Philip N. Cohen is a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park and author of, most recently, “The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change.”
Before you start wracking your brain to cram these diverse personalities into generational stereotypes, let me stop you there: Just don’t. That’s the position I and about 150 other demographers and social scientists have taken in an open letter to the Pew Research Center, urging them to stop promoting the use of generation labels (the Silent Generation, baby boomers, Generation X, millennials and now Generation Z).
Generation labels, although widely adopted by the public, have no basis in social reality. In fact, in one of Pew’s own surveys, most people did not identify the correct generation for themselves — even when they were shown a list of options.
This is not surprising since the categories are imposed by survey researchers, journalists or marketing firms before the identities they are supposed to describe even exist. Instead of asking people which group they feel an affinity for and why, purveyors of social “generations” just declare the categories and start making pronouncements about them. That’s not how social identity works.
The practice of naming “generations” based on birth year goes back at least to the supposed “Lost Generation” of the late 19th Century. But as the tradition devolved into a never-ending competition to be the first to propose the next name that sticks, it has produced steadily diminishing returns to social science and the public understanding.
The supposed boundaries between generations are no more meaningful than the names they’ve been given. There is no research identifying the appropriate boundaries between generations, and there is no empirical basis for imposing the sweeping character traits that are believed to define them. Generation descriptors are either embarrassing stereotypes or caricatures with astrology-level vagueness. In one article you might read that Millennials are “liberal lions,” “downwardly mobile,” “upbeat,” “pre-Copernican,” “unaffiliated, anti-hierarchical, [and] distrustful” — even though they also “get along well with their parents, respect their elders and work well with colleagues.”
Ridiculous, clearly. But what's the harm? Aren’t these tags just a bit of fun for writers? A convenient hook for readers and a way of communicating generational change, which no one would deny is a real phenomenon? We in academic social science study and teach social change, but we don’t study and teach these categories because they simply aren’t real. And in social science, reality still matters.
The categories even fail to capture common experiences. Consider the life history of baby boomers — the one group defined by an actual historic event (the spike in birthrates between 1946 and 1964). This includes men born in the late 1940s, 42 percent of whom served in the military, and those born in the early 1960s, who came of age after the Vietnam War and entered the military at a fraction of that rate (12 percent).
Millennials are similarly split between those who finished high school before the Great Recession (for whom the average unemployment rate was 7 percent upon graduation) and after (with unemployment rates spiking above 11 percent). No social scientist would draw these categories knowing what we know today.
Worse than irrelevant, such baseless categories drive people toward stereotyping and rash character judgment. This is disappointing, because measuring and describing social change is essential, and it can be useful to analyze the historical period in which people were born and raised. People should write books and articles on these topics. But drawing arbitrary lines between birth years and slapping names on them isn’t helping.
Plus, people experience history differently based on their backgrounds — Black people vs. White people, immigrants vs. natives, men vs. women, children with vs. children without iPads. So throwing everyone together by year of birth often misses all the glorious conflict and complexity in social change.
There are lots of good alternatives to today’s generations. We can simply describe people by the decade they were born. We can define cohorts specifically related to a particular issue — such as 2020 school kids. With the arrival of “Generation Z,” which Pew announced with fanfare, there has never been a better time to get off this train.
When we sent our open letter to the Pew Research Center, we received courteous replies indicating the organization plans to have internal discussions about generational research, which will involve consulting with experts as they go. That is encouraging. Beyond the role of one organization, however, we as readers, writers, researchers, teachers and students have a role to play in thinking beyond the stale generation categories that undermine our understanding of social change.