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We're defining our generations in a way that makes no sense

Published March 28, 2014 8:31 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Today's young adults go by a few different names. Collectively, those of us in our 20s and early 30s are typically known as "Generation Y" or the "Millenials." But these designations are clunky and, more importantly, completely gloss over some of the most generation-defining developments in recent history.

They're inaccurate, in other words, and we should change them.

Earlier this week, several major news outlets were arguing over who exactly falls into this current generation of young adults. The New York Times ran a piece about "Millenials," but cited examples of people in their late 30s. Amanda Hess at Slate didn't buy that, though, and wrote that those people weren't Millenials at all. Then, finally, Philip Bump of The Wire provided a useful chart explaining that the current generation of young adults began either in the late 70s or early 80s and continued until 2000. Or maybe a bit later.

Except that's not really right at all. My own family offers a useful illustration: I was born in 1982 and I have a sister who was born in 1995. We're both adults now, and by definition we're both Millenials.

Our experiences growing up and reaching adulthood, however, are very different. When I was a teenager, I called my friends on my family's shared land line. I got my driver licence when I was 16. I remember watching music videos on MTV (though even in my adolescence music videos were becoming rare). Even more importantly, I was already an adult when Facebook, YouTube and all the staples of the modern Internet came along. I didn't get an email address until I went to college. I was in my 20s before I got a cellphone.

Yes, there were people who adopted these technologies sooner than me, but I remember a time when they weren't ubiquitous and in some cases didn't even exist. I was a grown up for some of that time.

That's not true for my now 19-year-old sister. In her case, her high school was filled with cell phones. Driving was significantly less important, possibly because of all those phones. "Social media" has basically always been around — the only question was when you're parents would let you use it. Everyone my sister's age watched the Disney Channel, which was no longer on premium cable.

I could go on and on, but the picture should be clear: despite an age gap that is not technically huge, at least in the grand scheme, my sister is effectively a digital native. I, on the other hand, am a naturalized citizen of this new world. I got a taste of pre-digital life.

Every generation experiences change and life for people at either end is always different. But my point is that as much as it pains me to say it, my early life experience was more similar to that of a Gen-Xer than a late Millenial. And that's probably true of everyone born in most of the 1980s — or about half of the so-called Millenials.

In essence, then, I'm arguing that the advent and maturation of things like the Internet and personal computing represent a massive shift in the way people live. In that way, these changes are like World War II, redefining how we divide up our generations. The explosion of technology is a new generational starting point.

The problem, I think, is that we're using "the millennium" as a anchor point, assuming that the year 2000 was a generation-defining moment. Truth is, it wasn't. Technological advancement didn't happen on the arbitrary schedule set by the Gregorian calendar, nor did the social changes wrought by that advancement.

Ultimately, people like my sister who were born in the 1990s may have experienced a few years of infancy without Facebook or YouTube, but in all practical ways, they're more like my post-Millenial brother — who turns 12 this year — than they are like me. That makes me feel really old. I don't particularly like it. But in the end — and given the way our culture has evolved — it's probably time to reconsider the divisions between generations.

— Jim Dalrymple II

Twitter: @jimmycdii