The definition of a generation has turned into a hotly contested mess, so we’re breaking down our characterization of Gen Z to explain how we characterize the generation, and why.
Ok guys, it’s time to talk about Gen Z. You’ve seen the headlines. Countless declarations of “Move over Millennials!” that tell readers there’s a new generation to worry about. But it also seems as if each of these generational thinkpieces has a different definition of when this new generation begins and ends, and just how old they are today. For the first time ever, the definition of generations is being contested—largely thanks to the competitive race to claim the crown as the experts in a brand-new group of consumers. We’ve spotted definitions of Gen Z as varying as 1997-2011, 2005-2025, and Dec 2000-???. But the reasoning behind these year spans has remained less-than-clear.
The “Y” in YPulse has always stood for “youth”—and for the majority of our company’s existence, the majority of youth has been the Millennial generation. But we remain committed to studying and understanding young consumers, which now also includes another generation: Gen Z. We’ve been researching members of this generation for some time—and even tried our hand at coming up with a better name for them back in 2013—but as the official definition around Gen Z remains a hotly contested mess, we’re taking the time to clarify just how we define them, and why.
At YPulse, we define the generations as follows:
- Boomers: 1946-1964 (currently 53-71-years-old)
- Gen X: 1965-1981 (currently 36-52-years-old)
- Millennials: 1982-2000 (currently 17-35-years-old)
- Gen Z: 2001-2019 (currently 0-16-years-old)
These definitions allow for an approximately equal distribution of years per generation, and account for the major cultural shifts that often mark the beginnings and ends of generations. Here’s why we’ve decided to move forward with this definition of Gen Z:
1. The U.S. Census Bureau
In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau issued a press release declaring that Millennials outnumber Boomers and are more diverse, using the years 1982-2000 to define Millennials. While these years did not necessarily align with previous definitions of the generation (Neil Howe and William Strauss first defined ‘Millennials’ in their 1990 book as birth years 1982-2002, then later extending the definition to 1982-2004) as of the most recent Census data, the U.S. government has defined Millennials according to this 18-year span—roughly fitting with the traditional 20-year definitions that generations have been historically analyzed under.
2. Historical events
There is no question that September 11, 2001 marked a change in culture, arguably felt not just in the U.S., but worldwide. Those children born during and after 2001 became conscious within a dramatically different global climate, and have grown up with a heightened sense of social and cultural anxiety that Millennials did not experience during the long boom of the ’80s and ’90s. Some of the biggest differences between generations are built upon the historical context that each has, and as the world is often described in “pre-9/11” or “post-9/11” terms, it only makes sense to begin the next generation in the year that this new world view began.
3. Gen X parents
In 2001, the oldest edge of Gen X turned 36, and the youngest turned 20—making them the majority of parents in the U.S. at that time. According to the CDC, in 2001 the birth rate for women 20–24-years-old was 109.9 per 1,000, 25-29-year-olds was 121.3, 30–34-years-old was 95.2, and for women 35–39 years was 41.3 per 1,000. Millennials have often been called “echo-Boomers” so it makes sense to begin a new generation at the time when Boomers began to age out of their peak parenting years and Xers picked up the parental torch. As every generation does, Gen X has taken their own approach to parenthood, and their parenting of Gen Z has undoubtedly shaped the fundamental qualities of this new generation.
With these three motivations in place, our definition of Gen Z has taken shape. We don’t doubt that the debate will continue to rage, but these parameters allow us to look at the next generation as a cohort that entered the world in a year when culture changed drastically, was born of a different generation of parents than Millennials. Their Gen X parents have taught them a practicality from a young age that has helped shift the retail landscape and impacted their priorities. As they continue to age into our research, we’re learning more about Gen Z’s prioritization of individuality and uniqueness, and their resistance to traditional labels. Our definition also gives us the backing of government data that will allow us to learn more about them as time goes on. In just one example, the 2015 Census Bureau data showed that only 51% of those under 15-years-old (Gen Z) are white, and children under five are 51% minority. This generation is not only more diverse than Millennials; Gen Z will mark the first time that the minority will become the majority—a historic shift that we covered in our Diversity Tipping Point research.
We’ll continue to research these young consumers—and keep you up to date on all we learn about Generation Z as they age into their adult years and their values and characteristics continue to clarify.