We can all agree that Millennials are the worst. But what is a Millennial? A fight between The New York Times and Slate inspired us to try to figure that out.
After the Times ran a column giving employers tips on how to deal with Millennials (for example, they need regular naps) (I didn’t read the article; that’s from my experience), Slate’s Amanda Hess pointed out that the examples the Times used to demonstrate its points weren’t actually Millennials. Some of the people quoted in the article were as old as 37, which was considered elderly only 5,000 short years ago.
The age of employees of The Wire, the humble website you are currently reading, varies widely, meaning that we, too, have in the past wondered where the boundaries for the various generations were drawn. Is a 37-year-old who gets text-message condolences from her friends a Millennial by virtue of her behavior? Or is she some other generation because she was born super long ago? (Sorry, 37-year-old Rebecca Soffer, who is a friend of a friend of mine and whom I met once! You’re not actually that old!) Since The Wire is committed to Broadening Human Understanding™, I decided to find out where generational boundaries are drawn.
I started by calling the Census Bureau. A representative called me back, without much information. “We do not define the different generations,” she told me. “The only generation we do define is Baby Boomers, and that year bracket is from 1946 to 1964.”
Next, I spoke with Tom DiPrete, a sociology professor at Columbia University. And he agreed with the Census Bureau. “I think the boundaries end up getting drawn to some extent by the media,” DiPrete said, “and the extent to which people accept them or not varies by the generation.” DiPrete explained that there was a good sociological reason for identifying the Baby Boom as a discrete generation. It “had specific characteristics,” and occurred within an observable time frame. World War II ended. You had the postwar rise in standard of living and the rise of the nuclear family. Then societal changes disrupted those patterns, and the generation, for academic purposes, was over. His main point: “History isn’t always so punctuated.”
I understood why Generation X, a generation defined by turmoil and uncertainty, would be poorly defined. But what about Millennials? Doesn’t their shared experience of the millennium transition and technology provide similar markers? “I actually haven’t seen efforts to document [generations] rigorously, and I would be somewhat skeptical that they can be documented rigorously,” DiPrete said. The things that have shaped Millennials—the rise of technology and social networks, for example—“affect people’s lives differently.”
“The media in particular wants definitions, identities,” DiPrete said. “I don’t know that the definitions are as strong or as widely shared across all the boundaries … At the end, I think it gets fuzzy.”
Well, yeah. We do want definitions. And if the media draws the boundaries, then allow us to do so definitively.
Your official demarcation of generational boundaries
We identified six different generations and labeled their eras.
Greatest Generation. These are the people who fought and died in World War II for our freedom, which we appreciate. But it’s a little over-the-top as far as names go, isn’t it? Tom Brokaw made the name up and of course everyone loved it. What, you’re going to argue with your grandfather that he isn’t in the greatest generation? The generation ended when the war ended.
Baby Boomers. This is the agreed-upon generation that falls within DiPrete’s punctuated time frame. It began when the Greatest Generation got home and started having sex with everyone; it ended when having sex with everyone was made easier with the pill.
Generation X. George Masnick, of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, puts this generation in the time frame of 1965 to 1984, in part because it’s a neat 20-year period. He also calls it the “baby bust,” mocking “pundits on Madison Avenue and in the media” who call it Generation X. Ha ha, tough luck.
Generation Y. Masnick addresses this group too, putting it “anywhere from the mid-1970s when the oldest were born to the mid-2000s when the youngest were.” But mostly Generation Y is a made-up generation, when it became obvious that young kids didn’t really fit with the cool Generation X aesthetic but not enough of them had been born to make a new generation designation. NOTE: Generation Y is a fake, made-up thing. Do not worry about it.
Millennials. In October 2004, the researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss called Millennials “the next great generation,” which is funny. They define the group as “those born in 1982 and approximately the 20 years thereafter.” In 2012, they affixed the end point as 2004.
TBD. But that means kids born in the past 10 years lack a designation. They are not Millennials. Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center asked people what the group should be called and offered some terrible ideas. In other words, this is the new Generation Y. We’ll figure out what it’s called in the future.
Here, we made a helpful chart.
There you have it. The experts say the media get to determine when generations happen, and we’re the media. We also get to say which generations are the worst, and the Millennials are the worst. But you already knew that.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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