The Madeleine Brand Show is a daily, two-hour program that looks at news and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by Madeleine Brand
Arts & Entertainment

Why labels like 'Baby Boomers' and 'Generation X' are created

Every generation has its cultural touchstones. Pixies, formed in 1986, is a seminal Gen X band.
Every generation has its cultural touchstones. Pixies, formed in 1986, is a seminal Gen X band.
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Listen to story

Download this story 2.0MB

'Baby Boomers,' 'Gen X’ers,' 'Millennials - over the last century, each generation has gotten its own moniker. Now the race is on to name the generation after the 'Millennials,' those kids who are 15 years old and under. KPCC's Josie Huang reports on how, and why generations are named what they're named.

I always thought I was on the young end of Gen X. I grew up listening to the Pixies, World Party. The slackers in the 1994 movie "Reality Bites"? I could totally relate. I felt more cynical than the boomers born after World War II. Less chirpy and wired than the kids born in the 1980s. But then I discovered that by some measures, that I, someone born in the late '70s during the Carter administration, was a Millennial. What?

It turns out there aren't exact dates for when Generation X ends, and when the Millennial Generation starts — hence the confusion for people like me born in the overlap years. The birth trends weren't as pronounced for those generations as during the Baby Boom. About 78 million Americans were born between 1946 and 1964 - a marked contrast to the Depression era.

There's something arbitrary about grouping together huge swaths of people as much as 20 years apart in age. But like it or not, generational labels have infiltrated popular culture. They come up on talk shows, policy debates. You hear it in how El Monte schoolteacher and millennial Juan Flores relates to older co-workers. "As soon as the baby boomers start retiring that opens the job market for us," Flores said.

How did these labels come to be part of everyday conversation? Boomers are named after a demographic trend, but the other generational labels have literary roots. The book "Generation X" by Douglas Coupland is largely credited with popularizing the catch phrase to describe people born in the 60's and 70's, who came of age in the 80's.

The name 'Millennials' was coined by authors and historians Neil Howe and William Strauss, and includes people born between whenever you think Gen-X ends to around 2000. Famous millennials include K-Stew and the Beebs. I mean, Kristen Stewart and Justin Bieber.

Peter Francese is a long-time demographer who writes for Advertising Age. Francese says Madison Avenue co-opted generational labels to better pitch marketing campaigns to their corporate clients. "[The] next thing you know the advertising guy at the New York Times, the advertising guy at The Wall Street Journal, the business sections of various newspapers, they start writing about it, and it moves right into the popular consciousness," Francese said.

Marketers got so good at popularizing the use of Gen X that "Generation X" author Douglas Coupland started to distance himself from it. In a 2010 interview with a Canadian TV station, Coupland said "It just got pounded on by politicians, advertising, marketing. There were all these ways for some sort of short-term gain."

Such a Gen X thing to say, no?

But the drumbeat for generational labels continues. Today, academics and marketers alike are brainstorming names for the generation after millennials. Frank N. Magid Associates, a marketing firm in Los Angeles, kicked around "mosaics," "adaptives," and "culturals" as possible labels. But the catch word they've settled on? "Plurals," according to the firm's Sharalyn Hartwell.

"They will be the last generation with a Caucasian majority. In 2019, less than 50% of live births in this country will be Caucasian," according to Hartwell.

Plurals comes on the heels of other suggested names such as I-Gen -- as in iPod and iPhone.

Elena Socha, an 8-year-old from South Pasadena, looked perplexed as the phrase "plurals" was explained to her. And she doesn't like the idea of connecting her generation to technology. "You don't have to use technology to do stuff, like cell phones and stuff. You can just have fun. Like playing basketball — that's one of my favorite things to do," said Socha.

Chances are it's marketers, not Elena, who will get to name her generation. It's a group that's still growing, with no cut-off date yet. That will depend on birth rates. And that'll depend on the people having the kids, Gen X'ers, my crowd. Or so I like to think.