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(Talkin' 'Bout) the Generations

Toward the end of the first month of stay-at-home directives to control the spread of COVID-19, as the virus spread and many hospitals were overwhelmed, a few people turned their attention to other casualties of the pandemic: the young people whose futures would be marked by this extraordinary event.

"I call it generation C," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told a news conference. "This generation that's out there right now looking and feeling and wondering: Mom, Dad, whoever takes care of them, 'What is this all about?' And we need to step up for them."

Ed Yong, who writes about science for the Atlantic, came to the same conclusion while talking with a pregnant friend. "We realized that her child might be one of the first of a new cohort who are born into a society profoundly altered by COVID-19," Yong wrote. "We decided to call them Generation C."

This urge to brand a generation — even one that hasn't yet come of age — may seem reasonable and natural to us, but it's a relatively new phenomenon. Before the 20th century, generational names were rare or nonexistent. What changed? And what do the names of generations tell us about our perception of history and identity?

The concept of generations — usually defined as the average span of time between the birth of parents and the birth of offspring — is very old. The phrase "from generation to generation" appears often in the Old Testament to express the continuity of tradition; the Greek historian Hesiod wrote about the silver and bronze generations that followed the "golden age" when the gods created mankind. In America, we spoke of the Revolutionary or Civil War generations, connecting those groups to the major events of their lifetimes.

The first invented generational names were the products not just of war but also of literature. "The Generation of '98" was the name given, in a 1913 essay collection, to a group of modernist writers and thinkers influenced by Spain's territorial losses in the Spanish-American War. Spain also had a "Generation of '27": a group of poets born between 1891 and 1905 and, in many cases, persecuted or killed during the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939).

War and literature also influenced the naming of the Lost Generation of the 1920s and the Beat Generation of the 1950s. The American expatriate poet Gertrude Stein is said to have come up with "Lost Generation" to describe the post – World War I cohort of disillusioned, directionless young people; the label was popularized by Ernest Hemingway, who used it in the epigraph of his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises: "You are all a lost generation." "Beat Generation," which first appeared in print in 1952, is usually credited to the writer Jack Kerouac, who applied it to the poets, artists, and musicians he associated with in San Francisco. Early on, it was speculated that "beat" meant "weary," but Kerouac himself insisted it was a religious appellation, short for "beatitude."

"My Generation" (1965): "I hope I die before I get old"

Books have continued to play an important role in generational naming. Here are the ones that dominate our cultural conversation now.

Greatest. In their 1990 book Generations, William Strauss and Neil Howe called the generation born between 1901 and 1927 the "G.I. Generation," because most of the men of that age group had taken part in World War II. (";G.I.," an abbreviation of "government issue" or "general issue," is a generic term for a soldier.) Then, in 1998, TV newsman Tom Brokaw published The Greatest Generation, which told the stories of American men and women who had served in the military or on the home front during the war. The book became a bestseller, and ";greatest" — a superlative that made all other generations seem diminished by comparison — became the moniker of choice.

The Greatest Generation

Baby Boom. This term was used as early as the 1880s to refer to any surge in birth rate. It came to signify the huge post – World War II generation, born between 1946 and 1964, only when those "babies" were entering their 20s. (The OED's earliest citation is a 1971 article in Scientific American, where "baby boom" appeared between quotation marks.) In 1980, when Landon Y. Jones was looking for a title for his book about that generation, he suggested Baby Boom to his publisher. "Oh, no," he recalls the publisher answering. "No one knows what that means. It will confuse booksellers. They will shelve it under Child Care." The book ended up being titled Great Expectations, with "baby boom" tucked into a subtitle. Four decades later, "boomers" — as the cohort aged, "baby" no longer fit — are mostly retired, often comfortably, and are convenient targets for younger generations' wrath. ("OK boomer" is a pithy putdown.) But in 1980, the outlook looked grim: Jones cites the federal budget for that year, which warned that "the baby boom generation may never achieve the relative economic success of the generations immediately preceding it or following it."

Generation X. Published in 1991, the first novel by Canadian author Douglas Coupland (born in 1961) gave an enduring name to a generation previously known as "twenty-somethings" (and, when they were young, "latchkey kids"). Sandwiched between Boomers and Millennials, this comparatively small cohort, born between 1965 and 1981, is often perceived as cynical and disaffected.

Generation X by Douglas Coupland

Millennials. Also known as Generation Y. In Generations, Strauss and Howe coined Millennials to describe the generation born between 1982 and 2004, half of whom hadn't yet been born when the book was published. A sequel, Millennials Rising (2000), called them "the next great generation." The term gained acceptance, although the birth years have shifted: 1981 to 1996 is now considered the range. And although Strauss and Howe predicted that Millennials would be characterized by optimism and a sense of civic duty, circumstances intervened. "Saddled with debt, unable to accumulate wealth, and stuck in low-benefit, dead-end jobs, they never gained the financial security that their parents, grandparents, or even older siblings enjoyed" — a new Lost Generation, writes Annie Lowery in The Atlantic. In her book Generation Me (2006), psychologist Jean Twenge called these children of Boomers "tolerant, confident, open-minded, and ambitious, but also disengaged, narcissistic, distrustful, and anxious."

"The Me Me Me Generation": Time magazine on Millennials, 2013

Generation Z. The first use of "Generation Z" to refer to people born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s may have been a September 2000 article in Advertising Age about changes in the education system that would be needed when this cohort entered school. Other proposed names have included Homeland Generation (because of the impact of the 9/11 attacks on their childhoods), iGen, Digital Natives, and GenTech.

What lies beyond the end of the alphabet? In 2008, an Australian ad agency borrowed hurricane-naming conventions to come up with "Generation Alpha" to describe the first generation born entirely in the 21st century. We'll have to see whether that hopeful-sounding name is replaced by virus-marked "Generation C" or something else still unimagined.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday April 28th, 2:58 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
For more insights into generational names—including names used in Japan, Germany, Hungary, and Quebec—see my blog post.
Wednesday April 29th, 12:01 PM
Comment by: Rita H.
The book that I read and that has influenced my views on this was Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe. It's premise is about the concept of 4 types of generations recycling but it used some terms such as the "progressive" generation.
Wednesday April 29th, 1:08 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
I agree, Rita. In fact, I cite that book four times in the column, beginning in the "Greatest Generation" section.
Friday May 1st, 11:13 AM
Comment by: Rita H.
So, you did, Nancy.

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