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Will Somebody Please Definitively Define The Generations?

A Snarketing post by Ron Shevlin, Director of Research at Cornerstone Advisors

I’ve often referred to Boomers and Gen Yers in my blog posts without defining exactly who I’m talking about. I use the definitions that Forrester Research has used for the past few years: Gen Yers are born between 1975-1990, Gen Xers 1964-1974, Boomers 1946-1963, and Seniors pre-1946.

And although I thought that the Millennials were born after 1990, more and more I’m seeing the terms Gen Y and Millennial used interchangeably.

I didn’t consider this blogworthy until I saw the Nov/Dec 2007 issue of BAI Banking Strategies magazine. An article titled Banking on the Future with Generation Y shows data from Javelin Research that contains the following note:

Baby boomers defined as people born between 1945 and 1965, Generation X between 1961 and 1981 and Generation Y between 1979 and 1999.”

Not only are these dates radically different from what I’ve used in the past, there’s a huge overlap! According to Javelin, if you were born between 1961 and 1965, then you are a Boomer and a Gen Xer. Born between 1979 and 1981? Then you’re an XYer (which genetically makes you a ….never mind).

This isn’t inconsequential. Of about 110 million households in the US, about 14 million would be classified as BoomerXers, and 5 million XYers.

We need a standard definition. Who’s in charge of this stuff?

Ron ShevlinRon Shevlin is Director of Research at Cornerstone Advisors. Get a copy of his best-selling book, Smarter Bank: Why Money Management is More Important Than Money Movement. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter at @rshevlin.

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  1. Amen to that. I’m a Millenial and Gen Y, depending on who you talk to. Someone needs to get those solidified. So I guess the the 60 Minutes anchor staff are “Seniors”.

  2. Ron,

    I actually like the overlap because of a couple of things.

    1. It pertains to me. Born in 1962, but definitely identify with the Gen Xers more so than the Boomers.

    2. In my research I found that WHEN you are born is as important as when the people that RAISED you were born. (was that grammatically correct?)

    EXAMPLE: One of my favorite pictures of my mom is when she’s playing Pinochle with her friend Opal, pregnant with my brother, smoking a cigarette and drinking a martini, listening to Haper’s Bizarre Feeling Groovy. I’m standing next to her (age 7) trying to figure out her next move.

    My mom’s parents were young when they had her, she was young when she had me.

    SIDEBAR: I chose not to have kids, btw. I thought it best. (PS – my brother is the father of three beautiful children and works for IBM – he rocks!)

    A good friend of mine, only 4 years older was raised by a mom that grew up during the depression. She would lay her used paper towels out to dry so she could get one more swipe with them. Totally different values than I was raised with.

    I think these surveys miss that point altogether. 50% of your influence comes from the environment (outside) and 50% from the values of your parents (and the generation that raised them).

  3. @Denise – Don’t you knock pinchole. There is quite a few Gen Y’ers who love that game!

  4. Jeffry Pilcher says:

    I’m Gen X on the outside, Gen Y on the inside.

  5. Jeffry Pilcher says:

    @Robbie: I think I’d rather play “pinochle” than “pinchole” (owww!) πŸ˜‰

  6. JP: Go easy on Robbie. Spelling and grammar (“there is quite a few Gen Yers”) are not the Gen Yers’ strong suits.

  7. Actually, I am sick and tired of hearing anything at all about generations and marketing to/at them. People are people, and people hold an infinite and diverse array of attitudes and beliefs. Age is simply how many revolutions around the sun you’ve participated in this planet. We all know young kids who act as if they are old people, and old people who have a youthful attitude. I’m far more interested in psychographics than demographics, and age (and therefore “generation”) is part of old-school thinking about demographics.

    In the old days, we had much more of a homogenous society, so it was useful to label an entire generation in one seething lump of humanity. Now that the information/internet revolution is happening around us, diversity of people is flourishing more than ever before, rendering the lumping of millions of people together in one broad stroke, based on planetary revolutions, a rather silly and pointless exercise.

    This is a big part of the problem in the current financial industry. Management is targeting age groups (meaningless) rather than what can I do that is important to different types of people (meaningful).

