free time playing video games, and survey results indicate that today's students and workers alike prefer to be engaged in learning via games than by traditional classroom instruction."
In addition to iffy research being done, and the questionable idea of assigning common characteristics to a large group of diverse people in the first place, looking for generational differences seems to spur a strange competition among the populace, too.
Who's more educated, more civic-minded, less narcissistic (certainly not the "Me Generation")? Who’s more tied into the world, more diverse, harder working? "Forget Millennials. Gen Xers Are the Future of Work" cried Time Magazine in 2014.
It's a tricky proposition, slapping a definition on a whole group of people. And when Generation Z comes of age — or whatever they'll be called — it's not going to get any easier.
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