In March, the Pew Research Center revamped their definitions for who gets counted under what generation. But who decides what those generations are named, if they get a name at all? Surprisingly, there isn’t one single clearinghouse where these names are chosen. Instead, generations frequently receive multiple names that then battle it out until only one remains—a process that is currently being fought between the likes of iGen, Generation Z, and Post-Millennials.
Although it’s not clear which name will come out on top for the current generation, older group names generally involve one writer picking a term and then a bunch of other writers all coming to some crude form of consensus—with a couple of failures along the way.
BABY BOOMERS (1946-1964)
Calling a dramatic increase in the number of children born a “baby boom” dates to the 19th century. In 1941, an issue of LIFE Magazine—discussing the increasing birthrate due to older couples having children after the Great Depression and the many marriages that came about because of the peacetime draft of 1940—proclaimed that “the U.S. baby boom is bad news for Hitler.”
The children who would come to be known as Baby Boomers, however, wouldn’t be born for a few more years as soldiers returned home from the war and the economy “boomed.”
Although the children born from 1946 to 1964 get the name Baby Boomers, that phrase wouldn’t appear until near the end of the generation. In January 1963 the Newport News Daily Press warned of a tidal wave of college enrollment coming as the “Baby Boomers” were growing up. That same year, the Oxford English Dictionary quoted the Salt Lake Tribune as saying “Statistics show that ... long hours of television viewing put an extra strain on chairs, causing upholstered seating pieces to wear out three to four times faster than in the days before television and the baby-boomers.”
Oddly, an alternate name for people born during this time was Generation X; as London's noted in 1964, “Like most generations, ‘Generation X’—as the editors tag today’s under 25s—show a notable lack of faith in the Old Ones.”
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GENERATION X (1965-1980)
That comment in The Observer was in reference to a then-recently published book called Generation X by Jane Deverson and Charles Hamblett. A few years later, Joan Broad bought a copy at a garage sale, her son found it, and he fell in love with the name.
That son was Billy Idol, and according to his memoir, “We immediately thought it could be a great name for this new band, since we both felt part of a youth movement bereft of a future, that we were completely misunderstood by and detached from the present social and cultural spectrum. We also felt the name projected the many possibilities that came with presenting our generation’s feelings and thoughts.” The band Generation X would begin Billy Idol’s career.
But the name Generation X wouldn’t become associated with a wide group of people until 1991. That's the year Douglas Coupland’s Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture was released. The book became a sensation for its ability to capture early '90s culture and, although it didn’t coin the words, helped popularize a range of terms as diverse as McJob and pamphleting—and a name for an entire generation. (And if you’re looking for retro gift ideas, this nostalgia-loving generation should inspire plenty of ideas.)
What comes after Generation X? Generation Y, obviously. That was the logic behind several newspaper columns that proclaimed the coming of Generation Y in the early '90s. (While the magazine Advertising Age traditionally gets the credit for coining the term in 1993, it was actually in use in 1992.) But as psychologist Jean Twenge explained to NPR regarding the failure of “baby busters” as a term to describe Generation X, “Labels that derive from the previous generation don't tend to stick.”
Instead, in 1991 authors Neil Howe and William Strauss wrote Generations, which included a discussion about the Millennials. According to Forbes, they felt that as the oldest members of this generation were graduating high school in 2000—and everyone was focusing on the coming date—Millennials seemed a natural fit.
A version of this article was originally published in 2018 and has been updated in 2022.