Q&A: ‘Boomers, millennials, Gen-X…’ When is each generation?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're talking about the generation game…

Q: Hi AWC, I’m getting more and more confused about generations. I seem to read about Gen X, Y, Z, Alpha, Millennials, Boomers and don’t actually know who fits where. Can you help?

A: We certainly can. And you’re right – the media loves lumping large swathes of the population into generational pigeon holes.

Q: Ughhh, I know right. Such a Scorpio thing to do.

A: Um, sure. Anyway, the concept of naming these age groups is relatively new – certainly during the 20th century. Some historians point to early-20th century novelist Gertrude Stein as kicking things off, labelling those born at the turn of the century the ‘Lost Generation’. 

Q: How mysterious!

A: It had a specific meaning – in that many of them fought and lost their lives in World War I, hollowing out so many genealogies. 

Q: How poetic!

A: She coined the term in response to Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises. 

Q: So, did the name stick?

A: Yeah, it has endured, broadly referring to those born in the 1880s and 1890s. More importantly, it set a trend for defining an age group based on the social and cultural things they collectively experienced.

Q: Are there any before the Lost Generation?

A: No, that seems to be where most start playing the ‘generation game’. And it would take until the 1990s for the next era to settle on a name, covering those born roughly between 1901 and 1927.

Q: Let me guess, the “ankle showing generation”?

A: Haha, not quite. According to a 1992 book by Howe and Strauss, they coined this period the “G.I. Generation” – with G.I. standing for “Government Issue”.

Q: I’ve not heard of that before.

A: The reason for that is probably due to a 1998 book by US journalist Tom Brokaw, called The Greatest Generation. It was all about people born in this same time period, who grew up in the Depression and fought in World War 2. 

Q: That’s a lot catchier.

A: The universe agreed, and this has been the preferred term ever since.

Q: Wow, 1998 wasn’t that long ago. I assumed these things were named a lot earlier.

A: Well, some were – for example, the term ‘Silent Generation’ was first used in a Time magazine article in 1951 to cover the generation from 1928 to 1945 that had only just completed.

Q: Why were they called silent?

A: The article claimed that the youth of the day seemed to burn with a smaller flame than that of their parents. In later decades, the austerity measures of the post-war world (as this generation became adults) reinforced this “tone it down” label across the world. In America, the rise of McCarthyism also encouraged people to “keep their head down” amid a slew of communist paranoia.

Q: Wait, would a lot of people who did LOUD things in the 1960s have come from this ‘silent’ generation?

A: Well yes, just like horoscopes, it’s a broad net to cast across an entire planet of people born within a timeframe. So you had plenty of civil rights leaders and rock and roll legends born during this time – including Martin Luther King Jr, John Lennon and Bob Dylan.

Q: I never knew Martin Luther King Jr played music!

A: No, he— never mind. Anyway, people born in this time are also sometimes called the ‘Traditionalists’ or even ‘Radio Babies’ – the latter because they grew up with radio as their main medium for information and entertainment. But the ‘Silent Generation’ name endures.

Q: I know the next one – surely the most famous!

A: The ‘Baby Boomers’, sometimes just shortened to ‘Boomers’, earned their name from the very real baby boom that took place following the war. Birth rates spiked during this time, and the generation is generally bracketed as 1945 to 1964.

Q: Ah, so the oldest of these were doing all the loud stuff in the late 60s then!

A: That’s right – they grew up in relative prosperity and brought a number of cultural changes, especially in the late 1960s, with many student uprisings and movements emerging amid political unrest and the ever-looming Cold War. 

Q: When did the name first catch on?

A: The term “baby boomers” appears to have been first used in response to record college admissions in America in 1963. By the 1970s, with the generation now neatly defined and in the rear-view mirror, the term took hold across more areas of the media.

Q: And what about “OK boomer”?

A: Haha, well, that is a phrase used by younger generations to dismiss a baby boomer individual who seems out of touch. The internet eerily pinpoints to the DAY its first appearance – apparently on a Reddit comment on 29 September 2009. But it would really catch fire in 2019 as a meme when a flurry of political attention and a viral TikTok video pushed it into the collective consciousness – the term ranking high in usage lists that year.

Q: Poor boomers.

A: You mean the people that bought all the houses back when they all cost about $3000 and now wonder why young folk don’t work hard enough to own property?

Q: Yeah, good point. No sympathy required!

A: By the way, as a backlash, the term “OK zoomer” emerged in response to the tech-obsessed Gen-Z. (The rise of the video chat platform Zoom in recent times helping this along.)

Q: Next! Generation X?

A: That’s right. Usually just shortened to ‘Gen X’. This covers people born between 1965 and 1980. 

Q: When did the term first appear?

A: It pops up quite early on, most notably as the name of Billy Idol’s band in the late 1970s. But ‘Gen-X’ didn’t really become a thing until the 1990s, following Douglas Coupland 1991 book named Generation X and other popular X-isms during this time like the film Malcolm X, and even The X-Files.

Q: Why X? Do people born during this time have a certain ‘X factor’?

A: Haha not quite. Remember that author Strauss we mentioned earlier? Well, he commented in that same 1992 book that the ‘X’ seems to have been chosen because it had an unknown variable or to a desire not to be defined – much like Gen-Xers themselves. 

Q: How very ‘meta’!

A: Other names for this generation was ‘The MTV Generation’ or, in America, ‘The 13th Generation’ – as the 13th generation following the US Civil War.

Q: That’s random.

A: Yep.

Q: Now this is where it gets messy. Is the next one Gen-Y?

A: Well yes, it is sometimes labelled this, covering those born between roughly 1981 and 1996. But in recent decades, the term “Millennials” has become the dominant title. 

Q: Oh okay, so to be a Millennial, you weren’t born at the Millennium??

A: Nope, it means you grew up during the millennial period – generally considered the first internet generation. 

Q: When did the name come about?

A: Earlier than many of them! With those same generational experts Howe and Strauss coining the term in the late 1980s as the generation that would graduate in the year 2000. Meanwhile, the publication Advertising Age in 1993 responded to the then-recent ‘Gen-X’ naming by suggesting this next group be ‘Generation-Y’. And it stuck around for some time, but since 2012 the term ‘Millennials’ has become dominant.

Q: Next?

A: Oddly, despite Gen-Y getting its marching orders, the idea of an alphabetical order stuck around, as ‘Gen-Z’ emerged from the ashes of Y2K – people born between the mid 1990s and early 2010s. As we mentioned earlier, sometimes they’re called “Zoomers”.

Q: Did they consider other names?

A: They did. Things like ‘iGeneration’ or ‘Post Millennials’. Even the ‘Homeland Generation’ – in reference to them largely growing up in a world after the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Q: They’ll never know the joy of being invited to sit up with the pilot in the cockpit. Or carry a full bottle of water through Customs…

A: That brings us to the current generation – what a baby born since the early 2010s belongs to. 

Q: The Alpha Generation?

A: That’s it so far – in a fairly non-original continuation of the alphabetical order. It certainly would make things easy going forward. Some also point out that as the first generation born in the 21st century, starting from A makes sense.

Q: I wonder if another name will end up replacing it.

A: Perhaps, although as we’ve discovered today, it’s often not until the generation itself has ended – likely in the next few years for this one – that the personality of the era is realised.

Q: Everything is better in hindsight!

A: OK zoomer…

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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