What Comes Next After Generation X?

26-year-old Doan Nguyen hosts friends for dinner and interviews them about the 2008 presidential election for a documentary about how those in their early 20s and 30s view politics. Doan says she is unsure which generational label applies to her age group. Video by Ian Shapira/The Washington Post Edited by Francine Uenuma/washingtonpost.com
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 6, 2008

Everyone knows the G.I. generation of World War II and the baby boomers who followed. And everyone knows the late-20th-century demographic labeled with the non-label generation X.

But the next generation, a growing force in presidential politics, the job market and the spread of social networking, is harder to define. Lumped under millennials or generation Y, some in their 20s and early 30s say those titles and others ginned up almost daily in a brand-obsessed pop culture confuse them. They are unsure what most encapsulates their experience.

For Doan Nguyen, 26, a photo editor at the nonprofit Conservation International, figuring out her generation has become a mission, prompted partly by a documentary she is filming. One recent night at her District rowhouse, she mulled over the issue with Marshall Maher, 32, the nonprofit group's spokesman.

Maher, who considers himself between generations, ruminated about the millennials. "They're about second life," he said. Virtual reality. "I don't know if I can, like, relate."

Nguyen looked defeated. "I don't know where I am in this generational timeline," she said.

No doubt it has always been difficult for generations to accept labels and generalizations. But some in the post-X generation say their puzzlement over their collective identity is more pronounced because their formative experiences have been so splintered. Reared on rapid-fire Internet connections and cheap airline tickets and pressured to obtain multiple academic degrees, many of these young adults grew up with an array of options their parents or older siblings did not have.

"People resist labels more among the millennials because there's more subcultures," said Michael Connery, 30, author of the political book "Youth To Power."

"It's a fragmented culture in a way that it's never been. You know how baby boomers ask, 'Where's the protest music?' and lament the lack of youth activities? There is protest music, but it's so broken up into niche audiences that it doesn't gain as much traction."

Nguyen's conversations with her peers illuminate how society's shorthands easily confuse some in this age group. Some say they feel post-generational. Others say an agreed-upon label would confer a sense of historical status.

"Did Tom Brokaw write a book about us?" Maher asked, referring to the former NBC news anchor's bestseller on those who came of age in World War II. "That's my concern. We didn't get a 'Greatest Generation' book."

"Not yet," Nguyen said.

Neil Howe, who coined "millennials" with William Strauss, predicted that the generation's preference for consensus-building and nonstop, digital communication will alter business and political landscapes. Businesses, he said, will accommodate this generation by creating more team projects, and millennials will tend to reject the negative and moralistic politics they witnessed as children.

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