  8. Denise and Morriss both have great points. I was born in ’75 and I consider myself to be a Gen Xer, based on descriptions, but I tend to hang out with more Gen Yers. We get along, but there are definite differences in the way we see things — even with friends who are as little as four years younger than I am. I think most of it has to do with my parents having me at an older age and them being conservative in a lot of ways.

  9. I want to learn pinchole……sound fun.

  10. oops – i meant sounds fun.

  11. Morriss: The generations matter. Big time. Denise’s points about the values are one component of why. I would take that one step further and say it’s because of the shared values that [many] members of a generation have. Second, generations matter because of the experiences that occur that help shape those shared values that members of future generations don’t experience. To the early boomers it was Kennedy’s assassination, My Lai, and a few others. To later boomers, it was Watergate, and on it goes. These events shape the psyche of a LOT of people which makes understanding generations so important for marketers.

  12. Chad Gramling says:

    This very topic has frustrated me for years. Never mind the inability to place segments of individuals into a nice and neat little group so I can apply some magic formula to make them like me; rather, being born in 1976, I cannot even identify which neat little groups I belong in. I guess I am a Young Gen-X or an Old Gen-Y. Ironically though, my values are probably more consistent with the GI generation of my grandparents than that of my own (or my parents) anyway.

  13. Damn, I really can spell and I am normally quite good with grammar. I just need to proof-read more!

    @Jeff – pinchole would hurt.

    @Denise – pinochle is quite fun!

    @Ron – Yes, there ARE. Thanks.

  14. Trey Reeme says:

    When I’m around Gen Yers I feel like an Xer. When I’m around Gen Xers, I feel like a Yer.

  15. Denise – totally agree! My Dad was an only child, born to a 43 year old woman in 1950. He’s relatively young, but acts like someone quite older by virtue of his parents’ age.

    I was born in 1979, which means I’m not quite a Millenial…and not really a Gen X. Behavior-wise, I have attributes that are truly GenX, some that are Millenial, and some that are even Baby Boomer (ask Jeff H. about my politics).

    The point is that you can’t pigeon-hole anyone. Generalization based on overwhelming survey data, however, is unavoidable.

  16. Caleb Chang says:

    Generational classifications are only a general guideline into understanding behavior – there are so many other factors that come into play as Morriss points out in his comment. I think we can identify with Robbie’s reaction to 60 minutes – we really hate sweeping generalities, especially when they are erroneous.

    At the end of the day, we really need to ask “how am I going to use this information?”

  17. I personally LOVE this generational stuff. Helps me understand people in my personal life. And, in my business life, it adds a layer to segmentation that goes way beyond simply including ‘age’ as an attribute.

    Born in 1963, I am commonly tagged as a Baby Boomer, but in my mind, I KNOW I’m closer to a GenXer.

    So, answer this one–do we aspire to be the next younger generation? Like, being middle aged is now something we don’t think we’ll reach until we’re at LEAST 60, whereas before I think it started at 40 or so…

  18. Gen X starting in 1976? That’s a new one to me. (1974, btw.) It always seemed to me that the X/Y gap occurred somewhere between my two younger sisters. (76 & 80 respectively.)

    What I dislike about generational marketing is (a) how broadly it’s usually painted, and (b) how much it often panders to Boomer prejudices. That, and after a while it all starts to sound like astrology.

    And to hell with pinochle. I’m all about the canasta. Or, um, Dungeons & Dragons anyone?

  19. CU Communicator says:

    @Elaine – I love the comment about Boomer prejudices! How much GenY marketing have you seen that has the whiff of “This is what we think you think is cool”?

  20. Generations? says:

    These broad generation groups are silly…

    I was born in the late 70’s. How could my life experience and perception of the world be the same as someone born in 1990?

    For example, I didn’t have a cell phone when I was in high school in the mid-90s. And I didn’t have an email address until I got to college either.

    On the other hand, folks born late 80’s early 90s are currently in HS (or just graduating)… They’ve used cell phones, they’ve texted answers to each other during tests. They’ve looked at a LOT of internet porn (or a lot more than me πŸ™‚

    Bottom line is: Trying to figure out generational cut-off years seems a waste of time… Especially as advances in media and communications tech is occurring at a rapid and exponential pace. Marketers should probably start narrowing down generational assumptions and focus on the impact of being born within a few months of each other.

