At a time when Americans seem more conscious than ever of the separate categories to which they belong — race, gender, ethnicity, religion, political, urban or rural, occupation, native language, etc. — there has emerged a very different way of categorizing that appears to obliterate all the others: by generations.
Much of the time we are concerned about the divisions in society. Somehow these disappear — e pluribus becomes unum — when we talk about generations. It’s a notion that was introduced to the public in 1991 by William Strauss and Neil Howe’s book Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. If we are to believe their 538 pages of evidence, reinforced in the 21st century by countless other articles and books, every generation born in America has common characteristics that distinguish it from those before and since. Gender and race, locality and politics and all the rest don’t matter compared with the time when you were born.
I used this notion myself for a book published a year ago, which I called From Skedaddle to Selfie: Words of the Generations. I looked for words used by and characterizing the generations as Strauss and Howe defined them. It wasn’t too hard to find, for example, the words “yuppie” and ”lifestyle” coming into use by the “boom generation” (born 1943-60), “grunge” and “slacker” as property of Generation X (born 1961-81), “hipster” and “selfie” as words belonging to the millennials (also known as Generation Y, born 1982-2004).
Whatever the merits of the overall scheme, we are certainly enamored of the notion of millennials, the first generation to come of age after the turn of the millennium. Books and articles describe millennials and tell older generations how to understand them. We are told, for example, that they are more inclined to live at home with parents, less inclined to marry early, concerned with wellness, comfortable with the internet and digital devices.
But this millennial generation has to be coming to an end. A generation, after all, is just 20 years, more or less. So it’s time for “Gen Z,” successor to the millennials, named “homeland generation” by Howe. In a 2014 article, Howe explained why 2005 is his choice for the starting year for the new homeland generation:
“The reason I chose 2005 exactly — and again, this remains tentative — is that kids born in that year and after will recall nothing before Barack Obama’s presidency, the financial meltdown of 2008, and the seemingly endless Great Recession that followed.”
By no means does everyone agree with Howe’s choice of dates. A recent Barnes & Noble report on Generation Z, for example, defined them as those “born as early as 1990 or as late as 2000.” But that’s calculating by decades rather than generations.
Howe says his homeland generation will by influenced by “extremely protective parenting,” “a turn towards the traditional,” “a new push for academic achievement,” and “a renewed focus on social development.” And he notes that the new generation has easy access to all sorts of electronic devices.
One member of the homeland generation was available to me a couple of years ago, when he was 8. I noted in my book that he usually began questions with “Wait.” Have any of his generation kept that up?
But now that Generation Z is beginning to populate middle schools, with its oldest members being in sixh grade — what words are they coining and using that differentiate them from their older millennium sisters and brothers? Have you heard any? I’d like to know.
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