Image: Jenn Derfey/Flickr
The oldest "Millennials" (myself included) aren't kids anymore. They're now in their early 30s—starting to raise their own kids. America has a new youngest generation, and it doesn't have a name yet.
This week, the Pew Research Center's Paul Taylor resurfaced the question of what to call the cohort of people being born right now, after appearing on The Daily Show to promote his new book, The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the Looming Generational Showdown."
During the interview, Jon Stewart asked what the next generation will be called, to which Taylor responded, "Usually it's magazine cover writers who figure that out."
In other words, there isn't a consensus yet. Have we definitely settled on Gen Z? Or will the still-forming group of young Americans get a more descriptive nickname like Baby Boomers or the Greatest Generation? Is it too soon to tell?
The next day, the Pew Research Center put out a blog post asking people what they thought, and rounded up some of the suggestions that have been floating around the public consciousness.
As you might expect, a lot of the ideas riff on today's tweens' inherent tech savvy, as the first generation to grow up completely immersed in the digital age: Digital Natives, Generation Like, Screeners, Cyborgs, the Selfie Generation, @generation, the Swipe Generation, or my personal favorite, iGen.
Others have suggested Rainbow Generation, Multi-Gen, or Plurals, because they're the most diverse group yet, or Homelanders, for being born after September 11.
While there's no definitive date range, the general thinking is that Millennials are people born between the early 80s and, obviously, the turn of the millennium. That means anyone currently under 14 years old, give or take, isn't a member of Gen Y.
If you look back through history, generations tend to span about two decades, and center around major social or political events. We started labeling them in the early 20th Century: The GI Generation or Greatest Generation (born 1901-1924), the Silent Generation (born 1925-1942), the Baby Boomers (1943-1960s), Gen X (early 60s to early 80s), and Gen Y or Millennials (early '80s to 2000.)
The thinking is that if you expand the range any longer than 20 or so years, the oldest members of the sociological group won't have much in common with the youngest, given the pace at which social culture tends to change.
And who does the labeling? Marketers, mainly, who find that slapping a generalized identity on America's youth makes it easier to sell to them. Beyond that, it's somewhat organic. As Taylor was getting at, labels may start out as casual nicknames, maybe first thrown out there by advertisers or the media, then the popular ones become cultural memes and eventually one of them sticks.
In my generation's case, two of them did: Gen Y, the natural progression after Gen X, first coined by the magazine Ad Age, and Millennials, credited to author and demographer Neil Howe. Our identity coincided with the rise of overprotective parenting and an adolescence marked by the Web 2.0 era of user-generated content, YouTube, Facebook statuses, and online profiles. We become the "me" generation.
Young people today are similarly stereotyped as entitled, self-involved, and hyper-connected. But they're also being born into a world more torn by conflict than we were—two wars after 9/11, a global disdain for American politics, the Great Recession, the Arab Spring, and ongoing civil unrest.
To that end, Scott Hess, vice president of insight at Teenage Research Unlimited, likes the term Post-Gen—suggesting Gen Z will be defined more by what came before it than what comes after: post-millennial, post-recession, post-9/11. Also Facebook posts.
Maybe because of that, or maybe because of one too many dystopian sci-fi films about the coming apocalypse, there's a widespread cultural perception that the next generation is doomed. Following the Pew article, a local Fox News channel posed the question of what to call the next generation on Facebook and Twitter (fittingly) and the lion's share of the suggestions that rolled in assumed Gen Z kids were either screwed, or the worst.
On the doomed front, commenters suggested names like the Lost Generation, the Truly F***** Generation, the Government Dependents, Doom Spawn, Doomed, and Screwed.
One Twitter respondent, Anne Boysen, a self-proclaimed futurist who runs a site called After the Millennials, suggested Generation Transparent, because today's kids are growing up without the expectation of privacy.
The hater camp was even worse, throwing out ideas like Entitled A-holes, Entitlement Brats, Slackers, The Lazy Bunch, Idiots, Idiocratians, Spoiled, D-bags, and Neverenoughs.
Why all the negativity? My theory is every generation is leery of the one that follows it, maybe because it's human nature to resist change, and to fear and judge the unknown. Especially when these young bucks are probably going to steal your jobs because you're too tired to keep up with the latest digital gizmo and actually grew up writing in cursive.
So what will it be? Maybe we'll settle for Gen-Z—that's what the media (and Wikipedia) have most often been going with so far. But I'm hoping for something more creative.
It might be that it's too soon to tell. If we're operating under the 20 years per generation rule, that means we're only about halfway through now, and it may take some retrospect to really put your finger on the defining characteristic of today's youth.
"It's too soon to know what will really shape them," said Amanda Lenhart, Pew's director of teens and technology research. “Their critical formative moment or moments may not yet have happened."
Ye children of the future, you may have to remain unnamed a bit longer.