There’s rough consensus around these birth year cutoffs for the four most recent American generations:
Baby Boomers: 1946-1964
Of course, any birth year cutoff is arbitrary. (I’ve written more about that HERE and HERE). For example, maybe Millennials begin in 1979 or 1982 instead. That’s certainly possible – there is no bright dividing line between GenX’ers and Millennials. There are more definite breaks in the data between those born in the early 1990s and the mid-1990s, probably due to the smartphone, so the 1995 cutoff has some data to back it up. 2012 is looking fairly good for the last birth year of iGen. Those born after 2012 will remember the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns for the rest of their lives. But those born in 2013 or later, who were 7 or younger in 2020, are less likely to have fully processed just how much our lives changed during this time. Since the pandemic was a major cultural event, 2012 seems to work as a birth year cutoff. Then we’ll be on to the next generation. We’re not sure what they will be called yet. I suggest Polars, given they are growing up in a time of political polarization and melting polar ice caps.
It’s also inherently problematic to group people in 20-year blocks – someone born in 1980 had a different cultural experience from someone born in 1994. And if you were born in 1979 vs. 1980, are you really a different generation? In most studies, we’ve looked at birth year continuously, instead of grouping people into generations.
A generational label needs to capture something about the generation’s experience, and for iGen’ers, the Internet and smartphones have defined many of their experiences thus far – thus the name iGen, like iPhones and iPads. One survey found that 2 out of 3 teens has an iPhone (specifically an iPhone, not just a smartphone).
The prominent magazine AdvertisingAge backed iGen as the best name for the post-Millennials. “We think it’s the name that best fits and will best lead to understanding of this generation,” Matt Carmichael, AdvertisingAge’s director of data strategy, told USA Today.
Another name suggested for this group is Generation Z. But that label works only if the generation before them is called Generation Y, and hardly anyone uses Generation Y now that the term Millennials has won out. That makes Generation Z dead on arrival as a label. Plus, young people do not want to be named after the generation older than themselves. That’s why “Baby Busters” never caught on for Generation X and why “Generation Y” never stuck for Millennials. Generation Z is derivative, and the generational labels that stick are always original.
As far as I know, I was the first to use the term iGen, introducing it in the first edition of my book Generation Me in April 2006.
It’s easy to make a list of the events, pop culture, and economic swings each generation experienced. Boomers, for example, came of age during the turbulent 1960s, and iGen grew up in a world shaped by terrorism. But that doesn’t tell you much about who they really are. It’s more important to know how generations really differ in terms of personality traits, attitudes, and behavior, and what that means for organizations. That’s the approach I take, analyzing nationally representative survey data on 11 million people comparing the generations at the same age.
For example, my book iGen relies on four nationally representative U.S. surveys done over time: Monitoring the Future (8th, 10th, and 12th graders), the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (the CDC’s survey of 9th-12th graders), the American Freshman Survey (entering college students), and the General Social Survey (adults). Three of these studies have been conducted since the 1960s or 1970s, and the fourth since the early 1990s, allowing a view of generational and cultural differences that takes age out of the equation (because they examine people of the same age at different points in time).
A lot of polls, interviews, and surveys collect data at only one time. That means they can’t separate the effect of age from that of generation. If it’s age, the same thing that worked for young employees ten years ago will work just fine now – but if it’s generation, it won’t. That’s why the survey data across time is so powerful: It can eliminate the effect of age.
Around 2012, I started to see some sudden changes in the big national surveys – depressive symptoms and loneliness started to go up, and (after going up for 20 years) happiness started to go down. Other sources – like national screening studies on depression and statistics on teen suicides – showed the same pattern, with increases after 2010-12. I wondered what was going on, so I thought about what might possibly have caused these shifts. The Great Recession was officially over by 2010, and unemployment started to fall around 2011, so it seemed unlikely that the economy was to blame. This period didn’t see any cataclysmic events – and certainly none that kept accelerating over the next five years.
Then two things happened. I found the Pew Center’s data showing that the end of 2012 was when the percentage of Americans owning a smartphone crossed 50%, and I found (as others have among young adults) that teens who spent more time on screens were less happy and more depressed. So this was a suspicious pattern: A sudden rise in mental health issues when smartphones became ubiquitious, and a link between screen time and mental health issues. For more on this, see the excerpt of iGen in The Atlantic. Overall, iGen is a less confident, more uncertain, more anxious generation than Millennials were at the same age. That may at least partially be due to their adolescence spent on their smartphones.
Since iGen was published, more studies have documented troubling trends in teen and young adult mental health in the U.S. since 2010, including increases in self-harm behaviors , suicide attempts by poisoning, hospital admissions for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, and suicides. Many of these increases are more pronounced among girls. Similar increases appear in the U.K. and in Canada. Jon Haidt (author of The Coddling of the American Mind) and I have reviewed the evidence for increases in adolescent mental health issues in a Google doc.
The original research I present in iGen finds that teens who spend more time on screens are less happy and more depressed (in a large, nationally representative sample of U.S. teens). For example, 8th graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media sites are 56% more likely to be unhappy than those who spend less time. The link holds when gender, race, and socioeconomic status is taken into account. But those analyses are correlational, so it is possible that unhappy or depressed teens spend more time on screens.
Several longitudinal studies find that digital media use comes first, and then depression or unhappiness, suggesting at least some of the causation goes from digital media use to depression/unhappiness. Three true experiments, which can show causation, come to a similar conclusion: College students who limited their social media use (vs. those who did not) were less depressed and lonely after three weeks; adults who gave up Facebook for a week (vs. not) were less depressed and happier; and those who web-surfed were happier than those who looked at their friends’ Facebook pages. Jon Haidt and I are reviewing the evidence (correlational, longitudinal, and experimental) for links between digital media use and mental health in this Google doc.
