From the Silent Generation to Generation Z: A Brief Summary of 5 Cohorts

Last week I was speaking with an entrepreneur about her target audience, and realized it wasn’t clear to her that the age range for her company’s product falls into the widely accepted definition of Generation Z.  This wasn’t surprising; throughout my conversations with people in various fields and organizations I’ve noticed confusion around the generational cohorts and how they are defined.

While this entrepreneur was savvy about her product line and vision, she was missing an opportunity to understand her target audience in terms of shared context and experiences which could help make her messaging even more powerful and relevant as she prepares to launch her product.  This applies to so many organizations – both for-profit and nonprofit alike – as they seek to hone their offerings and messaging in a crowded marketplace.

Confusion abounds in part because there are no ‘official’ start and end dates for the majority of cohorts, but rather a collective consensus.  Even the names of the generational groups are based on an unofficial agreement and multiple names are often used for the same cohort.  For example, Gen Y was the original name for Millennials and is often used interchangeably, and Generation Z is sometimes referred to as iGen or Founders, among others, depending on the source.  As news sources, agencies, experts and consultancies all vie to make their mark and put their own stamp on the generations, conflicting information emerges.

Generational groups are not precisely defined – they simply provide a framework to help understand shared behaviors, values, perspectives and experiences.  However, there are some widely agreed upon key points and date ranges.  I thought it would be helpful to write a post summarizing what I have found to be the generally accepted definitions of the various cohorts.  While there are many names and dates floating around online for each group, this post encompasses what I have found to be the most prevalent and most agreed upon thinking by reputable sources on demographics and psychographics such as Pew Research. Unsurprisingly, consensus is fuzziest at the beginning and end of the spectrum both across generations and within generations.  I will focus on five cohorts ranging from those just newly born this year to those currently in their late 80’s.

  • Silent Generation: Typically refers to those born in the seventeen years ranging from 1928 to 1945 making them 71-88 years old now.  This group was born into the Great Depression (1929-1939) and lived through World War 2 (1939-1945) in childhood; they grew into adulthood at the height of the African American Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968) in the United States.  There are several theories as to how the name ‘Silent Generation’ first came about, one being that this was an era when ‘children were seen not heard’.  The name was widely adopted after the publication of an article in Time Magazine in 1951 which painted a rather drab and dull view of the group.  This generation spent over fifty years in the “sweet spot of America’s economy” with strong economic growth during their working years, improved healthcare systems, social security and pension plans.  Many were able to ride the successful post World War 2 economy to financial success, and had already retired or were retiring just as the recession of 2008 began to hit.
  • Baby Boomers:  Sometimes referred to as the first modern ‘counter culture’ this cohort generates the most agreement in terms of start and end dates, and refers to those born in the eighteen years spanning 1946 to 1964 meaning they are now between the ages 52-70.  The name of this generational cohort refers to the large birth explosion (the ‘baby boom’) that occurred in the years following the end of World War 2.  This is the generation that came of age in the hippy era, at the time of the invention of the first oral contraceptive (1960) and during the time of early space exploration.  Baby Boomers had more spending power as teens than previous cohorts, and this fueled product development and marketing campaigns as corporations attempted to cash in on the financial opportunity presented.  As the cohort entered adulthood, more Baby Boomer women joined the workforce than the US had seen in any previous generation, and not just in traditional female roles but across a broad spectrum of occupations.  It’s no coincidence that women’s clothing evolved to a more masculine look during the time this group was entering the working world; shoulder pads, ties and pantsuits for the corporate female executive all made an appearance.  Although often associated with Generation X (below) this was the primary generation in the workforce when the term ‘Yuppie’ (Young Urban Professional) first surfaced in the early 1980’s.
  • Generation X:  This is the generation born during the fifteen years from 1965 to 1980 making Gen X’ers currently between 36 to 51 years old.    The first born of this generation were children during the Vietnam War (1955-1975) and saw the advent of video games, cable television and cultural phenomena such as MTV (founded in 1981).  They experienced the 1980’s emergence of the AIDS epidemic in the US and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as teens and young adults.  This generation came of age with “boom boxes”, Madonna and hair bands.  Many Gen X’ers grew up in households with two working parents or were children of divorce, making this the first generation of ‘latch key kids’.  The original name for this generation was “Baby Bust/ers” because of the decline in birthrate, but let’s face it – that wasn’t exactly a compelling title.  “Generation X” was widely adopted for this cohort in 1991 after Douglas Coupland’s book “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture” in which the “X” signified a desire not to be defined. 
  • Millennials: Initially widely known as Gen Y (since, after all, they followed Generation X….), the much discussed Millennial cohort has many definitions in terms of birth years, with end dates ranging from 1995 to 2000 depending on the source.  Broadly however, the Millennial generation is said to have been born during the sixteen years spanning 1981-1997 making them 19-35 years old today.   Millennials were children and teens during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US.  During the recession of 2008 they were between 11-27 and many were just graduating from college or watching their parents and older siblings struggle financially.  While the exact number of Millennials will vary depending upon the birth year definition used, the estimated size in the US is approximately 75 million, and immigration has been adding to the size of this group more than others.  Millennials, once reputed to be a generation of ‘entitled’ kids who expected to receive a trophy just for showing up, have been growing up, having families and entering the workforce by the millions.
  • Generation Z:  This is the youngest generation at the moment, and while other names for them are being used by a few sources the most prevalent name is Gen Z.  There are varying end dates out there, but because there is not yet any defined cohort following them most sources agree that the youngest are currently between five years old to infants.  This would mean roughly an eighteen-year birth span from today to 1998 making the oldest members of Gen Z 18.  The first born Gen Z-er was only 9 years old when the iPhone was released.  This generation has never known a time without the internet and cell phones, meaning the world has literally always been instantaneously at their fingertips.

What does all this mean for marketers?  Sophisticated marketing professionals ignore these groupings at their peril.  Naturally, the groupings don’t describe everything about these complex collections of individuals, and it is possible to do a much more nuanced analysis.  However, the demographic categories provide a good initial framework for thinking about, marketing to, and attempting to make sense of large groups of individuals with shared historical and contextual vantage points.

 

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