  21. @CU Communicator: don’t get me started. And I think Generations? point has some connection to that — before the 20th century, most of life/technology moved so slowly, for most people, that this idea of generations having such radically different viewpoints didn’t make any sense. The concept of the generation gap begins in the early 20th century and reached a peak with…wait for it…the Boomers, because they were such a large group, and came of age amidst massive social & technological change. Whereas (!) since then, those changes have continued to accelerate. Theoretically, that should mean that the band of years identified as a “generation” would get smaller and smaller. If you’re using generation as a small portion of an overall view of your audience, then I suppose it can be helpful. But I’d be damn careful. (As a sliver of that…in 1991 the GenX outlook would’ve been anxiety about recession, falling behind our parents, slackerdom, etc….in 1999, dot-com euphoria…and now? You don’t want to let that view get fixed. People and their environment change.)

  22. @Generations?:

    Thanks for commenting. I’ve got to disagree with you, though. The generational segments aren’t silly at all. While no marketer should segment solely on the basis of age, there are common threads among the generations — and importantly, sub-segments (see my earlier post on Generational Niches).

    But I don’t expect you to understand this, really. What do you have — one or two years experience in the workplace? I guess that’s enough to know everything there is to know, eh?

    But enough lecturing — I’ll let you get back to your porn sites.

  23. Um, Ron? If Generations? was born in the late 70s, then s/he is 28 – 32, assuming a traditional career path, s/he has been in the (post-college) workforce 6-10 years. I get that his/her last point may be over the top, but there’s no need to be insulting about it.

  24. (per twittering, Generations? turns out to be somebody Ron knows, and I misjudged tone on a topic I’m a little (?!) sensitive about. my bad.)

  25. @Elaine: Hardly your fault. I should’ve come clean and admitted I was goofing on someone.

  26. Generations? says:

    I want to publically thank Elaine for sticking up for me… πŸ™‚

    And I also want to point out that, according to Ron: Because he’s a Baby Boomer, he then shares values with my 61 year-old mother.

    I know Ron, and I know my mother, and even if you sub-categorize them or look at their separate “generational niches” or whatever, and we call Ron a “late Boomer” and my mom an “Early Boomer” — I’m telling you people, they’ve got very little in common as relates to shared values, psyches etc. Ron notoriously rocked out to Stevie Ray and the Dead. My mom likes Elvis. As a guy born at the end of X and beginning of Y (so almost 2 generations separated from Ron) I know that we have a LOT more in common than he does with my mother (he can refute having anything in common with me all he wants, but he knows on the inside that we’re cut from the same cloth).

    Listen, of course people born within the same generation will have some stuff in common… But I take back what I said before about today’s rapid acceleration of media tech as narrowing the generational divide relative to the divides that exisited before…

    Because, in retrospect, looking at the Mom vs. Shevlin example, the gap between those two “boomers” is as big if not bigger than the gap I experience with the MySpaced-Out younginz here in the office.

    I’m all for factoring “generations” into marketers’ targetting efforts… But my argument here is that the generations, as currently envisioned, (regardless of subtle differences in year-ranges) are pretty silly… Smart marketers will narrow those down into many, many more categories, and only use the generational attribute in complement to more concrete data about the individual.

  27. I think you have missed a large chunk of what the generation gaps is trying to define. Gen Y will never understand what it was like to not have the internet. As other generations will never understand the internet.That to me defines what a generation is, the events that take place in a certain time frame that a generation is scoped. I think a few books on this topic might help you relax a little towards understanding the differences. I’m not american and certainly thankful for that, but a good book would be ‘The Lucky Few’ written by Elmond Carlson. Depicts Gen X between to other generations and how we gap the old and the new. Don’t hate something so much until you understand it more.

