Baby boomers, Generation X, Millennials, Gen Z and now Generation C or Pandemials. We tend to refer to generation labels as a perfectly logical explanation for differences in worldviews, emotional reactions and even fashion. But what really determines a generation leap? Are we witnessing the birth of a new generation marked by the effects of Covid-19?
What are social generations?
To understand the phenomenon, we must trace it back to Karl Manheim, a German sociologist who defined a social generation (or cohort) as a group of people of a similar age who have experienced significant historical events during their youth. Manheim explained that, because they were exposed to such events at a young age, this group of people will have a distinct perspective on life when they become adults.
Manheim wrote The Theory of Generations in 1928, but its application is still influencing the way we understand social cohorts to this day. When we think of a difference in opinion as being caused by a “generation gap” we are, indirectly, referring to Manheim’s work. And the fact that we consider it natural for a 60-year old person to have a different worldview than, say, a 30-year old person, speaks to how engrained this theory is in our minds
This ubiquitous theory has been mainly used to help understand trends in purchasing, political participation and preferences in the workplace. Particularly interesting are the studies aimed at understanding the core ideas and beliefs of a generation, which ultimately shape the world in which the following generation will live.
How does generation labelling work?
The terms we use to describe generations nowadays originated from different phenomena. The labels usually start to be used by advertising companies, journalists or writers; they eventually gain popularity and then stick through repeated use. Ultimately, they are a shortcut to refer to a great number of qualities, and they are incapable of describing that generation for what they truly are.
But what are the labels based on? It depends. Birth-rates “booming” after the end of World War II were the reason that cohort was nicknamed “baby-boomers”, while the term “Generation X” became widely adopted after novelist Douglas Coupland published a book with that name. He said he used the letter X because he wanted to capture the generation’s desire not to be defined, referring to the mathematical use of X as an unknown variable.
It is believed that Generation Y and Z followed the Gen X labelling trend; however, those were the names that were used before the distinctive traits of those generations started to show. Once Gen Y became of age, at the turn of the millennium, the nickname quickly became “Millennials”. As for generation Z, this label is currently a placeholder while we come to see what will set them apart, but there are discussions of perhaps iGeneration being the nickname of choice.
How do you know which generation you are?
Although there isn’t universal consent on the exact names and years that determine each generation leap and current classifications are mainly based on United States population, the following table is a good summary to understand how history can shape a generation, and how this, in turn, changes history.
|Baby Boomers||1946-1964||Post- World War II|
|Generation X||1965-1980||Fall of Berlin Wall + Cold War|
|Generation Y or Millennials||1981-1997||Internet + 9/11|
|Generation Z or iGeneration||1998-2010||Global terrorism + social media|
In 2017, a digital media company called BuzzFeed, launched a very illustrative video describing the formative events, worldviews, fashion and purchasing preferences that made each generation unique. Little did they know that a virus would soon force us to start a new conversation about the future generation.
Will Covid-19 mark the start of a new generation?
The answer to this question is yet to be clear. However, what we can say for sure is that 2020 has seen one of the most globally-impactful events in recent history. Covid-19 has already had immense effects on the way we socialize, buy groceries and attend classes; it is bound to leave even greater marks on our lives.
Based on what feels like a “generation-defining event” US wellness app Lover has already conducted a poll to determine the best name for the group of babies being born during the pandemic crisis. The result: from a total of 1,000 USA citizens, 20% agreed that “Generation C” should be the next generation’s label, just above “Generation Q” (for quarantine). Other options were: Quaranteenies and Pandemials.
Whether today’s babies will grow up to be nicknamed GenC, we don’t know. Ultimately, it is important to bear in mind that generation labels cannot fully explain what makes us different from each other. But they hold value in that they help us understand the place we occupy in a changing world. As with any label, they show our perception of others, so we must be careful of how we use them.