A generation's moniker can shape its destiny

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 6, 2014 - 12:08 PM

We haven't always named generations, but once we started (with baby boomers, naturally) we can't stop. So, what's next?

Once, a generation was called “us.” Or “them.” Maybe “the grownups.” Or “kids these days” — if, indeed, anyone ever gave a passing thought to lumping together people with nothing more in common than an age span.

Then in January of 1970, a story in the Washington Post used the term “baby boomer” to describe Americans born between 1946 and 1964, a period that long had been called the “baby boom” spawned by the postwar prosperity.

The moniker caught fire, and cultural shorthand would never be the same.

Consider the images that come to mind for the term “millennial” (twentysomethings struggling to land jobs in their degree fields) or “Generation X” (parents living in their SUVs while trundling between their kids’ activities) or “Greatest Generation” (anyone in a retirement home).

The brushstrokes may be broad, but such terms both define and target each generation. Little wonder, then, that naming rights for the upcoming group already are being claimed.

The buzz is driven in part by a new book by Paul Taylor with the Pew Research Center, that insatiable collector of public opinion. In “The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown,” Taylor argues that shifts in demographics, economics, culture and technology are reshaping how generations regard each other.

In a recent appearance on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” Taylor was asked what he’d call the upcoming generation. He said he didn’t yet know.

Responded Stewart: “You just opened up a contest, my friend.”

Everyone under one umbrella

People have been anticipating this conversation for some time, said Mary Meehan, a Minneapolis trend-seer who co-founded Panoramix Global, which does consumer research.

Naming a generation helps define it, she said, which makes it easier for marketers to pitch to its members.

“This is not to pigeonhole people, but to help define who we are as a nation,” Meehan said. “Then marketing and consumer research will begin to delve deep into who a specific audience is and what motivates them.”

She added: “It’s a shorthand.”

Baby boomers got named partly because there were just so many of them, but also because they were born as television was becoming popular.

“There were all these kids and you saw television programs like ‘Howdy Doody’ directed at children, who were this new market,” Meehan said. Parents, whom Tom Brokaw would later dub the “Greatest Generation” (Meehan calls them “the matures”), were trying to provide all they could for their children, she added, making the “boom” resound even more loudly.

Given that boomers cast themselves as movers and shakers unlike any who had moved or shaken before, members of Generation X — born between 1964 and 1980 — struggled to forge a clear identity.

Nor was anyone really trying to name them, either, Meehan said, adding that X actually is a symbol for the unknown.

Then in 1991, Douglas Coupland wrote a book called, “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, ” and the term Gen X caught on.

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