The March for Our Lives established the political identity of a new, post-Millennial generation. Students, born between the mid-’90s and the late-2000s, arrived in Washington, D.C., by the bus-load, holding signs, evoking silence, and demanding change. But even though members of this generation are shaping our politics, we still haven’t decided what to call them. While many names have been proposed—Gen Z, iGen, the Founders—there’s been no consensus. In today’s issue, The Masthead weighs in. We solicited name ideas from Masthead members, as well as a few current high-school students. We also looked into how previous generations got their names, and what those processes might mean for this one.
“We Want Something to Happen”
By Caroline Kitchener, Photos by Emily Jan
To hear directly from members of the generation we are trying to name, I took a trip to Stone Ridge School in Bethesda, Maryland, an all-girls Catholic school where I used to teach English. I sat cross-legged on the floor with four of my former students, now high-school juniors—Hannah Joseph, Zoe Barnette, Nipuni Obe, and Alicia Pané—and asked them to define their generation. (I consulted with my Masthead team members, and they assured me that, despite my nepotism for my students, this interview is worth a read.) My questions below are in bold, and the girls’ responses are preceded by their names. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
You’re in charge of naming your generation. What name do you choose?
Hannah Joseph: Gen Z.
What do you like about that?
Nipuni Obe: Well, first of all, it just sounds really cool. Last year’s graduating class was so excited because they were the last class born in the ’90s.
Zoe Barnette: And if we’re Gen Z, we’re like the last class of the alphabet.
Pretend that “Gen Z” is off the table. You have to make up a completely new name. What is it?
Joseph: How about “The Yawp”?
Barnette: What? The Yawp?
Obe: It means, like, to yell or something. To scream.
Joseph: The whole phrase is, “the barbaric yawp.” It comes from a poem by Walt Whitman: “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”
Alicia Pané: It’s saying, “We have a voice.” I feel like that embodies our generation.
What do you mean?
Barnette: We’re action-driven. We want something to happen.
Pané: We see ourselves as capable of making change, more than the older generations.
How did you guys respond to the March for Our Lives?
Barnette: We did a little one here, at our school. I helped plan it. It was a 17-minute walkout for Parkland. Almost all the students and teachers came out. I was holding a picture of one of the victims, and I could see everyone. It was cold out there. We were all worried people were going to talk. But everyone was really respectful and quiet.
Pané: You went through the victims, one by one. You talked about someone who was the cross-country coach, and I run cross country.
Joseph: One victim was an honors student. And I thought, “Wow, I wonder what she was studying in school.”
Let’s get back to naming your generation for a second. Any other ideas? Or is everyone good with “The Yawp”?
Barnette: I feel like we’re kind of lazy ... until we’re not.
Joseph: We’re like the “hibernating-bear generation.” We’re lazy, but then when the time comes...
Barnette: Maybe lazy isn’t the right word. We’re complacent? No. We’re laid-back, maybe?
Barnette: Yeah, chill. We’re chill, until something provokes us, and then we all rally together to say what we believe in.
Obe: Chill until not.
Joseph: So are we like “The Volcano Generation”? We can be dormant, but then explode?
Barnette: I don’t think we’re aggressive, necessarily. And I think of a volcano as aggressive, explosive.
Joseph: How about this: “The Merry Little Band of Social-Justice Warriors”?
Obe: That’s way too long! I like the “Chill-Till-Nots.”
Joseph: What about “The Endothermic Reactions”?
Joseph: In an endothermic reaction, you have to apply heat in order for it to work. Something triggers it, and then the reaction happens.
Are there negative stereotypes of your generation?
Obe: People call us the iGeneration. They say we’re glued to our phones.
Obe: No, I’m not.
Pané: I mean, if I’m procrastinating, I am.
Obe: The iGeneration is the group of people who are little kids right now. We didn’t have cell phones or iPads when we were growing up.
Joseph: We frolicked in the wilderness! I didn’t get a cell phone until high school. I would much rather go outside than pick up my phone.
What about social media? Do you think that’s had a negative impact on your generation?