  28. carolina says:

    Denise, I swear you really need to write a book! This is the best reading I have had the pleasure to read in a very long time. Your writing style is GREAT! Thanks for the laughs; I will be watching for your book. πŸ™‚

  29. I don’t wish to tell you how to identify yourself generation-wise, as you know that better than anyone else. To me, generational cut-offs are never really clear cut. A generation can technically begin and end at certain dates yet cultural experiences are such that they can include people born some years before whereas people born towards the end of a cutoff may identify more with the generation that follows. This is how I cut off the Baby Boomer generation. I think the Boomers can be split into two groups – first-wave and second-wave Boomers (for lack of better terms). First Wave Boomers are those born from 45-53. These were the teens and 20-somethings of the 60’s, who protested (or fought in) Vietnam, who remember JFK’s assassination, who were at Woodstock, etc. The second-wave Boomers would be those born from 1954 up to the early 60’s. These people were teens and 20-somethings in the 70’s. They were shaped by Watergate, Punk Rock, disco, the Carter administration, early new Wave music, etc.
    I think when it comes to the early 60’s (1960-1964) one can break it off like this. I consider people born in 1960 and 61 to be bona fide second-wave boomers for the most part. To me, if you spent your entire teens in the 70’s and graduated high school at that time or 1980 (at the latest), you can’t really be part of Generation X (which to me is defined by coming of age in the Reagan era, the political culture of the 80’s, grunge in the 90’s, etc). Plus people born in those two years would be most likely to remember the moon-landing and the significance thereof. Anyone who does so in my mind is more of a boomer than an X’er. I’m sure there are people who disagree with me on that and that some people born in those years may feel more in common with X but based on the many people I’ve know born in those years and my own understanding of generations, that’s what I consider to be the case. As for people born between 1962 and 1964, things get tricky. Technically they could be second-wave Boomers but the proximity to 80’s culture and those born right after (65, 66, 67) leads me to think they are best left as swing years. Meaning people born in those years can legitimately swing either to the Boomer or X’er generations based on personal perception of their experiences, behavior, etc. I’ve met many like yourself that were born in 1963 and identify more with Generation X but I’ve also met others who consider themselves Boomers or late Boomers on account of having spent their adolescence largely in the 70’s as opposed to the 80’s. This is more so the case with people born in 1962. 1964 is the trickiest, as these people spent half their hs years in the late 70’s and half in the early 80’s. You’d think they would be more X’er but even then I’ve met more than a few ’64 born people who feel they have boomer traits and identify with the late baby boomers. Its the last of the swing years. 1965, however, is when Generation X truly begins. The Baby boom ended by then and people born then would have spent the bulk of their adolescence in the 80’s. No way they could be boomers at all.

    Hope that was helpful

  30. youknowme says:

    It’s pretty much this: Boomers did not grow up with video games, MTV, or StarWars. They experienced the idyllic 50s childhood, they were not latch key kids left to their own devices as women streamed into the workplace. Gen X is pitifully small because they leave out the first guard of early 60s births. 1961 – 1980 sounds closer to the truth for Gen X. I can guarantee you that someone born in 1961 has more in common with someone born in 1980 that someone born in ’61 has with someone born in 1946. Of course, just my opinion.

  31. Youknowme: I was born in 1960, and I definitely feel I have more in common w/ someone born in 1946 than in 1980.

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  33. I was born in Scotland in 1961. I am a bit BB but like the Beatles and heavy rock . Love also new wave. Opinions left wing, but mild. I’m able to laugh at David Cameron’s jokes despite not intending to vote for him. Absolutely despise the dumbing down propaganda on TV for our kids. Hate all propaganda. Hate mind control politics. Hate having to love the gay movement. Happy to tolerate it. True moderate. Want families to be strong to support kids. That is human, not conservative. Do not believe in FGM. Want all women to have the same chance. Equally in training programmes, women with kids need time or the men who likewise seek to train but be home carers for kids.
    It’s complex. We just need to love each other , which means toleration not smoochy stuff. No need to be sickly sweet, just reasonable.

