A generation in the United States is a group of people born during a defined period of time who share similar cultural traits, values, and preferences. Millennials, Xers, and Baby Boomers are the three largest generations in the United States today. Despite their existence for years, generational names are a relatively recent cultural development.
A Brief History of Naming Generations
The 20th Century marked the beginning of generational naming, according to historians. “Lost Generation” was a term coined by the late American writer Gertrude Stein, and Stein awarded the title to those born around the turn of the 20th Century who served during World War I. In the epigram that appeared with Ernest Hemingway’s book “The Sun Also Rises,” Stein famously wrote, “You are all a lost generation.”.”
The 20th Century
As for the rest of the generations? Generational theorists Neil Howe and William Strauss are usually credited with identifying and naming U.S. 20th-century generations in their 1991 book titled “Generations.” Most of these labels stuck, though the dates that define them are somewhat flexible. In this study, the two historians identified the generation that fought World War II as the G.I. (short for “Government Issue”) Generation, but this name would soon be replaced. Less than a decade later, Tom Brokaw published “The Greatest Generation,” a best-selling cultural history of the Great Depression and World War II, and that namesake is still used today.
Douglas Coupland’s 1991 book “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture” chronicled the lives of 20-somethings and became accepted as a representative of their era. Without knowing it, Coupland permanently named Gen X, which was born in 1961 at the tail end of the Baby Boom.
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Generational theorists Neil Howe and William Strauss suggested the name Thirteeners (for the 13th generation born since the American Revolution) for Generation X, but the term never caught on.
Most Recent Generations
The origins of generations following Generation X are much less clear. In the early 1990s, the children born post-Gen X were often referred to as Generation Y by media outlets like Advertising Age, which is recognized as being the first to use the term in 1993. But by the mid-90s, amidst commotion about the turn of the 21st Century, this generation was more often referred to as Millennials, a term Howe and Strauss first used in their book. There is now a Generation X and a Millenial generation.
The name for the most recent generation is even more variable. Some prefer Generation Z, continuing the alphabetical trend begun with Generation X, while others prefer buzzier titles like Centennials or the iGeneration. What will come in the future is anyone’s guess and with each new generation comes more disagreement.
Generation Names and Dates
Some generations such as Baby Boomers are known by one name only, but other generations have many titles to choose from and these cause no small amount of dispute among experts. Read a few alternative systems of categorizing and naming generations below.
Howe and Strauss
Neil Howe and William Strauss define generational cohorts in the U.S. from 1900 on as follows.
- 2000–: New Silent Generation or Generation Z
- 1980 to 2000: Millennials or Generation Y
- 1965 to 1979: Thirteeners or Generation X
- 1946 to 1964: Baby Boomers
- 1925 to 1945: the Silent Generation
- 1900 to 1924: the G.I. Generation
Population Reference Bureau
The Population Reference Bureau provides an alternate listing and dates of generation names, showing that the lines that separate each generation are not necessarily concrete.1
- 1997 to 2012: Generation Z
- 1981 to 1996: Millennials
- 1965 to 1980: Generation X
- 1946 to 1964: Baby Boomers
- 1928 to 1945: the Silent Generation
Center for Generational Kinetics
The Center for Generational Kinetics lists the following five generations who are currently active in America’s economy and workforce.2 They use trends of parenting, technology, and economics to determine the dates of each generation.
- 1996–: Gen Z, iGen, or Centennials
- 1977 to 1995: Millennials or Gen Y
- 1965 to 1976: Generation X
- 1946 to 1964: Baby Boomers
- 1945 and before: Traditionalists or the Silent Generation
What About the Youngest Generation?
Australian researcher Mark McCrindle can claim the credit for naming the youngest cohort, which other platforms leave out and have failed to update: he called those born from 2010–2024 Generation Alpha.
In his book “The ABC of XYZ: Understanding the Global Generations,” McCrindle nods to theories presented in Howe and Strauss’ research by referring to the children of millennials as “alpha” on the basis that this generation will most likely grow up in a period of rebirth and recovery. Generation Alpha, the first generation born entirely in the 21st Century, marks a fresh start for the economy, political climate, environment, and more.
Generational Naming Outside of the United States
While the concept of social generations is a largely Western notion, generational naming is not unique to this region. Other nations name their generations too, though these are most often influenced by local or regional events and less by unofficial social and cultural zeitgeists. In South Africa, for example, people born after the end of apartheid in 1994 are referred to as the Born-Free Generation. Romanians born after the collapse of communism in 1989 are sometimes called the Revolution Generation.
- Brokaw, Tom. The Greatest Generation. Random House, 2005.
- Coupland, Douglas. Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. 1st ed., St. Martins Griffin, 1991.
- Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway Library Edition, Reprint Edition, Scribner, July 25, 2002.
- Howe, Neil. Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. William Strauss, Paperback, Reprint edition, Quill, September 30, 1992.
- McCrindle, Mark, et al. The ABC of XYZ: Understanding the Global Generations. UNSW Press, 2009.