Also: Depression causing social media use doesn’t explain why depression would increase so suddenly after 2011-12. In that model, something else would have to cause teen depression to rise so sharply, which would then lead to more smartphone and social media use. It seems much more likely that smartphone and social media use increased, and depression and unhappiness followed.
The first step is to understand how these generations are different from previous ones – and how they aren’t. Many generational consultants will make statements about generational differences, but look carefully at their materials: How did they arrive at these conclusions? Saying Millennials experienced certain events, and thus have certain characteristics, is not data – it’s a wild guess. It’s also not enough to rely a poll taken on just one occasion – because then any differences could be due to age or generation, and it’s impossible to separate the two. Ideally, we should be comparing the generations at the same age, so we know that things have really changed. In this era of evidence-based management, managers need actual data on how the generations differ.
Fortunately, there’s more and more data like this on generational differences in work attitudes. For example, in 2010 my colleagues and I published the first paper on generational differences in work attitudes in an over-time, nationally representative sample. That, and how it applies to management, is central to the chapter on the workplace in Generation Me.
There’s also a chapter on work attitudes in iGen , detailing how they are different from Millennials and how best to manage them. If you’re interested in learning more about how you can use the data on generational differences to recruit, retain, and manage Millennials and iGen, click here.
iGen has a lot of strengths. They have a strong work ethic and a practical orientation toward work. They take equality based on race, gender, and sexual orientation for granted and are arguably the least prejudiced generation in history. They are also the safest — for example, fewer get in car accidents, and fewer binge drink. That’s not just because of their parents: iGen themselves are concerned with safety and are less willing to take risks.
iGen’ers are much less likely than teens in the 1990s to smoke, drink alcohol, have sex, or get pregnant — so there’s been significant improvement in many of the things parents worry about. Some of this is rooted in protective parenting and safety concerns, and some in the decline in face-to-face social interaction among teens during the smartphone era. In general, iGen is taking longer to grow up than previous generations; as 18-year-olds, they are less likely to have a drivers’ license, work at a paid job, go out on dates, or drink alcohol than 18-year-olds were 10 or 20 years ago. Those are all things adults do and children don’t, so they have historically been milestones of adolescence. Some of these trends are positive, some are not — it’s more important to see the big picture of slowed development rather than focus on good or bad. So it’s not that iGen teens are more responsible (or less responsible), or more mature (or less mature), it’s that they are taking longer to do adult things.
No, because it uses data from young people themselves. These studies compare young people’s views and behaviors to the views and behaviors of young people from previous generations. Of course, like any scientific study, these are average differences, so there are certainly exceptions. People from Minnesota (where I spent my childhood) are different from people from Texas (where I spent my adolescence), but there’s plenty of individual variation. Generations work the same way. There’s more on that here.
One other note: The trends reported in iGen are based on nationally representative samples, so they capture the experience of the typical teen. The generational trends are very consistent across race, gender, socioeconomic status, and region of the country, with just a few exceptions (for example, the mental health trends are larger among girls).
Maybe, but that observation isn’t particularly relevant for this data, which examines what young people say about themselves. I completely agree that older folks’ observations are not a useful source of data about generational differences. That’s why the studies rely on the voices of the generation itself. This question also seems to assume that an argument which has been made before must be wrong. That seems nonsensical at best. Instead, it makes sense to listen to what young people have to say, and to find out how that’s different from what they said 10, 20, or 30 years ago.
Related to this is “people have always worried about the effects of new technology – they said the same thing about novels, TV, etc.” Again, just because it’s been said before doesn’t make it wrong. For example, people were probably right to worry about TV: It’s also correlated with depression, and political scientist Robert Putnam concluded in his book Bowling Alone that TV was the primary reason community groups and social capital declined after 1950.
As for novels, we don’t have data to determine if they had negative effects when they were introduced. But among today’s teens, those who read books, magazines, and newspapers are happier than those who don’t. Thus, this observation isn’t particularly relevant to today’s teens.
Millennials have been shaped by the growth of cultural individualism – more focus on the self and less on social rules. Individualism explains nearly all of the Millennial generation’s distinguishing characteristics, from their support of equality to their positive self-views. Millennials are also focused on standing out, feeling unique, and having high expectations for themselves. With iGen less confident, Millennials represent the apex of the individualistic idea that you should always feel good about yourself. iGen has continued individualistic trends toward supporting equality, with iGen and the Millennials really standing out from previous generations in their support for LGBT issues.
In short, generations exist because cultures change. Just as Japan has a different culture from the U.S., the culture of the 1950s was different from the culture of the 2010s. As cultures change, younger people – who have never known another world – take certain attitudes and worldviews for granted. For example, most Americans now These specific changes often stem from broad, pervasive forces in the culture.
One of these pervasive forces is individualism. As noted above, individualism is at the root of the movement toward equality based on gender, race, and sexual orientation, and also encourages positive self-views, uniqueness, and high expectations.
Another cultural force is technology. For example, iGen has been shaped by their adolescence spent on smartphones. A generational shift appeared around 2011-2012 among teens, likely because smartphones became pervasive around that time.
Last, families are smaller and lives are longer, leading to more people pursuing what is known as a slow life strategy. Teens who pursue a slow life strategy, for example, will be less likely to engage in adult activities such as driving, working, dating, drinking alcohol, having sex, and going out without their parents. Some of these trends are good, some are neutral, and some might be bad – but all involve growing up more slowly. The theory behind slow life strategies (life history theory) explicitly notes that slow (or fast) strategies are not bad or good – they are an adaptation to a cultural context.
So, although generational labels are not always precise, it is very clear that cultures change over time, and that those changes have an effect on people. That, at base, is why generational differences exist.