Friday, 18 December 2015


This is a topic that annoys me quite a lot. A large part of the reason for this is that I don't see how anyone who thinks there is the slightest generational similarity between someone who was 20 or nearly so in 2000 (i.e. not me) and those who had not or had barely started school in 2000 (i.e. me). Yet, most people seem to lump the former in with the latter and declare it to be Generation Y or, alternatively and apparently more commonly, Millennials.

Now, why is that name Millennial? Given that the term was developed in 1987 (according to Wikipedia) one must surely assume that 2000 is going to be important. However, to people born around 1995, 2000 is important because that is the year they are starting school. For people born around 1980 that's kind of the year where these people are beginning to enter the adult world and to start participating in and being more aware of politics. If we extend things further, if you're born in 1995 you probably don't have any real memory of, say, 9/11 or the conversations that led to the invasion of Afghanistan... even if you're American, you were simply too young. Can the same be said for that 1980 crowd? Not at all. Indeed, quite a few soldiers who served in the post 9/11 Western conflicts were probably born around 1980.

In some sense, then, if you are born in 1995, 2000 matters because that's when you stop being an infant and start being a child. Your formative experiences, as in the very first formative experiences, are based in, not the 1990s (and certainly not the 1980s) but the early 2000s. Whereas the 1980 crowd? Well, they're fifteen years older. The second lot of formative experiences are hitting them about 2000... their childhoods are not filled with the internet but rather with technologies, tastes and trends of the 1990s (and some of the 1980s). This is, surely, huge.

But, maybe, I should have started with "What is a Generation?" because, good golly, that Wiki article really doesn't do much to describe the rationale for the date ranges.
Social generations are cohorts of people who were born in the same date range and share similar cultural experiences.[8]
Ah, so more Wikipedia Wisdom, this time from Generation : Social Generation. To be honest, maybe it is silly to suggest that the internet has meant that generational turnover will be faster but if you look at this "similar cultural experiences" then you have to, surely you simply must, accept that this is how it works. Whether or not there's a difference in the cultural experience of someone who can remember a time when the internet wasn't ubiquitous in their life (but was clearly there, just maybe not in their home) and someone who can't is a difficult matter. However, it is quite another to say there is no difference between either of those two and someone who remembers when dial-up was the new thing. In a similar fashion, the internet itself has undergone, at least in the West, transformations in how it is used and types of sites. In this sense, there is a stark difference between the cultural experiences of someone born in 1980 and 1995, but maybe less so between 1995 and 2010.

Maybe, though, the whole idea of generations, not just the dates of Millennials, bunk. After all, I have just said that the emergence and ubiquity of the internet for your 1995 and 2010 individuals is probably the same, but you know that Bring Your Own Device wasn't a thing in 2000 but very much is one in 2015. In other words, we would foolishly predict that someone born in 2010 is going to have the same experiences with interacting with the internet. This is particularly true when you factor in smartphones, tablets and even laptops. These types of things tend to be able to do increasingly more and are, as a consequence, progressively more accessible (as what was once high end and expensive becomes cheaper to produce... and can be marketed to the, and this is a euphemism, price conscious). My friends, when we were at primary, mostly had mobiles but this was back when the key thing was making them smaller. These days? Hell, a small phone is a low-end phone. I think this matters a lot when you consider where cultural experiences happen... from church/pub to coffee house to cafe to digital media.

