Frames and Names: Getting Generations Right

Framed generations

When it comes to generations, fuzzy thinking abounds.

Just how long is a generation and what do we call it? For the past thirty years, we’ve cast the generations as Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Gen X (1965-1980), Millennials (1981-1995) and Gen Z (1996-?). But those names and frames are highly disputed in the research. The U.S. Census Bureau confessed to one inquiring mind: “We do not define the different generations…the only generation we do define is Baby Boomers and that year bracket is from 1946 to 1964.”[1]

Let the confusion begin

Let’s take Gen X (1965 to 1980). In recent years, this generational frame has shrunk to 1965 to 1977 to allow for a new micro-generation known as the “Xennials” (born somewhere between 1977 and 1985).[2] Originally Gen X was tagged “Baby Busters” but that term stuck lost luster in the 1990s, thanks to Douglas Coupland’s generational novel of the same name. In 1991, William Strauss and Neil Howe resized Gen X (who they referred at the time as the 13er Generation) to a 1961-1981 frame in their socio-historical work Generations. These tweaks helped but the confusion remained.

Enter the millennials

This cohort carried monikers like Gen Y, Boomlets, Echo Boomers and Digital Natives. One writer noted they prefer no label at all.[3] Strauss and Howe, who coined the term “Millennial,” framed their birth years as 1982-2004. Recently, the Pew Research Center settled on 1981-1996[4], while sociology professor Dr. Jean Twenge argues for 1980-1994.[5]

It’s no wonder Gen Xers and Millennials are confused…and find these frames and names counterproductive. It doesn’t help that the term “Millennial” (like Gen X) now carries negative cultural baggage. In general, the Millennials are perceived as narcissistic, entitled and “snowflake.”

It’s why I think we need a national conversation on generational “frames and names.”

In GenTech, I proposed a traditional and historical view that a generation roughly matches a phase of the human life span (or twenty years). We do most of our “birthing” in the young adult phase (ages 20-40). By age 20 we are mostly adults. Approximately every twenty years we have cultural catastrophes (Hiroshima, JFK’s assassination. Challenger, 9-11) that define our generational cohort. In many ancient and modern civilizations, age twenty is when a child is recognized as an adult. And one more thing: we don’t have micro-generations, but we do have identifiable phases. What we often call Gen Y and Gen Z? Just two phases within the wider Millennial generation.

But the labels mean nothing if we have bad definitions

It’s why I also think generations are better defined through the emerging technologies in our coming of age years (ages 10-25). I think the technological edges are fluid and overlapping. Consequently, we are a radio or television generation. We are a space or gamer generation. We are a net or iTech generation.

That’s who we really are.


[1] “Here Is When Each Generation Begins and Ends, According to the Facts” (Atlantic Monthly, March 24, 2014):

[2] “Xennial”:

[3] “What is a Millennial?” by Lindsey Pollack. February 14, 2018:

[4] Pew Research Center:

[5] Jean Twenge FAQ: “What Generation Do I Belong To?”


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