So, How Did Gen Z Get Their Name?
One of the first questions everyone asks is, “So what are we calling them?” There have been a lot of names thrown out there including 9/11 Generation, Digital Natives, Selfies, Centennials, or iGeneration but we prefer Gen Z. To understand how they got the Generation Z name, lets first look at all the generations birth years and names.
Wait! The Name Game Starts With Who?
Many would think that naming a generation started with the oldest living generation and worked its way down. In actuality, the name game began with the Baby Boomers.
It all started when the Census Bureau referred to the years between 1946 and 1964 as the Baby Boom, when birthrates went up from approximately 3 million a year to over 4 million a year. As the members of this generation became adults and thus consumers, marketers found great success in marketing their products and services to the so-called Baby Boomers.
When it came to the name, Boomers never seemed to balk at it and indeed wore it with a badge of honor. Even today, as Pew Research reports, 79 percent of Boomers identify with the name and you really don’t hear much complaining about it or, for that matter, any alternatives.
And thus, the concept of naming a generation was proven to be worth it or just downright profitable. The Baby Boomers would be the first and last time (to date) a generation’s “official” name would come from a government organization.
Profitability in a Name
Generations that came before the Boomers were immediately named retroactively. After all, they were still active consumers, and since grouping the Boomers together was profitable, it would surely be so for the other generations.
For a while, the generation right before the Boomers was labeled the “Silent Generation,” based on the notion that when it came to communication, they were often silent. The name’s first recorded appearance was in an essay in TIME in November 1951. Boomers accused them of not expressing deep feelings, speaking up at work, or sharing personal information. The problem was that “silent” suggested invisible, and for the generation that beat back the Great Depression, won two world wars, and put a man on the moon, the name really didn’t seem to fit.
In the 1990s, generational experts started to go with the term “Traditionalists”. The feeling was that they upheld so many traditional values to be proud of that the name seemed more fitting. Whenever we asked Traditionalists about the name, they typically shrugged their shoulders or ironically were just silent.
In 1998, Baby Boomer and famous TV journalist Tom Brokaw penned the book “The Greatest Generation”, which was about the generation that came before the Traditionalists. Something to note is that the distinction between the Greatest Generation and Traditionalists isn’t often made because the two generations are so similar. The two names definitely resonated with everyone and there has never really been another strong contender.
Gen X, Backlash and Math
Naming a generation based on a literary work wasn’t a new thing. It had happened before Brokaw came out with The Greatest Generation. In fact, it was the name of a book that gave birth to the name of the generation that followed the Boomers – Generation X.
The first book using the name “Generation X” was published in 1965. It was a collection of interviews with British teens, by Jane Deverson and Charles Hamblett. It went out of print by the end of the 1960s, but it was the inspiration for the name of Billy Idol’s punk rock band – Generation X.
Today, the term Generation X is more associated with Douglas Coupland’s book “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture” published in 1991. The book described the post-Boomer generation based on the anonymity the author and his contemporaries felt growing up in the shadow of the Baby Boomers. Why “X”? In math X is a variable and for a generation feeling lost, the symbolism seemed appropriate.
The problem was that it set a very dim and grim picture of the generation. Rather than be worn as a badge of honor, it was more of a negative label and for many an insult. While there was definitely some backlash, as much as Xers didn’t like the negative connotation, they were still a generation that was built on a more anti-establishment sentiment and agreed with the culture Coupland was describing.
While not as high of a percentage as Boomers, Pew Research reports that today 58 percent of Gen X still identify with the name. There have never been any alternatives or even a close second to naming Generation X.
When it came time to name the next generation after the Xers, there was a lot of buzz! First of all, these were the children of the Boomers. They were not going to let a negative name ensue, as had happened with Gen X. Second, there were a lot of them, so marketers were especially anxious as they geared up for this next great cash cow.
Why Millennials Aren’t Called “Generation Y”?
The first name to appear on the scene was Generation Y. However, whether it was a lack of marketing cachet or solid description, it didn’t seem to stick. Once again, it took a book to put a new name out there.
Authors and historians Neil Howe and William Strauss coined the term Millennials in their 2000 book, “Millennials Rising”. It’s not that Gen Y totally died, though. In fact, generational experts often have to explain that Gen Y and Millennials are the same generation.
While the name Millennials has stuck for years with marketers and employers, it has struggled lately with the generation itself. Pew reports that only 40 percent of Millennials identified with the name. In recent years, the Millennials have often been accused by the media of being self-absorbed or entitled. Maybe it’s no surprise that they want to distance themselves from the name. Realistically, however, it is too late for a new name to emerge. Just ask the Xers.
So, what have we learned?
We can agree that marketers and employers have benefited by targeting generational cohorts and that each one needs a name. However, the conversation has gone south or caused friction when the name tries to describe a given generation. The Silent Generation didn’t like the suggestion of being labeled as invisible. Xers have never gravitated to the idea of being a lost variable, and Millennials who wanted a more descriptive name now seem to want a different one.
So here we are again, and a new generation born between 1995-2012 is showing up and it obviously needs a name. We’re going with Generation Z and here’s why.
Gen Z: It Should Be a Name – Not a Label
In our national survey, none of the other names that have been proposed resonated at all. Why? No one in Gen Z wants to be labeled. The reason that 77 percent of Gen Z respondents said they didn’t care or like the name Gen Z is that they didn’t feel labeled. Instead, it was just a name that symbolizes where they lie on the generational timeline.
It’s simple. There was X, then Y, and now Z. The deeper argument for the name Gen Z is that if any generation won’t land on a label, it’s this generation. Gen Z is embracing individuality more than ever. Each member of Gen Z is looking to create their own individual brand and stand out. They are the most diverse generation in history, already balking at being labeled by race, gender, religion, and so on—why would a generation label be any different?
We need to call them something. Going without a name didn’t work for the musician Prince, and it won’t work for this next generation. There are now five living generations. With too many names floating out there, we run the risk of polluting and even worse confusing the generational dialogue. “Gen Z” actually makes it easy. Funny thing is, whenever you read the other suggested names, they all seem to be followed by (Gen Z).
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