The preemptive labeling and defining of the post-millennial generation as “Generation Z” or “Gen Z” is already underway, but who came up with the label and who is churning out those “insights”?
You might wonder what happened to “the millennials,” also known as adults under 40. As those in the millennial birth cohort (people born during 1981–1996, according to PEW Center Research) reach a distinctly adult age, corporate media is finding it increasingly difficult to conflate the millennial generational identity with that of “young people.” Then again, the information business industry was never serious about understanding millennials as human beings, but as the next crop of consumers.
Now, the culture engineers who use generational analysis as a tool to divide and instill a sense of perpetual adolescence in our society have set their eyes on the next wave of consumers — Generation Z.
What we are witnessing today are the early stages of a corporate-driven process to manufacture consent about our children, grandchildren, nephews, and nieces in order to sell shit to them they don’t need; the “Generation Z” label is simply a vessel for the corporate state to shape our thinking about today’s youth, and eventually use it as a dog whistle to polarize segments of the population, just like the millennial label’s coining and proliferation in mainstream media.
Predictably, “Generation Z” is quickly taking the place of millennials in being perceived as an undifferentiated mass of people whose lives, experiences, and identity can be summed up and pitted against those slightly older than them:
“8 Key Differences between Gen Z and Millennials,” says Huff Post. “Move Over, Millennials, Here Comes Generation Z,” proclaims the New York Times. “8 Ways Generation Z Will Differ From Millennials In The Workplace,” prophesizes Forbes. “Gen Z Is Set to Outnumber Millennials Within a Year,” tracks Bloomberg.
Obviously, these articles are not written by actual members of Generation Z— and if they are — it looks like kids these days are really into describing their lives through “listicles” of eight.
Like most top-down narratives, the sources listed in such articles tell us a lot about their credibility. Huff Post cites a report from “youthlogix.com” (a domain that is currently for sale). Forbes cites data from “business2community.com” and “smallbiztrends.com.” Bloomberg’s article cites three different sets of data — UN data about Gen Z’s global population, E&Y data of Gen Z in the U.S., and a Nielson Holdings report about Canadian Gen Z-ers to draw its conclusions. Predictably, those sources use vastly different categorizations and definitions of generations.
This is not to say these articles don’t reveal aspects about the next generation that are true — it’s that they present generational narratives that are largely uncritical of, and subservient to, the status quo. Gen Z-ers are generally presented as less focused, better multi-taskers, more “entrepreneurial” and “global” than millennials. But it’s not the content of these articles that is most telling — since anything about tens of millions of people can be true about a segment of those people— it is the fact that such reductive analysis about millions of people can even pass as journalism.
In most simple terms, there are two variations of generational theory today — the salesman’s version, propagated through the books of Neil Howe and William Strauss who coined the millennial label — and the scientific version, which considers data from all socioeconomic groups and is not used exclusively for the benefit of marketers, consultants, and booksellers. The former version has a much more lucrative sales pitch and marketing presence, as generational consultants compete to assure corporations and colleges they have the inside scoop about the next generation. Such reductive analysis fits well with today’s profit-based news model where opinions are easily projected as facts.
What “We the People” are left with is a concept of generations that is confusing, demoralizing, disempowering, and useless to the actual members of those generations — but profitable for the producers of content about our generational identity. Through fabricating differences between us and selling “exclusive” insights about generations, the Generation Industry has drastically altered how the public perceives generational knowledge. The results assert themselves, as many of us reject or are confused by the marketing drivel that frames public discourse on generations.
According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, only 40% of those in the millennial age cohort in the U.S. consider themselves “millennials.” This outcome is precisely the point of reductive, antagonizing content about generations — to make us disassociate ourselves from our generational identities and thus the potential of truly utilizing and sharing generational knowledge outside of for-profit narratives.
To go beyond contrived generational narratives we have to understand the role generational knowledge can play outside of mainstream media. Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan American “fact tank,” analyzes generations by tracking people born over 15–20 years (such as the millennial generation) on a range of issues, behaviors, and characteristics. This allows researchers to analyze changes in views over time and understand how different formative experiences interact with the aging process that shapes people’s view of the world.
Pew considers three separate effects that can produce differences in attitudes between age groups: life cycle effects (sometimes called age effects), period effects, and cohort effects.
An example of a life cycle effect is that young people are far less likely than older adults to vote and engage in politics. Data shows that as people age, they vote at higher rates and their level of political engagement rises. Thus, even though millennials are less engaged in politics today than are older generations, the same was true of baby boomers in their youth.
Although age is one of the most common predictors of differences in attitudes and behaviors, it is important to remember that over-reliance on it could quickly turn into ageism, or “stereotyping of and discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age.” Many articles written on generations today can be described as ageism with extra steps, since the only indicator they provide for their analysis is an age range. To go beyond ageist or clickbait rhetoric, one has to examine generational identity through historical context. In addition to life cycle effects, Pew analyzes period effects and cohort effects in outlining differences between age groups.
Period effects are seen when “events and circumstances (for instance, wars, social movements, economic booms or busts, scientific or technological breakthroughs) as well as broader social forces (such as the growing visibility of gays and lesbians in society) simultaneously impact everyone, regardless of age.” For example, the events of the early to mid-1970s (the end of the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair) on views of government can be classified as a period affect. During that time, there was a sharp drop in public trust in government across all U.S. generations.
Another important factor that produces differences in attitudes among age groups is the cohort effect, or when differences between generations are the “byproduct of unique historical circumstances that members of an age cohort experience.” For millennials, those historical circumstances include the 2008 Great Recession, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Barack Obama’s presidency.
It is easy to see why this context is often missing from content about millennials. How can one characterize an entire generation as entitled when that generation has taken at least 300% more debt than their parents? How can politicians blame millennials and other generations for their losses, when trust in government is at mere 13 percent across all generations? How can “avocado toast” be the meme that defines millennials, when according to the U.S. census 1 in 5 of us lives in poverty?
If we let magazines and media conglomerates dictate what data about our lives gets highlighted, we will always get a censored, capitalist-friendly stories of who we are. Therefore, before asking ourselves what is true about millennials and Gen Z, we have to also be aware of who projects generational narratives, why, and with what data.
While commentators are quick to point out that most content on generations is essentially marketing and financial PR, they rarely (if ever) bring up the mechanism which generates propaganda about generations. Therefore, critiques of dumbed-down content on generations end up perpetuating the same half-truths, rather than examining what generational analysis is actually supposed to be about.
This bring us to the main question — “Generation Z according to whom?” Is it according to Huff Post, Bloomberg, and Forbes? Is it according to those who have to produce the next provocative think piece? Would media executives care to talk about how Generation Z deals with poverty or how the generation perceives climate change, or will they litter our information channels with half-baked “historical prophesies” and psychological manipulation? Will we listen to the voices of young people who are speaking up about gun violence and environmental justice, or will those voices drown in a sea of content about Generation Z’s spending habits and differences in the workplace?
How we perceive and share generational knowledge will determine the extent to which market-tested labels are able to influence the public discourse. This is why it is vital to provide members of the next generation with opportunities to speak and express themselves outside of for-profit narratives.