Barnette: No. It’s how we organize. We may not have grown up with it, we may not have had it since we were five, but we’ve been able to use it to start our own movements. We’ve become adept at using our phones and our computers, and technology.
Obe: But we do it in a way that doesn’t consume us.
Joseph: So maybe that’s why people have these misconceptions of us. It’s not that we use it so much; it’s that we’re skilled at using it to our advantage, but not necessarily for our own gain. The teens who organized the March for Our Lives used social media.
Barnette: Yeah! And look how that turned out.
How Do Generations Get Their Names?
By Abdallah Fayyad
There comes a time in every generation’s lifespan when it feels the need to impart wisdom to young people preparing to join the workforce. Adults pick up the tradition of reminiscing about a time when the youth used to do everything right, and fretting about how their own children are flailing and letting years of hard-won progress backslide. The Millennial generation, for example, came of age confronting headlines like these: “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation,” “Do Millennials Really Not Know How to Cook?,” and “Millennials Have No Idea When Taxes Are Due.” Throughout The Atlantic’s history, the magazine went through a cycle of lamenting over generations, with headlines like, “The Class of ’43 Is Puzzled” and “A Letter to the Young (and to Their Parents),” an article bemoaning Generation X but blaming the generation that raised them.
Stories like these shape a common understanding of a generation’s character by taking millions of people—who are diverse in terms of race, class, and even age—and lumping them into a single group. It would certainly be less attention-grabbing if a headline read: “People Born Between 1981 and 2001 Still Live With Their Parents.” The real sizzle comes from the name, which is still being sorted out for the post-Millennials. Different columns have called them “iGen,” “Generation Z,” or “Plurals,” and it’s not yet clear which will win. So how do generations get their names?
“In some cases, the [naming] route has been incredibly circuitous,” said Neil Howe, a historian and consultant who coined the term “Millennial generation.” It’s almost like firing a bullet into a cave and watching it ricochet around.” There’s usually no consensus yet when journalists and researchers begin to study a generation, and so several names are used in different publications. Throughout the 1990s, for example, a few terms were contending to be the universally recognized name for what we now know as the Millennial generation. The chart below shows how common the usage of each term was in books written between 1990 and 2004.
As you can see in that chart, in 2004, it looked like “Generation Y” would win out. “‘Generation Y’ gave ‘Millennials’ a good run for its money, but it didn't win in the end,” said Jean Twenge, the author of iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, which was excerpted in The Atlantic. For Twenge, the moment that ‘Millennials’ stuck was when the Pew Research Center started using it in their studies. For the Baby Boomers, that moment was when the Census Bureau identified the generation in the early 1970s.
But not every generation has that clear moment when its name picks up steam. “I think it's different for each generation given the time period and the influences of the time,” Twenge said. “Generation X,” for example, took a while to settle in. “I often make fun of [Gen X] because Millennials got their name before they did,” Howe said.
Before Generation X was agreed on, other contenders included the “13th Generation,” marking the number of generations since American independence; the “MTV Generation”; and the “Baby Busters,” a nod to the decline in birthrates. The country settled on “Generation X” because, according to Howe, that cohort was not too enthusiastic about labels and “X” kind of referred to an undefined range. “I think it ultimately was a pretty good name for that generation,” Howe said.
A few factors make some names likelier to stick than others. “The name that wins out is almost always original rather than derivative,” Twenge, who coined the term “iGen” for the post-Millennials, said. “That's why ‘Generation Y’ didn't work for Millennials—because it was based on Gen X; it’s why ‘Baby Busters’ didn't stick for Gen X—because it was based on ‘Baby Boomers.’ No one wants to be named after the generation before them.”
Peter Francese, a demographics expert, thinks there are three major influencers who ultimately decide what a generation is called: the media and the journalists who compose it, advertising agencies, and researchers like himself. He calls these three forces the “triangle of nomenclature.” Within the triad, ad agencies can have an advantage. “The reason anyone is interested in Baby Boomers or Generation X or Millennials is because they’re considered to be a coherent set of consumers for goods and services,” Francese said. “These are consumer markets … and it’s useful to talk about a group of consumers with a name.”
