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Generations Nicknames and Groupings Theory

Generation X, Generation Y, Baby-Boomers: a personality model of generational nicknames and society groups

This broad informal concept of defining groups of people appeared towards the end of the 20th century. It's not very scientific but is fascinating.

The model presented here is a collection of separate and closely related ideas. The theory is still evolving, and is not usually offered as a structured model as below.

The concept asserts that people's personalities - indeed entire generations - are influenced according to when in history they were born, in turn according to certain fixed and defined periods, which are typically a number of decades each.

The theory implies that people's 'formative years' (their teenage and young adult years) are most sensitive in shaping their attitudes in response to political, economic and social factors of the time.

The theory covers c.1880 to the present day, and identifies nominally ten different time periods and corresponding 'types' or generational groups, including for example 'Baby Boomers' and 'Generation X', which are probably best known.

The concept implies that age groups in societies are fundamentally affected by the general (rather than specific local) environmental situation in which they were born and grew up.

In summary the theory broadly:

  • defines groups of people (notably UK, US, 'western world'),
  • according to the decade/period they were born,
  • due to applicable influences of the time,
  • which may be cultural, social, economic, political and/or technological.

References to the model's various group names and characteristics arise often among writers, social commentators, journalists and marketing people, notably in North America and the UK, although the terminology and basic principle of the concept is recognized and useful for anyone interested in human behaviour/behavior.

There seems no established name for the model, probably because it is rarely presented in a collective structured way as below. Usually the terms within the model appear in isolation, or in comparison with one or two other generational group 'types'.

Note that the concept is a very loose theory, open to wide interpretation and debate, but it nevertheless offers a fascinating and unusual interpretation of human group types, personality and behavioural tendencies, and society.

It's not a reliable scientific tool for demographics and profiling , although it can offer useful insights when seeking to understand attitudes of different age groups.

The model is very useful for:

  • Understanding that people can be quite different according to when (in history) they were born, especially the historical and cultural influences during their childhood and teenage years.
  • Explaining this aspect of differences among people to others in training and teaching situations.
  • Exploring more technical and scientific theories relating to attitudinal development, motivation and personality , etc., for example Erikson's Life-Stage Theory , and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Theory .

Note that this model of generational group nicknames/definitions is fixed to and dependent on firm periods of history, whereas conventional personality theory is generally relative and movable through history, (i.e., the types and definitions of conventional personality theory are not fixed or dependent upon firm periods of history, and can be applied to people regardless of when they were born).

Major generations

This model most commonly features three generational types, which were the first types to be identified:

  • Baby Boomers
  • Generation X
  • Generation Y

Note that 'Generations X and Y' are completely unrelated to McGregor's X-Y Theory , which is a separate concept entirely.

Increasingly commentators devise new groups and names for people born in the most recent historical periods, and we can expect the model to grow and become more complex as a result.

Generational types/names for the earliest stages of the model seem to have been suggested some while after the establishment of the concept itself and of well-known types such as Baby Boomers and Generation X.

When considering the model, significantly, the teenage years and years of young adulthood are the biggest influence on people's attitudes, not actually when they were born.

These are probably the major factors considered to influence the character of each generational group:

  • societal norms and standards
  • economic and political situations
  • technological developments
  • music and fashion

(Interestingly this notion of very large-scale 'macro' systemic influence is found in a very similar way in PEST analysis . PEST analysis is a model used by marketing folk for strategic interpretation of business situations. PEST stands for Political, Economic, Social and Technological.)

Here are some very simple and broad examples of these factors and their effects according to the 'generational nicknames model'. This is not a definitive or detailed listing - it's merely a set of quick examples to illustrate how historical factors can have major effects on the people who experience them:

Factor Example Effect example
  1. diversity
  2. further education access
  1. tolerance/reduced discrimination
  2. social mobility
Economic and political
  1. wars
  2. globalization
  1. austerity
  2. consumer choice and availability
  1. the pill
  2. internet
  1. female empowerment
  2. free information and communications
Arts and media
  1. rock and roll
  2. television
  1. youth liberation
  2. reduced fitness, increased materialism

The model uses the above 'cause and effect' principle in relating significant historical factors to generational group characteristics, within a general assumption that people are subject to these influences mainly during their early years of life (i.e., from teenager to raising a family).

