After numerous studies and reports mapping the Millennial generation and especially their attributes in the workforce, predictions about the post-Millennials are finally starting to pop up in news sources and in market research reports (here, here and here). At After the Millennials, we try not to let this type of fodder escape our radar!
The fact that we’re dealing with two generational classification systems and that these are often used interchangeably can be a source of confusion. One is an “alphabetic” system established by AdAge in 1993, which categorizes generations after letters in the alphabet (Gen X, Y, Z). The other is the classification system used in Strauss and Howe’s cycle theory, the authors behind the Millennial category. The alphabetized system starts with Generation X (born in the ’60s and ’70s) and ends with Generation Alpha (born after 2010). The demarcation line between Y and Z is set to 1995 vs. early 2000s. According to Strauss and Howe’s taxonomy the Millennials are thought to cease being born around the early 2000s. Neil Howe has later suggested we turned the page to the Homeland generation around 2004, preceding the financial meltdown in 2008 with a few years. In other words, a cut-off in 1995 seems random.
Of course, in the real world there are really no dramatic changes from one generation to the next, so this overlap shouldn’t really matter much. It is not like the maternity wards suddenly get populated with a whole new breed of humans overnight just because we pass some invisible generational threshold. That type of reasoning has no basis in science and would go by the name “astrology”. When making generalization based on shift in public spirit and moods we are dealing with humans at the macro level and we can only aspire to brush with broad strokes. For that reason I think it’s OK to talk about the “alphabetic” generational categories and the Strauss and Howe categories interchangeably. Yet, as far as the ability to estimate traits of a specific stratum I think Stauss and Howe’s formula is more substantial than the one from AdAge*. Their category seems less arbitrary because the interplay between external forces and the reactions to these, which manifest themselves as generational differences, reveals a much more comprehensive dynamic than the more common exercise of forecasting the next generation as the sum of new, flashy consumer gadgets.
I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about the prevailing thoughts about this youngest of generations. They are presumingly even more technified, more academically drilled, more obese and more materialistic than the generations before them. A common mistake in forecasting is to simply project current trends and just expect “more of the same”. This doesn’t take us very far away from the baseline scenarios and is rarely very informative. In other words, existing trends are extrapolated to where Generation Z mostly looks like an extreme version of the Millennials. This strategy can be useful when studying phenomena that by nature remain fairly unaffected by uncertainties and contingencies. Demographic predictions such as birth rates and the ratio of age cohorts are good examples. But when studying phenomena that are embedded in multivariate complex webs of social agents with varying motives and behaviors, this type of reasoning is not only fallacious but can also produce some pretty dire consequences. Like if we were to assume that real estate prices will continue to rise only because it has done so consecutively for a while. After 2008 we know better.
Personnel Today makes a similar type of projection with childhood obesity. They take the current childhood obesity trend and project a continued growth into the future. I agree that childhood obesity is a problem that probably is going to stick with us for some time. But the very fact that we are so aware of the problem builds the necessary consciousness that eventually will reverse the trend. Actions taken to reduce advertisement of, placement of, and access to unhealthy foods have already started to take place and will – accounting for some lagged effect – start to pay off within the childhood and teenage years of the post-Millennials. TV-technologies that get kids up and moving (think Xbox Kinect) instead of making them graze popcorn in the sofa (think traditional cable TV) will play their part in rebuilding muscle tone in presently atrophying bodies. Even the first lady, Michelle Obama has made targeting childhood obesity her main mission*.
I don’t mean to brush off straightforward forecasts all together. A report from Grail Research called “Consumers of Tomorrow: Insights and Observations About Generation Z” doesn’t consider the possibility that current trends may be disrupted or reversed either. But this report seems to make very broad statements about the mostly uncontested trajectories within consumer technology and personal finance. The Grail researchers use a the “alphabetic” generational categories and can thereby measure a somewhat older cohort, including the youngest of the well-documented Millennials.
Another reason why Generation Z or New Silents are depicted as extensions of the Millennials could be their generational archetype’s tendency to “go with the flow”. The Millennials is a large, somewhat domineering generation and post-Millennials (or New Silents) will probably continue to emulate them for some time. But we should not make the mistake the of predicting a new breed of mini-Millennials by erroneously projecting present trends too far into the future. That would be methodologically incomplete. The youngest generation is still mostly unmolded, and most of their impact on social trends are yet to be seen. It’s going to be up to our kids to define who they really are.
*Update 2/24/13: Childhood obesity har already stagnated and, in some urban areas, reversed.
Image Source: Una B, Flickr