From Gen X to Millennials, Where Did Generation Names Come From?

3 min read

Sociologists categorize people into many kinds of groups for study — location, race, gender, political affiliation — but age is a great common denominator. A “generation” is a group of individuals who were born during the same time period, and these people have many influences in common, including the cultural and current events of that time. Sociologists can make generalizations about them due to their similarities, resulting in designations such as "Baby Boomers" and "Millennials." This practice is especially common in the United States, where generations are classified by agreed-upon time periods of around 15 to 20 years. From the Silent Generation of the 1920s, to the up-and-coming Gen Alpha, everyone falls into one of these groups.

The Silent Generation

Sometimes called "traditionalists," the Silent Generation was raised during a difficult time in America. This cohort was born between 1925 and 1945, and is currently the oldest living well-represented generation in the United States (the “Greatest Generation” was born from 1901 to 1924), whose economic and political outlook was defined by the Great Depression and World War II. This group was known for generally not speaking out against the government and authority figures, focusing more on work and family life, gaining them their "silent" nickname.

Baby Boomers

"Boomers" are a generation born during the post-World War II "baby boom" in the U.S. from 1946 to 1964. The end of the war marked a time of economic prosperity in the United States, resulting in a spike in birth rates during those 18 years. "Boomers" reached young adulthood during the 1960s and '70s, an era defined by the strife of the Vietnam War, revolutionary changes in cultural attitudes about women, sexuality, and race relations and the attendant transformation of film, music, and pop culture. Due to the size of this generation, their spending habits in the 1980s and '90s had a lasting impact on consumer culture and the economy.

Generation X

"Generation X" is the name for the generation after the Boomers, generally defined as anyone born between 1965 and 1980. This group is smaller than the generation before or after them. The U.S. economy was not as strong during their childhood, resulting in many dually employed parents and more time alone than the children of previous generations. The term "Generation X" was popularized by Douglas Coupland, a Canadian journalist who used the "X" nickname as a way to describe the group's general views against societal pressures, including not worrying as much about money or status.

Millennials

Millennials (also called Generation Y) were born between 1981 and 1996 — the oldest members of this group became adults around 2000. This generation is even more comfortable with technology than the Gen Xers before them and are referred to as "digital natives" for growing up during the rise of home computers, cell phones, and the internet. This group has been shaped by several key events during crucial “coming of age” years, such as 9/11 and the Great Recession.

Generation Z

"Gen Zers" were nicknamed for succeeding Gen Y (a.k.a. Millennials). This generation, born between 1997 and 2012, has demonstrated early political and cultural awareness, thanks to an "always-on" technological environment. Sociologists have noted that this connection to technology has caused shifts in youth lifestyles and behaviors unlike generations before.

Generation Alpha

The youngest generation — "Generation Alpha" — is being born right now. Babies born between 2010 and 2024 will be part of this group. Alpha has a slight overlap with Gen Z, from 2010 to 2012, which will likely be resolved by sociologists in the years to come. Due to the newness of this generation, other nicknames related to current events may arise, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, political divides, or technology, but "Alpha" is currently the most widely accepted. Sociologist Mark McCrindle coined Generation Alpha as a "new, positive beginning." He noted the impact that a generation's name has on how it is perceived, and he wanted an optimistic start for this new group.

Featured photo credit: Dean Mitchell/ iStock

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