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What is a Generation?

Defining a Cohort

Nowadays, terms like ‘Baby Boomers,’ ‘Gen X,’ ‘Millennials,’ and ‘Gen Z’ have become household words. However, there is more to defining generational groups than looking at birth years alone. So what exactly is a generation?

Here are a few of the factors that determine how a generational cohort is formed.

  • Birth date range:  Although the birth date range of a particular group is the first feature that we usually think of, it’s not enough by itself. In fact, we’ve found that by age 30, one segment of Millennials (individuals born between 1977 and 1995) does not exhibit the behaviors that have given their generation a reputation of being self-entitled or lacking in real life skills. Instead, this Millennial segment embraces stability, responsibility, and opportunities to make a positive impact. In fact, this portion of the Millennial generation is the group most offended by other Millennials acting entitled at work!
  • Historical events: Landmark events play a tremendous part in shaping a generation. While the Traditionalists, those born between 1925 and 1945, grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Baby Boomers came of age during the US landing on the moon and the Vietnam War. In addition, Baby Boomers saw three different presidents hold office between 1961 and 1969, and they witnessed the onscreen assassinations of JFK, RFK, and Reverend Martin Luther King. The result: These tumultuous circumstances hold a lasting impact on the behaviors, attitudes and perceptions of Baby Boomers, motivating them to implement changes in all aspects of American culture.
  • Iconic or breakthrough technology: For the Traditionalists, it was wireless radio, aircraft, and motor vehicles. And as the Baby Boomer generation was growing up, television, the audio cassette and the transistor radio emerged. However, the American technological landscape was much different for Generation X, whose members became accustomed to personal computers and VCRs. The Millennial landscape, on the other hand, is marked by laptops, Xbox, iPods and DVDs, as well as texting, email, social media, and the Internet. Lastly, Gen Z distinguishes itself from the preceding generation by its pervasive use of messaging apps, iPhones, tablets, numerous social media channels, and other personalized digital trends.
  • Learning styles and learning environments: While young people growing up during the first half of the 20th century were accustomed to a didactic educational environment that was heavily influenced by military discipline, the end of World War II brought a change. Baby Boomers experienced a structured, quiet classroom atmosphere. As adults, Baby Boomer educators changed the rules by introducing a relaxed, round table discussion style for Generation X. As technological advances have progressed, Millennials have become noted for their multi-modal learning environment where they integrate work, school and play—and sometimes all at the same time! This type of learning style has contributed to the emergence of Gen Z’s multi-stimulus environment, where teens and young adults require the freedom to operate multiple technologies and manage various conversations while learning, working, and playing.

Determining what makes a generation is not only about birth years. The elements we’ve described are just a few of the influences that shape a birth cohort. Marketing approaches, celebrity icons, attitudes towards debt, and other features also come together to define a generation — from the Traditionalists to Gen Z. Haven’t heard about Gen Z until now? Check out our new study on Gen Z and money, earning, and attitude here.

Feeling unsure of which generation you really fit? Check out our online assessment to find out how much of each generation you really are—as well as your unique generational strengths. Then let us know your favorite generational event or moment at @JasonDorsey or @WhatTheGen

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