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Oh No, They’ve Come Up With Another Generation Label

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 2/21/2020 Joe Pinsker
a large jetliner sitting on top of a metal fence © Spencer Weiner / Getty

The cutoff for being born into Generation X was about 1980, the cutoff for Generation Y (a.k.a. the Millennials) was about 1996, and the cutoff for Generation Z was about 2010. What should the next batch of babies be called—what comes after Z?

Alpha, apparently. That’s the (Greek) letter that the unofficial namers of generations—marketers, researchers, cultural commentators, and the like—have affixed to Gen Z’s successors, the oldest of whom are on the cusp of turning 10. The Generation Alpha label, if it lasts, follows the roughly 15-year cycle of generational delineations. Those delineations keep coming, even as, because of a variety of demographic factors, they seem to be getting less and less meaningful as a way of segmenting the population; in recent decades, there hasn’t been a clear-cut demographic development, like the postwar baby boom, to define a generation around, so the dividing lines are pretty arbitrary. How much do members of this new generation, or any generation, really have in common?

[Read: Generations are an invention—here’s how they came to be]

A picture of Generation Alpha, if a blurry one, is starting to emerge. In various articles about its members, analysts have stated that they are or will grow up to be the best-educated generation ever, the most technologically immersed, the wealthiest, and the generation more likely than any in the past century to spend some or all of their childhood in living arrangements without both of their biological parents. These are all notable features, but some of them are broad and fairly low-stakes observations, given that the global population has been getting richer, better educated, and more exposed to digital technology for a while now.

Some marketers and consultants who analyze generations have tried to get more specific. One suggested that Generation Alpha might be particularly impatient because they’ll be used to technology fulfilling their desires from an early age. And a branding agency recently polled a bunch of 7-to-9-year-olds on a wide range of mostly nondivisive issues (such as the importance of “making sure everyone has enough food to eat”) and arrived at the conclusion that Generation Alpha “cares more about all issues than their Millennial and Baby Boomer [predecessors] did when they were kids, or even than they do now.”

Many of these takeaways seem premature, or at least overeager. “They’re still kids,” says Dan Woodman, a sociology professor at the University of Melbourne who studies generational labels. “A lot of things we attach to a generation are around the way they start to think about politics, the way they engage with the culture, and [whether they] are a wellspring of new social movements.” The narrative of a generation, he told me, “starts to get filled in with some meaningful—maybe not correct, but at least substantial—content probably more when they start to enter their teens.”

RELATED VIDEO: Who Is Generation Alpha? [Provided by Parents]

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The term Generation Alpha is usually credited to Mark McCrindle, a generational researcher in Australia who runs a consulting agency. McCrindle told me that the name originated from an online survey he ran in 2008 that yielded a slew of now-discarded monikers, many of which focused on technology (the “Onliners,” “Generation Surf,” the “Technos”) or gave the next round of humans the burden of undoing the damage done by the last (the “Regeneration,” “Generation Hope,” the “Saviors,” “Generation Y-not”).

One popular option from the survey was “Generation A,” but, McCrindle told me in an email, he thought the name for a cohort that would shape the future shouldn’t “be labelled by going back to the beginning.” So once the Latin alphabet was exhausted, he hopped over to the Greek one—“the start of something new.”

A consensus has formed around Generation Alpha, but it may be a temporary one. The generic “Generation [Letter]” format began with Generation X. “It was meant to be a placeholder for something a bit uncertain or mysterious, almost like X in some algebraic equation,” Woodman told me. Generation Y followed, though it was usurped, at least in the U.S., by Millennials; nothing has overthrown Generation Z. Placeholder names, in a way, make generational generalizations easier. “They’re almost like empty labels that you can put anything in,” Woodman said. He thinks Generation Alpha will stick for at least a little while, but can also see how it might get replaced by something “a little more descriptive.”

The history of generational labeling is littered with names that gained some traction, but not enough. Gen X has been referred to as “Baby Busters,” the “slacker generation,” “latchkey kids,” and the “MTV Generation,” though the placeholder won out. The same, so far, has been the case for Gen Z, whose proposed alternate names include “iGeneration,” the “Homeland Generation,” “Multi-Gen,” “Post Gen,” and the “Pluralistic Generation.”

