Generation Z. Millennials. Baby Boomers. It’s hard not to run into eye-catching headlines about generations these days. And it’s easy to feel like many of these headlines are just clickbait, all fluff and no substance. But is that really the case?
At Pew Research Center, we think it can be useful to talk about generations. But there are some important considerations for readers to keep in mind whenever they come across a news story or research about generations:
Generational categories are not scientifically defined. The boundaries that place one person in Gen Z and another in the Millennial generation are not precise, definitive or universally agreed on. Even the names of generations are not uniformly adopted: Is it Millennials or Generation Y? Gen Z or iGen?
People born near the boundaries of these generational groupings can feel particularly uncomfortable being lumped in with those much older or younger than them, and for good reason. The media and researchers – Pew Research Center included – have not always been as clear as we should that generational boundaries are not a hard science.
Generational labels can lead to stereotypes and oversimplification. All Millennials or Baby Boomers are not the same, just as all Southerners, all Catholics or all Black Americans are not the same. Shared experiences and identities should be recognized – and at their best can even be empowering – but this shouldn’t come at the expense of individuality.
Discussions about generation often focus on differences instead of similarities. Conflict tends to get more attention than consensus. So watch out for news stories or research articles that assume or exaggerate intergenerational divides that may actually be quite small. “OK Boomer” became a cultural meme, but it probably overstates the divide between younger and older generations. After all, most of us have some combination of parents, grandparents, kids and grandkids we love, making our family lives interconnected.
Conventional views of generations can carry an upper-class bias. Popular history recalls that Baby Boomers in the 1960s and ’70s were deeply opposed to the Vietnam War. This notion is based on attention-grabbing protests on college campuses and at political events. But many high-quality surveys at the time showed that younger Americans – most of whom were not attending college – were more supportive of the war than older generations who had lived through previous conflicts. Readers today should similarly question whether stereotypes of Gen Z might be skewed toward the experiences of the upper middle class.
People change over time. It’s worth pausing when you hear someone say that “kids today” are so different from their predecessors. Young adults have always faced a different environment than their parents, and it’s common for their elders to express some degree of concern or alarm. (“Why is his hair dyed green?”)
Don’t assume that what you see today is what you’ll get tomorrow. People change as they grow older, pursue careers and form families. Gen Zers will no doubt walk differently in the world by 2050, just as today’s Baby Boomers are different from their younger selves. Generational signals can sometimes be lasting, but youth itself is not a permanent state.
So is it all just hype?
If you’ve read this far, your suspicions about generational labels may have hardened. That’s OK. Our recommendation is for readers to bring a healthy dose of skepticism to the generational discussions they see. Readers should also hold media and research organizations that focus on generations – including Pew Research Center – to a high standard.
Despite these cautions, we still believe generational thinking can help us understand how societies change over time. The eras in which we come of age can leave a signature of common experiences and perspectives. Events such as terrorist attacks, wars, recessions and pandemics can shape the opportunities and mindsets of those most affected by them.
Similarly, historical advances like desegregation, effective birth control, the invention of the internet and the arrival of artificial intelligence can fundamentally change how people live their lives, and the youngest generations are often in the vanguard. At the same time, some events can affect people across generations, moving everyone in one direction or another.
It’s wise to think of terms like Gen Z, Millennial, Gen X and Baby Boomer as general reference points instead of scientific facts. At Pew Research Center, we’ll continue to use these and other labels to help our readers navigate a changing world. But we’ll do so sparingly – and only when the data supports the use of the generational lens.