We grew up hearing “millennial” this and “baby boomer” that, but what do those titles even mean? Generational breakdowns were first theorized by Karl Mannheim in the early 1920s in his “theory of generations,” but the research on how/who dictates generational divides has muddied since then. This can be especially complicated for people our age who are born on the cutoff between millennials and Generation Z. There are several different theories about how each generation is split, and each one comes with different attributes ascribed to each group.
One theory is the Strauss-Howe theory, which breaks down generations dating back to 1584 by offering archetypes for each one — think Enneagram numbers but for generations. Each generation is ascribed to one of four archetypes, the hero, the artist, the prophet or the nomad. Without going into too much detail, this is a more philosophical way of approaching generational divides that attributes common moral or social focuses to every fourth generation. Millennials, which Strauss and Howe describe as anyone born from 1982 to 2004, are part of the hero archetype. To Strauss and Howe, this means that millennials focus on building the world around them, are selfless and optimistic, although they are also overbold and idealistic. In stark contrast, Gen X — described as being anyone born from 1961 to 1981 — are known as nomads. Nomads are known for being self-sufficient, practical and competitive, and focus on building their own security and safety in the world around them. Whether you ascribe to these stereotypes or not, Strauss and Howe made it clear that generational attitudes change drastically from generation to generation.
According to a statement from U.S. Census Bureau to The Atlantic, the U.S. Census Bureau does not define generations, with the exception of baby boomers, which they define as anyone born from 1946 to 1964. There are several other research institutions that offer their own markers for the generational divide, like Pew Research Center, which defines 1996 as the last birth year for millennials. Pew explains that creating distinctions between generations by birth year is necessary for research purposes. However, question for us is, why does this matter in our daily lives?
If you take Strauss and Howe’s word, generational identity can play a defining role in the way we look at the world. There might be some validity to this, in the way that Gen X’s claim millennials are too idealistic, or millennials claim baby boomers are too closed-minded. However, it’s important to remember that although you are technically tied to a generation, don’t feel like you have to be confined to the culture you were born into. Recognize that generational differences exist throughout time, and that there are also outside factors that impact the way generations view the world. Important current events can make a serious impact on a generational outlook — 9/11, WWII, the Great Depression, the Roaring ‘20s, all of these can change the way people approach politics, policy and social issues. Whatever you live through will tie you closer to your generation, but your generation doesn’t need to define you. Be conscious of what your generation brings to the table, and see what you can do to make the world a better place.