Generational nicknames/groups model

Generation name Born (range, loosely) Characterising features typically described (loosely)
The Lost Generation 1880-1900 The term reflects the unthinkable loss of human life in the First World War- approaching 16 million killed and over 20 million wounded. This happened in just four and five years (1914-1918). We cannot imagine this today.
The Interbellum Generation 1900-1913 Interbellum means 'between wars', referring to the fact that these people were too young to fight in the First World War and too old to fight in the Second.
The Greatest Generation (The Veterans) 1914-1930 These people are revered for having grown up during the Great Depression and then fought or stood alongside those who fought in the Second World War (1939-45). As for other generations of the early 1900s, life was truly hard compared to later times.
The Silent Generation 1930-1945 Characterized as fatalistic, accepting, having modest career and family aspirations, focused on security and safety. These people experienced the 1930s Great Depression and/or the 2nd World War in early life, and post-war austerity in young adulthood. They parented and provided a foundation for the easier lives of the Baby Boomers.
Baby Boomers 1946-1960 Equality, freedom, civil rights, environmental concern, peace, optimism, challenge to authority, protest. Baby Boomers mostly lived safe from war and serious hardship; grew up mostly in families, and enjoyed economic prosperity more often than not. Teenage/young adulthood years 1960-1980 - fashion and music: fun, happy, cheery, sexy, colourful, lively.
Generation Jones 1953-1968 Acquisitive, ambitious, achievement-oriented, cynical, materialistic (a reference to the expression 'keeping up with the Joneses'). Generation Jones is predominantly a US concept, overlapping and representing a sub-group within the Baby Boomer and Gen-X generations.
Generation X (Gen-X) 1960-1980 Apathy, anarchy, reactionism, detachment, technophile, resentful, nomadic, struggling. Teenage/young adulthood years 1973-2000 - fashion and music: anarchic, bold, anti-establishment.
MTV Generation 1974-1983 MTV Generation is a lesser-used term for a group overlapping X and Y. Like Generation Jones is to Baby Boomers and Gen-X, so MTV Generation is a bridge between Gen-X and Y.
Millennials (also Generation Y/Gen-Y) 1980-2000 and beyond (?) Views vary as to when this range ends, basically because no-one knows. Generational categories tend to become established some years after the birth range has ended. Teenage/young adulthood years 1990s and the noughties - fashion and music: mainstream rather than niche, swarmingly popular effects, fuelled by social networking and referral technology. Also called Echo Boomers because this generation is of similar size to the Baby Boomers.
Generation Z (Gen-Z) 2001-2013 The first generation to truly grow up in the age of the internet. These people's childhoods were dominated by the rise of the internet, social media, and (mostly) world peace, but also a huge financial crisis, particularly in the western world. Yet to be seen how they turn out as adults...
Generation Alpha   2013-  Yet to be determined...

The framework is very loose, not scientific at all, and has no single point of origin or founding theorist, although various claims of origination are made for some of the generation names within the model.

The notion of characterizing an entire generation, tens of millions of people, in such a sweeping way is somewhat unusual, nevertheless there are fundamental correlations between society and the culture, on which premise the model is based.

It is tempting to over-estimate the significance of when people were born and the societal influences of their formative years, and to under-estimate the life-stage changes which all people, regardless of when they were born, inevitably pass through. On this point, Erikson's Life-Stage Theory is more meaningful and useful for serious exploration and explanation of character according to a person's age.

Erikson's theory also provides excellent guidance for anyone seeking to analyse the effects of social conditions and experiences on people's lives, which would be relevant if attempting to substantiate or develop the reliability of the generational model above.

See also