Good riddance to the lost generations

Illustration:  Vicky Leta / Shutterstock
Illustration: Vicky Leta / Shutterstock

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Generation Z is dead.

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Or, more accurately, the idea that there is a Generation Z—or a Generation X, or a millennial, or a baby boomer—is beginning to die. This will no doubt come as profound relief to the many thinkers who, over the years, have pointed out the folly of shoehorning people across the world into a few broad age bands and insisting they’re alike in many, many ways. (The millennial wants to be coddled; the boomer just doesn’t get technology.) Others may be surprised. Surely, there simply are generations—cohorts of people of the same biological age. Why would it be a problem to acknowledge that?

This week, the Pew Research Center laid out some of the problems with these labels, in announcing it would no longer report on generations the way it has before.

“The field has been flooded with content that’s often sold as research but is more like clickbait or marketing mythology,” Pew wrote, noting some of the more unhelpful ways in which generations are often defined and compared. Gen Z, for instance, refers to those born since the widespread adoption of social media and smartphones—but these technologies arrived at different times and speeds in different parts of the world. And while they may differ from their elders in their approaches to life, that may simply be a characteristic of being younger, rather than of being born in the late 1990s or early 2000s.

The sociologist Philip N. Cohen has insisted for a while that these identifiers are meaningless. In academia, he said in 2021, “we don’t study and teach these categories because they simply aren’t real.”

Pew isn’t the only institution dispensing with generational labels. But the change may take longer to filter through to the commercial world. Critics have pointed out that most generational labels are used not really to help people understand themselves or the world around them, but to sell them weighted blankets, flavored water, or electric cars.

Millennials are the most written-about generation to date, according to Ogilvy executive Adam Tucker. How quickly will that generation—if indeed it is one—be able to let go of a way of seeing itself that has been endlessly reinforced by everything from trite articles about work to advertisements for jackets, and that was invented before most of its members were born? And will Generation Beta—kids born after 2025—have the chance to grow up without such a prescriptive mirror?


Which was the first generation to be given its own moniker?

Since we experience history as linear, we tend to parcel up the time before our own into eras with their own characteristics, with cohorts traditionally described retrospectively. After all, the “interwar” generation couldn’t have known they were interwar until the second of two world wars had begun, or perhaps even until they’d survived it.

The baby boomers may have been the first generation to have been given their name while not yet in their 20s. The first use of the phrase reportedly came in a Daily Press article in 1963, to describe a surge in college enrollments similar to the one driven by ex-GIs after World War II. Even then, there were generalizations. The new applicants “will be less determined,” the writer believed, “and they will lack the clearly defined goals of the more mature GI students.” Not surprisingly, advertisers popularized the term, kicking off the conceptualization of discrete generations, which has become part of the fabric not only of how we’re sold to, but of how we see ourselves today.


What could be more useful to an advertising executive than knowing the preoccupations and characteristics of a big group of people? Not just their ages or where they live, but what makes them tick? Or better yet: convincing that group that they share such characteristics, like a certain taste in products.

Generational labeling enabled this, often using surveys of relatively few people to make conclusions about the many. Millennials, you’re more interested in experiences than things. Gen Z, you’re prone to anxiety. And don’t you forget it.

But in the ad industry itself, people are increasingly pointing out that these tools are extraordinarily blunt. In 2019, Kian Bakhtiari, a former advertising executive, pointed out in Forbes that “millennials and Gen-Z make up 64% of the world’s entire population. That’s a jaw-dropping 4.7 billion people. How can they all possibly think or act in the same way?” Donald Trump and Barack Obama are both baby boomers, Cristiano Ronaldo and Mark Zuckerberg are both millennials, and Malala Yousafzai and Kylie Jenner are both a part of Gen-Z, Bakhtiari pointed out. In each of these pairs, one is not like the other.

People being marketed to aren’t blind to the tools being used on them. In 2017, Pepsi ran an ad showing the reality TV star Kendall Jenner taking part in a generic, multi-ethnic “protest.” If the ad was meant to co-opt a generation’s imagined spirit of justice and defiance, it was a particularly clumsy way of doing so. After a storm of criticism, the ad was quietly withdrawn.

🎧 Podcast interlude

This week marked the last of the Quartz Obsession podcast, season 5, and we leave our listeners with some good news… and some not so good news.

🏦Public tech bank: The rash of bank collapses of late is an excellent time to reconsider how we fund the tech industry. Quartz economics reporter Nate DiCamillo proposes a national public tech bank that could not only add stability, but focus on projects that will actually improve the lives of generations to come.

🤖Algorithmic hiring: Using AI to hire saves time and money, but when it just learns the biases of its human overlords, subjectivity becomes mechanized. Quartz at Work deputy editor Gabriela Riccardi is here to inform you though that, most likely, your next job-seeking process will involve artificial intelligence.

✅ Listen wherever you get your podcasts: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google | Stitcher | YouTube 


In 2017, writing about the rise of Steve Bannon in the Donald Trump regime, Quartz’s Tim Fernholz pointed out that millennials were the first generation to be named before many of them even existed. William Strauss and Neil Howe, pop historians who wrote a series of books on their own theory of generations and cyclical history, coined the term ‘millennial’ in 1987.

“According to their theory of generational repetition, millennials will be a ‘heroic’ generation, the modern analogues of the Greatest or GI Generation that came of age during World War II,” Fernholz wrote. “Approximately 80 years later, millennials are destined to face a similar political and economic crisis, inherited from the poor management of their progenitors. No doubt the writers also enjoyed the parallels between their new generation, which looks forward to an epoch defining crisis, and the original Christian millenarianist movements, which looked forward to the end of the world.”

Fernholz cogently argued that this helped American right-wing provocateur Steve Bannon get buy-in for his apocalyptic message to the world.

Thanks for reading! And don’t hesitate to reach out with comments, questions, or topics you want to know more about.

Have a timeless weekend,

—Cassie Werber, senior reporter

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