Both Twenge and Howe think that, in addition to Francese’s triangle, the generation itself gets a say in what ultimately becomes its moniker. “I think what happens is the person with the nickname has to give consent before someone gets permission to use it,” Howe said. “Other people can come up with ideas, but that generation has to at some point say, ‘That’s okay, we’ll embrace that.’”
But it’s unclear what term will eventually become the go-to name for the up-and-coming generation. Right now, “Plurals”—signaling America’s last majority white generation—seems to be running a somewhat distant third after “iGen” and “Generation Z.”
As the inventor of the term iGen, Twenge has some stake in its success. “I would not put money on Generation Z,” she said. “Even though a lot of people are using that name, ‘Generation Z’ makes no sense if Millennials aren’t called Generation Y.” When I asked her what it would mean for her if iGen wins out, she said, “Well, I have three kids who are iGenners, and if I get to name their generation, maybe they’ll listen to me when I tell them to put on their shoes.”
The Masthead Names a Generation
By Karen Yuan
We asked, and you answered: What do Masthead members think the youngest generation should be named?
Because you are all great critical thinkers, of course, some of you questioned the premise. In a discussion in the Masthead Facebook group, one member, Pamela, said she found such names arbitrary. “Yes, but then how do you market television programs and music?” Brandon panned in reply. “Call them ‘Damned Kids,’ and tell them to get off my lawn!” Randall added.
Others indulged us. The crowd favorite was iGeneration. In fact, digitally themed names were broadly popular: Webbers, the Smartphone Generation, #Generation, and the Selfie Generation, to name a few. The youngest member who wrote in, Fergus, who said he was 21, was one of those who suggested iGen: “My generation is the first to reach adulthood with only vague memories at best of what life was like before the internet.” Our oldest suggester, Georges, who said he was 83, riffed off of YouTube with “MyTube”—“too much egocentricity,” he commented.
Check out some more of the suggestions below, sorted by age in ascending order.
iGeneration: “I'm a Millennial. My brother is six years younger and, by most definitions, is part of the next generation we're trying to name. There's something different about being a 12-year-old with an iPod touch, and going through high school with a smartphone. My brother, despite being a life-long baseball player, and a lover of the outdoors and adventure, often starts his day awake, in bed, with both his laptop and smartphone, and concludes his day in a similar fashion. I'm sure he's having substantial social interactions at the dinner table through his phone (over the IM app of the day), giving neither endeavor his full attention.” —Aidan, 27
Gen Z: “They mark the Z, the end of an era. Gen Z people are the last generation to experience life without the full proliferation of the internet and pocket-sized smart devices. The world is different now, and it's fitting that they mark ‘the end’ of the old way of things.” —Taylor, 29
Gen Alpha: “It’s a new beginning for an engaged generation that will have a lot to deal with, and I think they will [be] up to the challenge.” —Brendan, 36
The Wonderfulls: “I have three children born after 2000. They wonder if they’ll be able to pay off student debt, get jobs, keep jobs, keep their identities, live through trauma or war, have a spouse, save the planet, get a family of their own ... They have so many concerns that look outward. It’s heartbreaking; the problems they seem to face are monumental.” —Natalie, 53
Otters: “Otters, from Oughters, from the Oughts, the years 2000 to 2009.” —Jonathan, 63
“We Call BS” Generation: “I like how the vocal contingent—the one the Parkland teens are one visible element of—face off against the tired old arguments we're all sick of seeing trotted out, and call them like they see them. They are already showing a remarkable ability to reach out to other groups and seek connections, which gives me hope that they may be at the forefront of moving us away from this horrible partisan fog that seems to obscure everything these days.” —Barbara, 64
The Overcomers: “I think this reflects past, present, and future. Accepting that they have inherited difficulties; choosing to let their thinking rise above these; influencing the emergence of a future they want.” —Penny, 71
Today’s Wrap Up
Question of the day: Do you think we should name generations? Why, or why not?
What’s coming: On Monday, we revisit Facebook, asking what Congress could do to regulate the company in the wake of this week’s testimony from its CEO.
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