  34. Ron, I would say the “swing” years for Gen X should be 1959-1960. For four reasons: 1)1959 was the year birthrates returned to normal (the true end of the boom—why the name “boomer” is no longer relevant) and 2) A lot of people born in ’59 and ’60 feel cuspy. 3) The original writings defining the boundaries between Boomer and “Buster” (13th generation= Gen X) has stated X starts around 1960 and 61. 4) The 1991 book, Generation XX: Tales of An Accelerated Culture– popularizing the term Gen X —was based on people born in the late 59s and early 60s—-who had already come of age several years before the book came out, thus creating the cultural basis with which the book was able to make references to.

  35. PS, marketers have always had an economic interest in changing the boundaries of Gen X for a variety of reasons, and now we have a lot of copycat Xers buying X-er fashion and borrowing X-er catch phrases.
    But hardcore Gen-X births really began in the early 60s. That’s the front line.

  36. I was born in the early 1950’s, which makes me part of the leading edge baby-boom generation. Although, for all kinds of reasons, I did not partake of any of the social movements going on back in the 1960’s, I liked (and still like!) the Beatles and lots of other rock-n-roll music, especially that of the 1960’s, as well as older classic films, and I’m proud to be a baby-boomer.

    Despite my relative social isolation from other kids, the 1960’s was a rather cool time to be a teenager. Those were very exuberant times, despite all the not-so-great stuff that also happened.

  37. I top feel completely in a sandwich generation. I was born a week before 1980. So it’s hard for me to say I lived in the 70’s (although I do like to say it because it sounds awsome). I remember in high school having a cell phone, my friends MSN messenging themselves. I did only have internet at home late teens but had access to it early teens. Had my first cell phone when I was 20. I wasn’t the biggest tech fan either, contrary to many of my friends, some born late 70s most born 80-81. So I think those born 79-81 are almost a generation of their own since they came of age when Internet was entering our lives. And we were young adults (18-21) when 9-11 happened, which was basically the backdrop event to our 20s. I agree that major life-altering worldly events like the Kennedy assassination or 9-11 that happen in early adult years are really what define us. I remember talking to one of my adult ed students who was born in 1996 (17 at the time). We were talking about 9-11 (in 2013) and all the students including me who were old enough to remember that event, and so who were at least born in 1993, were completely captivated and engaged in the conversation. The younger 17 year old student said : how about if we just move on and stop talking about it and it might not have as much impact (we were talking about how our lives had been impacted). I realised that for her, although she felt sympathy for the victims, just wasn’t something that struck a chord with her. The same would go with older generations who might see other events as defining to them. Therefore, I would define a sort of early internet users 9-11 generation that would span 1978 to 1993. 15 years should be a minimum either way for a generation gap and should be linked to events and life-defining technolgies, like TV Kennedy (the Boomers), MTV grunge Reagan (the Xers), advent of internet 9-11 (genY) and YouTube smartphones Obama (genZ, 1994-2009), the next generation…2010-2025? Let’s call them Tenners.

  38. GenerationWhat? says:

    This is why I find this topic in general to be stupid although I agree with the authors view in regards to the baby boomer years for the most part although I’ve seen where 1965 can sometimes be included with the Boomers. If the Gen Xers are the mid-90s grunge era, than someone born in the early and mid 80s would be old enough to live it or at least understand it as opposed to being identified with someone being born in the 90s or 2000s who align more with early use of cell phones, iPods, snapchat, etc. that a millennial would identify with. I totally disagree with how they shorten the Gen X years when most generations prior to Gen X were around 20 years long. Seriously, who comes up with this crap?

  39. Jennifer says:

    Actually I agree. I was born in 1979 and I definitely feel like an XYer. I don’t fully fit into either group but I can identify with aspects of both groups. I think the biggest factor is that I lived most of my early life without technology that’s common now (helping me identify with GenX), but it became a thing while I still young enough to embrace it (when I was about 18-19) so I also identify with GenY (who are very native to this technology thing). There’s definitely a weird melding of generations in those years there, so i can see why it isn’t super cut and dry for people making these definitions.

  40. I don’t think you can have someone old enough to be your parent, physiologically aside, considered as being the same generation. I think a generation probably entails fourteen to sixteen years – largely the formative years, where perhaps values might not have changed radically to make a huge difference between them.

    My question is, though, what are we going to do after Gen Z? Do we go back to A, like they did (or still do, I dunno) with car registrations in Britain?

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