Social scientists have recently been arguing for the removal of generational labels.
Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, led a push back in 2021 to get the Pew Research Center to “do the right thing” and stop using generational labels in its reports. Around 170 social-science researchers signed Cohen’s letter, which argued that such labels are confusing, arbitrary, lack scientific basis and have “become a parody that should end.”
The use of generational labels from a practical standpoint seems to make less sense in the modern era. For one, the average age of parenthood has been steadily rising, meaning that generations have actually been getting longer. But Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z technically span shorter lengths of time (15 years) than Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation (18 and 17 years, respectively).
In addition, such labels are getting progressively less relevant to the generations themselves – only 39% of Gen Z say they identify with their generational label, compared with 74% of Boomers, 53% of Gen X and 45% of Millennials.
In response to complaints from Cohen and greater societal disdain, Pew finally ended its use of generational labels in May of this year. But it’s a drop in the bucket when it comes to changing the broader discourse around generational studies and youth culture.
What happens when we place too much emphasis on generational labels?
One negative result is that youth culture has become over-fetishized.
There is immense pressure on young people today to achieve great things before their “precious youth” slips away. From the growing number of criminal records amongst former Forbes 30 under 30 members, to the burnout of young creators, our emphasis on achievement for young people is becoming toxic.
The reverence of youth has always been central to the beauty industry, but is becoming even more aggressive with the dawn of social media filters – in particular the latest de-aging effects on TikTok.
Gen Z attitudes towards aging is plainly apparent in meme culture, with memes about getting old — being the oldest one in the friend group or drinking in your late twenties — a dime a dozen, reflecting a self-deprecating and deeply anxious psyche of today’s youth. And it makes sense – seeing how older generations are discarded and deemed irrelevant in culture engenders a sense of dread for the inevitable day the same will happen to them.
Millennials, the youngest of whom are just hitting thirty, have been discarded by the cultural zeitgeist in favor of a capitalist-driven obsession with “what’s next” before they have even fully reached maturity. Many haven’t even had the chance yet to achieve traditional “adult” milestones like home ownership and parenthood because they have entered adulthood during a time of constant crisis. For many, they’re still in a period of self-discovery and change much like their younger Gen Z counterparts.
What can be done?
More nuanced approaches to generational studies and youth culture, for one, can help.
No generational cohort or demographic group is a monolith. Acknowledging tensions is key. Yes, Gen Z may have grown up with the internet and are the primary user base for TikTok. But not all of them want to be online constantly, let alone own a smartphone.
It’s also critical to foster more cross generational discourse and inclusion. It’s cheesy, but instead of focusing on what makes generations different from one another, there’s value in finding commonality, particularly as labels can foster cross-generational conflict (i.e. “OK Boomer” “cheugy millennial”).
This will also require us to shift some much needed attention away from our intense cultural obsession with youth, giving Gen Z breathing room while other generations get some time in the spotlight (I’m big on grandfluencers).
What’s more, so many traits and characteristics of generational analysis can be attributed to simply just “being young.” Self-exploration, identity fluidity, progressive values, resistance to authority, challenging the status quo – all can be attributed to any generation when they were in young adulthood.
For brands, there is value in considering whether something is a unique generational and cultural marker, or something that is ubiquitous to youth culture no matter the decade.
Molly Barth is a cultural strategist at Sparks & Honey.