Generational labels useful to researchers, but can perpetuate stereotypes


From right: Sisters Hannah Parry and Ruby Waite each take the Pew Research Center “How Millennial Are You?” quiz. Parry scored 74, and Waite scored 75. By birthdate, Parry is a Millennial and Waite is Generation Z. (Alyssa Nielsen)

Politicians, researchers, marketers, educators and religious leaders use generational labels to discuss particular age-based societal groups, the youngest two generations being Generation Y (Millennials) and Generation Z.

Sisters Hannah Parry and Ruby Waite, both BYU students, fall on either side of the generational split. Parry was born in 1994 and Waite in 1998. They identify with their generations in some ways and split from their generations in others.

“We don’t really represent the stereotypes,” Parry said.

A generation is a social cohort of people in roughly the same age group. Each generation includes people born during 15- to 20- year periods, according to the Pew Research Center.

Generational labels help researchers track a group of people throughout their lives, and they offer insights into group experiences and characteristics. These insights can be useful for companies, educators, marketers and many others.

Millennial Branding founder Dan Schawbel researches generations — particularly the Millennial Generation — and advises companies and millennials on how to “bridge the gap.”

“The biggest difference is that we have a delayed adulthood because the economic recession of 2008 put us in debt and has caused many to be underemployed. As a result, we are putting off many life decisions from home ownership to children,” Schawbel, a millennial himself, said. “Older generations never had (a combined) $1.43 trillion in student loan debt on top of being impoverished.”

Generalizations of generations can be helpful in understanding a particular societal group, but the generalizations do not define an individual.

The Pew Research Center pointed out in a report that while its researchers study generations, there are inherent problems with dividing people into these groups.

“Generational analysis has a long and distinguished place in social science, and we cast our lot with those scholars who believe it is not only possible, but often highly illuminating, to search for the unique and distinctive characteristics of any given age group of Americans. But we also know this is not an exact science,” the report states.

One problem the Pew Research Center acknowledges with generational research is how to delineate when a generation starts and stops.

Groups and researchers are still debating when the Millennial Generation ends and Generation Z starts. They draw the line somewhere between the mid-1990s and early-2000s. The Center for Generational Kinetics divides the generations in 1996 and the Pew Research Center at 1997. Saeculum Research, led by generational researcher Neil Howe, goes as far as to say Generation Z started in 2005.

The Center for Generational Kinetics argues for 1996 because people born after 1996 do not remember the 9/11 terrorist attacks — at least not well. Neil Howe also uses 9/11 in his definition of Generation Z, which he calls the Homeland Generation.

Parry remembers 9/11. She was only in the first grade, but she said she remembers recognizing how terrible it was while also not fearing too much.

“I was in first grade, and I went to class, and our teacher, Mrs. Morrison, turned on the news … we watched the buildings collapse,” Parry said. “She had us write in our journals about it, and going back in my journals, I drew a picture, and there’s smoke all over the page.”

Waite said she doesn’t remember it, though she sometimes imagines what it must have been like to watch it.

There are other differences between Generation Y and Generation Z, though again researchers aren’t in complete agreement about all the characteristics Generation Z exhibits.

One difference is technology and social media. The World Wide Web was invented in 1989 — born in Generation Y.  Millennials, such as Mark Zuckerberg, gave the world social media.

These things emerged while Generation Y was growing up, but they were already there for most of Generation Z.

Another difference is Generation Z is more risk-averse and pragmatic than Generation Y. Demographers attribute this to parenting techniques and their world experience and environment.

Parry and Waite said out of the two of them, Waite (Generation Z) was the more cautious of the two sisters.

Waite said Hannah’s always been more likely to suggest going to a mountain or running, while Waite will suggest going on a walk. Waite said she is more cautious than her sister.

Millennials are distinctly less likely than earlier generations to be affiliated with a religious group.

Pew Research conducted a survey in 2014 finding 35 percent of Millennials identified their religion as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular. This compared to 11 percent for the Silent Generation, 17 percent for the Baby Boomers and 23 percent for Generation X.

The survey also showed all of these numbers increased between 2007 and 2014.

Religion scholar Jana Riess said based on her observation and study of the declining religious affiliation, she expects the next generation, Generation Z, to follow suit and be less religiously affiliated than earlier generations.

“The latest statistics from the Public Religion Research Institute late last year were 39 percent of young adults now are in the ‘None’ category,” Riess said. “And it’s growing every year. When they compare what the numbers are in the youngest group, it’s higher than it is in the 25 to 29 (age group). So this shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.”

But generational labels — be they Millennials, Generation Z, Baby Boomers — have their limitations. Waite, though by most definitions part of Generation Z, scored a percent higher than her sister on the Pew Research “How Millennial Are You?” quiz, and both scored in the 70s, which is surely more than 33 percent average for Generation X but still less than quite a few Millennials. Researchers know individualism still exists, but such surveys help them tease out where the most distinct commonalities can be found by age group.

Waite said she doesn’t care when people use a generational label to negatively characterize her because she recognizes the two youngest generations have strengths, and she is her own person who can prove herself. Besides, she said, she still has a flip-phone, and she’s not into binge-watching TV shows.

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