Wait, that doesn't demonstrate the conceptual shoddiness of the generation, just that you have to deal with quite small, maybe decade long, time periods... and maybe that generations maybe made more sense in the past with its less fluid popular technology frontier. Well, in all honesty, that you are not dealing with lengthy periods of time means that generations don't really help you understand much. It may simply be that you have to consider, for instance, the political generation versus the social generation. They won't be entirely distinct but the political generation will simply describe what people of a rough age seem interested in (and that, I would agree, is identity politics for this 1980-2000 crowd, with a little GFC and terrorism/information privacy thrown in), while what I have been talking about above is the more social generation. Makes sense, no? Anyway, there are other definitions of generation.
Strauss and Howe define a social generation as the aggregate of all people born over a span of roughly twenty years or about the length of one phase of life: childhoodyoung adulthoodmidlife, and old age. Generations are identified (from first birthyear to last) by looking for cohort groups of this length that share three criteria. First, members of a generation share what the authors call an age location in history: they encounter key historical events and social trends while occupying the same phase of life. In this view, members of a generation are shaped in lasting ways by the eras they encounter as children and young adults and they share certain common beliefs and behaviours. Aware of the experiences and traits that they share with their peers, members of a generation would also share a sense of common perceived membership in that generation.[16]
Now, I have no sociological experience whatsoever, except I guess these Wiki articles (and fair warning I spend so much time disagreeing I never read them properly), so maybe I don't have any basis to say this but there are more phases of life than that. Here's a question for you, do you know what a teenager is? I bet you do. In fact, I bet you have some quite strong ideas about what teenagers are. However, the simple reality is that, aside from a few biological demands (e.g. puberty, changing sleep patterns) teenagers don't really exist. Rather, we have something of a nasty feedback loop created, in part, by marketers and the entertainment industry... both of whom just looove themselves some nice segments/target audiences. Wait, let me explain. A teenager grows up being aware that there is such a thing as a teenager and, indeed, is conditioned by their environment to think that there are some set traits that teenagers have. For the most part these traits are present to some degree but the interpretation of what they mean? Well, that comes from what the individual picks up as a child and, particularly, as a pre-teen... where maybe it is fair to say the marketer is trying to make a child into a teenager. It is in this specific sense that the teenager doesn't exist. (There is a reason why the teenager is a modern phenomenon... in previous centuries things were understood differently and societies didn't work in the same way, thus different interpretations of these same biological demands,*)

Yet, the point is that you know what a teenager is and I know what a teenager is and we're never going to find someone who agrees that a teenager and an adult are the same thing (except, maybe, some teenagers). But do these two acknowledge a fundamental difference between a teenager and a child? No. New Zealand law does, and laws are notoriously slow on the uptake, so I think one must question their interpretations... in particular the 20 years thing.

Finally, generations are very definitely tied to a place. I mentioned, already, that being alive during 9/11 will mean different things to those who were six year olds in New Zealand and six year olds in the USA. The linked nature of their cultural experiences matters more in the sense that when people in New Zealand talk about generations what they are probably working with are idea tailored specifically to the USA. So, be cautious there, too.

If you are curious, I would suggest that you will have the following frayed generation (i.e. the start and end points are not well defined) from 1980-1991 and from 1991 - 1997 (in the US, more - 2003 in NZ I'd say) and then from 1997 - 2010 and finally 2010 onwards. This is based, primarily, on technological factors and 9/11. You see the first group are pretty much old enough to pick up on what was happening around 9/11 whilst the other groups were either too young or too not born yet. They will also have had their childhoods influenced by technology is broadly similar fashions leading to broadly similar understandings as teenagers and young adults.

That being said, maybe the most meaningful way to tell what generation someone is, is to stick them in front of Toy Story 3 and see how they react.

*Also, they happened later on. This is probably important but this is a blog not an academic text so if you disagree you will really help me out by showing why.


  1. Here's an interesting point that I happened to come across since writing this blog which helps substantiate what I was saying above.

    "We cannot blame these students entirely, as this is their norm. On average, a person checks his or her smartphone 150 times per day. Nielsen Media Research has dubbed those born after 1990 and who have lived their adolescent years after the 2000s Generation C, in large part because of their constant connectivity to all digital things. Students who are now entering our colleges' and universities' doors simply don’t know life without cellphones, iPads and laptops. And cellphones are not all bad. These gadgets help college students easily keep in touch with families who may be far away and give students access to campus resources to help navigate the complexities of their new college life."

  2. I'd wonder if there was a growing critique of the millennial concept but the truth is, I'm remembering my comments on Medium posts. However, from time to time I do aimlessly stumble across things like this from the BBC:

    "So basically, millennials are the same as other generations were at their age. Only a little different. More global, maybe. More diverse. More progressive. Definitely poorer. But a unique group of monsters, the entitled wrath of which the world has ever seen before? I’m not so sure. But I’ll get back to you after I’ve taken a few more selfies."

    "What Everyone Gets Wrong About Millennial Snowflakes"