The entire point of generational labels — Generation X, millennials — is that they’re meant to provide a sense of unity. Not to the members of the generation, mind you, though it’s certainly helpful if people identify by the label they’re given. The unity is intended, instead, for marketers, who can more easily explain who it is they’re trying to sell things to if they can get businesses to associate “millennial” with “young people with disposable income.”
This is a bit cynical, but not terribly. In 2014, eager to resolve the never-ending what-generation-am-I-in angst experienced by people born in the early 1980s, I reached out to the Census Bureau for official definitions of the generations. There weren’t any, I was told, except for the baby boomers, because the baby boom was a demographically distinguishable generation. It had statistical markers that set it apart in a way that generations since haven’t.
The boomers are to blame for everything that followed, as they’re to blame for so many other things. When boomers started running advertising shops, they’re the ones who invented these other labels: Generation X, after the 1991 novel, and then the millennials. It wasn’t only marketers, mind you. There were researchers, too, who set out to determine where subsequent generations might begin and end for the purposes of aggregating information into groups. But without the markers the boomer generation displayed, it was tricky.
So we have a lot of different terms for the generations and a lot of uncertainty about when generations begin and end. We generally agree, at this point, that someone born in 1975 is Generation X and someone born in 1990 is a millennial. But everything gets very gray very fast. Especially because those millennials are no longer only “young people with disposable income” — they are now “slightly older people with kids.” And those kids need a generational label of their own. They’ve already been called the “Homeland Generation” (by the White House in 2014) and the “Founders” (by MTV a few years ago). But no name has been agreed upon.
Nor has a start date. On Thursday, Pew Research kicked off a new round of generational introspection by declaring that, according to its new definition, the millennial generation ends in 1996. Everyone born thereafter is in Generation-To-Be-Determined.
“Unlike the Boomers,” Pew writes, “there are no comparably definitive thresholds by which later generational boundaries are defined. But for analytical purposes, we believe 1996 is a meaningful cutoff between Millennials and post-Millennials for a number of reasons, including key political, economic and social factors that define the Millennial generation’s formative years.”
See the admission? There’s no definitive reason for this distinction, but we have reasons. And Pew is reliable; those reasons are no doubt perfectly valid.
But still! These things change and evolve. How much so? Well, using research I’ve done over the years, I made this interactive which will show you, depending on your birth year, what your generation might have been called at one point or another.
Most of these didn’t stick. Many are very stupid. A lot are clearly advertising gimmicks.
But you can see how it’s confusing. It takes years for us to agree on a name for a generation (“Homeland” seems to be sticking for the most recent, FYI), and then we just sort of agree that the edges are blurry. In part that’s because this is all fairly new: There have only been three generations since the end of World War II, so we’re still pretty new at this.
The upshot, though, is simple. Stop worrying about what generation you’re in. It’s made-up. It doesn’t mean anything. You’re bigger than that.
Or, if you want to fight about it anyway — which everyone does — at least use some of the more exotic terms that have been applied in the past. Why be a millennial when you could be a “Trophy Kid”?
Be a Trophy Kid.