The oldest Gen Xers will turn 50 this year. At least most consider that to be the case. Baby Boomers are widely agreed upon as having been born between 1946 and 1964, making 1965 the starting year for Generation X. After that, start and stop dates for each generation start to get a little fuzzy.
In an attempt to “define” the birth years of generations X, Y and Z, I scoured the Internet for authoritative sources that might hold the answer, my objective being to gather a “sample” and then from that form some sort of consensus. I collected data from Forbes, US News, Time Magazine, Washington Post, Bloomberg, Huffington Post, CNBC, and the Wall Street Journal, just to name a few. In all, a total 25 sources for each of the three generations were used1. Typically these sources had some sort of article in which they discussed various characteristics of one generation or another and in that article defined the birth years or current age range of that generation.
As expected, the defined “birth years” for each generation varied from source to source. In the graph to the left, the birth year is the first column, the number of sources that consider that year to be a birth year for each generation can be found in the next three columns. So for example, 5 out of 25 sources consider 1964 to be a birth year for Generation X. That number rises sharply to 21 in 1965 and reaches a full consensus of 25 out of 25 from 1966 to 1975 before dropping down to 21 out of 25 again in 1976.
As I said earlier 1965 appears to be a pretty safe year to conclusively mark as the starting point of Generation X, but the ending point isn’t so simple. If we were to ask 100 people born in 1980 what generation they are, my guess is that about a third would say “Generation X,” a third would say “Generation Y,” and a third would say “Don’t know/not sure.” In fact this in-between group has even been defined by some as its own generation and is sometimes called the “MTV generation,” “XY Cusp,” or the “Boomerang Generation.” The same trouble faces those born in 1995, or anyone born in the mid to late 90’s for that matter. Are they “Generation Y” or “Generation Z?” What should we call this in-between generation?
Speaking of names, beyond defining years, as sociologists and marketers we still can’t conclusively agree what to call these generations. As the oldest, “Generation X” is pretty well established as the name for that cohort, the terms “echo boom,” “baby busters,” and “latchkey generation” really aren’t used very often anymore. The terms “Generation Y” and “Millennials” are often used side-by-side, and frequently in the same sentence together. From my own observation “Millennials” appears to be winning out, but it’s likely that that generation will always be called by both names. What to call “Generation Z” other than “Generation Z” is still up for debate. We seem determined to come up with something more original than simply resorting to “Generation Z” by default. In 2012 USA Today asked readers to vote on a name for the “next generation” out of ten different options. The winner was “iGeneration” or “iGen” with 31% of the vote, followed by “Gen Z” in second place at 17%. However, as of yet, I haven’t seen “iGen” mentioned a whole lot outside of that article, so I don’t know that name will stick.
Beyond years and names, segmenting and creating defining characteristics of these generations is one of the favorite games we marketers love to play. Generations are shaped by-in-large by shared life experiences, particularly those that occur during ther childhood and teenage years. These shared experiences such as world and national events, music, fashion trends, toys, fads, TV shows, and language, work together to shape perspectives and give each generation a different set of lenses from which they view the world. Understanding how each generation views the world is important for creating and marketing products and services that resonate.
However, like the birth years for each generation, the defining characteristics of each generation are “fuzzy” as well. Reviewing many of the same sources I accessed to determine the birth years of generations x, y, and z, I pulled together several attributes that these sources say define each generation. While some characteristics appear to be unique to one generation or another, others seem to span across two or three of the generations. With that said, here is a “fuzzy” consensus on the characteristics of each generation.
Generation X: Calling them “slackers” is no longer accurate and hasn’t been for some time. Generation X is adaptable, independent, individualistic, flexible, pragmatic, practical, confident, self-reliant, and are self-starters. Work-life balance is a big deal. They are cynical, not impressed by titles, and distrust authority unless they believe that the position is well deserved.
Generation Y: Calling them “narcissistic” is accurate, and will likely be for some time. Generation Y is resilient, optimistic, confident, innovative, tolerant, service oriented, and like Generation X, they are independent and adaptable. Work-life balance is an even bigger deal. They like to commit to a cause, want things instantly, crave attention, and are natural multi-taskers. They are loyal to their peers, and are looking to make a contribution to society in some way. They are less brand loyal then Generation X and more connected to their parents than Generation X.
Generation Z: Generation Z is still too young to really “define,” although many have already done so. Thus far the consensus on Generation Z appears to be that they are open-minded, team-oriented, and entrepreneurial. They are more realistic than optimistic. More centered on “we” then “me.” They want everything to be customized or to at least have the ability to customize it themselves. They are out to change the status quo. Plan to go to college, but believe in their ability to self-educate. They are more respectful of authority than Generation X and Y and trust their “helicopter” parents more than generations X and Y did at their age.
In conclusion, while all this is good and useful, defining generations only provides a 30,000 foot view of an ever changing scene. It’s a start, but it would be a big mistake to somehow assume that it’s enough. Any company’s target market can only really be understood through the use of some serious segmentation research. Even after that, the winds of change constantly rearrange the landscape, requiring the process to be an ongoing effort. Personally I subscribe more to the school of thought that generations are defined less by birth cohorts and more by life cohorts. By that I mean attitudes are more of a reflection of the time we live in than when we were born. Emerging values, attitudes, trends, etc., may be embraced by the youngest generation first, but eventually permeate throughout all generations to one degree or another.
Gen X: Huffington Post, Pew Research, The Atlantic, Urban Dictionary, Bloomberg, NPR, Fox Business, Washington Post, Time, Forbes, NY Times, Career Planner, Yahoo Finance, Houseingwire, US News, ABC News, The Street, Wall Street Journal, Metlife, Ad Age, LA Times, Google, Business Insider, Gallup.
Gen Y: Time, Pew Research, USC, Whitehouse.gov, CBS News, Nielson, NY Times, Forbs, Live Science. U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Boy Scouts of America, Wall Street Journal, Adweek, Metlife, Goldman Sachs, Urban Dictionary, CNBC, US News, The Denver Post, Fox Business, Fortune, Dictionary, LA Times, Inc., NASA.
Gen Z: Forbes, Career Planner, LA Times, Bloomberg, Adweek, Marketo, Inc., CNBC, Knoll, Workopolis, Say Daily, Digiday, TLNT, JCK Mag, Direct Marketing News, Target Marketing, James Madison University, Bandwatch, Social Marketing, marketplace.org, Talented Heads, Entrepreneur, Time, Yale.edu.