Last summer I read an article that reported a survey conducted with millennials (those born between 1985 and 2000) asking them to choose which generational moniker they believed described them: The Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, or Millennials.
The overwhelming majority claimed “The Greatest Generation.”
I was dumbfounded. How had these morons escaped the fact that the folks who fought World War II and rescued Europe from the tyranny of Nazis were The Greatest Generation? Tom Brokaw, who to many of us GenX’ers is a God, named them that. So it must be true, right?
Taking this survey story to my mom’s football tailgate in the fall, where she and her Baby Boomer siblings host me and my GenX friends and my Millennial cousins and their friends, I thought everyone would be amused by it.
To a one, the Millennials chose The Greatest Generation as their obvious moniker.
“What the fuck have you ever done to earn that name?” I asked, with typical GenX hostility, adding, “Unless you’re simply being ironic?”
My cousin claimed to not know anything about these generational monikers and I wondered if I was unaware of such things at his age. But, the thing is, the Baby Boomers have always told us who they are. Always.
Then they told us who we are: Generation X.
Now marketing bloggers are warning brands not to categorize Millennials, not to try to define them or market directly to them. They will decide what’s cool and what’s not. As if that’s some big new insight in how teenagers and young adults behave.
“Being stereotyped is off-putting,” this blog claims. “No Millennial will self-identify as such.”
But here’s the thing: a generational moniker is not a stereotype. It’s when you were born. So you can’t exactly say it’s not what you are.
You might not exhibit the typical characteristics of a member of the group. Maybe you’re a Baby Boomer who didn’t spend away the 80s and is now putting off retirement because you want to stay involved (i.e. you can’t afford it). Maybe you’re a GenX’er whose parent (mother, let’s be honest) was home every afternoon after school and you grew up well-attended-to and valued. Maybe you’re a Millennial who is not obsessed with social media and celebrities.
But if you are these exceptions, you’re just that: an exception.
Generational monikers are applied because they help us recognize value systems. GenX’ers went from being latch key kids to being helicopter parents not by accident.
Sure, there are some habits and behaviors that have more to do with age than generation. Every single group spent time wanting to be different, to change the world, to engage with each other and the universe in a way that was gratifying and meaningful.
Call it the optimism of youth.
Before they put their heads down and went to war because that was what they had to do, even The Greatest Generation had aspirations. And they made strides, they really did, by engaging women in the workforce during the war and leaving them there afterward.
The Baby Boomers had hippies and love-ins and the Civil Rights Movement and they made strides, they really did, on college campuses and in the workforce. Baby Boomers invented branding, brand recognition, and corporate sponsorship.
Generation X thumbed its nose at the establishment, like good little rebels, but then climbed into the boats of corporate America and started rowing. Then two recessions disrupted their soldierly rank-holding so they’ve pioneered an age of innovation and discovery that includes the largest surge of entrepreneurship ever.
The Millennials will have their chance. They’re still trying to figure out what they want to get focused on. Whether it’s some global humanitarian cause or simply finding time in their daily lives to be more than worker bees, the Millennials will make strides. But they shouldn’t reject their heritage.
It’s the values instilled by your era that determine the focus you will have.
We’re very different people because of the time periods that shaped us. And that’s as it should be. Even if we do think the other groups are getting it all wrong.