[Read: How generations get their names]

For researchers and consultants, picking a winning name and becoming an authority on a particular generation can be highly lucrative. “It’s worth a heap of money,” Woodman said. “One of the things we do with generational labels is make claims about how different this cohort is—they're so different, almost alien in their attitudes, that you need to pay some experts to come in and explain them to you.” For instance, Neil Howe, one of the coiners of Millennials some 30 years ago, has gone on to make a career out of consulting, speaking, and writing about generations.

Of course, the enthusiasm about naming generations isn’t just among marketers and consultants. People “do love generations talk,” Woodman said. They’re “drawn to using these labels to pin down something they intuitively feel about young or old people these days.” He thinks that this desire is strong when the world is perceived to be changing rapidly—people want to be able to identify their position amid the flux.

Unfortunately, though, “generations talk” can often devolve into stereotyping, as generational labels necessarily lump together people with a wide variety of experiences. “We'd probably bristle if we did with gender or race what we still seem to get away with with generations,” Woodman said.

Generalizing is additionally unwise because the process of delineating generations is hardly scientific. To be sure, today’s coexisting cohorts have had meaningfully different experiences—Baby Boomers and Millennials, for instance, came of age in eras with markedly different technologies and paradigms of education and work. But, Woodman noted, shifts involving “generational factors” like these are usually gradual, and don’t vary drastically from one year to the next.

“There’s a continuous stream of people emerging in a population. How do we draw the line between the end of one cohort and the beginning of another?” said Rick Settersten, a professor of human development and family sciences at Oregon State University. “At some point, it’s an arbitrary game.”

In some regards, the game is more arbitrary now than it used to be. Take the Baby Boomers, for example. “We can see them more easily in the population because there’s a fertility boom in 1946 right after World War II, which tails off by about 1964,” Settersten told me.

The moderately logical boundaries of the Boomer generation set a precedent that in some ways led to the less logical boundaries for the generations that followed. If the final birth year for Boomers is 1964, counting out 15 more years gets you to the Gen X–Millennial border, and another 15 or so gets you to the Millennial–Gen Z border. But even though this is an orderly way of doing things, big societal changes don’t always follow neat 15-year increments.

For instance, the youngest Millennials, born in 1996, might have more in common with the oldest Gen Zers, born in 1997, than the oldest Millennials, born in 1981; to name just one difference, many children of the late ‘90s grew up with the internet, while the 1981 babies spent most of their childhoods without it. (This sort of tension has birthed some niche generational labels for those born on the outer edge of their cohort, such as “Xennials.”) Even the Baby Boomer label—which is grounded in a measurable fertility trend—doesn’t entirely make sense, Settersten pointed out, as some of the oldest Boomers are the parents of some of the youngest ones.

Further, Millennials are often considered the children of Boomers, and Gen Zers are often considered Gen Xers’ children. But these sorts of one-to-one matchups of parents and children become less valid as the average age at which parents have their first child has gotten higher. The age range of first-time mothers—whether they are 21, or 31, or 41—“has widened dramatically,” Settersten wrote in an email. “They share a life event—they all had first births at the same time—but they potentially come from different ‘generations.’” (He put the term in scare quotes to note that generations are essentially social constructs.) Woodman raised this point about other life milestones, such as leaving one’s childhood home, starting a committed relationship, and purchasing a house. “The life course isn’t as synchronized as it once was, where everyone does stuff at the same time,” he said.

That means that, from here on out, even more diversity of human experience has to be crammed into broad generational labels. Woodman said that “attach[ing] attributes to an entire group, like optimistic or pessimistic or entitled, snowflakey, resilient, or whatever, has always been a stretch, but it’ll probably get even less helpful as time goes on.”

Settersten made a similar point: “It probably has gotten more difficult to distinguish one generation from another, especially if you can’t point to meaningful things that might define it, like a baby boom or bust; or a historical event like the Great Recession; or maybe the emergence of some new technology, if we had reason to believe that it would mark [people] as a distinct group.”

The march through the Greek alphabet may continue anyway. In 2024, by McCrindle’s definition, the last of Generation Alpha will be born, making way for Generation Beta, whose birth years will span from 2025 to 2039. “If the nomenclature sticks, then we will afterwards have Generation Gamma and Generation Delta,” McCrindle said. Those placeholder names stand a good chance of catching on—so long as nothing important and generation-defining happens in the next half century, of course.

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