Pew quits the generation game

by John Q on June 6, 2023

Since the beginning of this millennium, I’ve been writing critiques of the “generation game”, the idea that people can be divided into well-defined groups (Boomers, Millennials and so on), with specific characteristics based on their year of birth. As I said in my first go at this issue, back in 2000 (reproduced here )

Much of what passes for discussion about the merits or otherwise of particular generations is little more than a repetition of unchanging formulas about different age groups Ð the moral degeneration of the young, the rigidity and hypocrisy of the old, and so on.

Demographers have a word (or rather two words) for this. They distinguish between age effects and cohort effects. The group of people born in a given period, say a year or a decade, is called a cohort. Members of a cohort have things in common because they have shared common experiences through their lives. But, at any given point in time, when members of the cohort are at some particular age, they share things in common with the experience of earlier and later generations when they were at the same age.

My most prominent contribution to the debate was this piece in the New York Times five years ago, prompted by the Pew Research Centre’s announcement that it would define people born between 1981 and 1996 as members of the millennial generation. After discussing the history of the “generation” idea, I made the central point

Dividing society by generation obscures the real and enduring lines of race, class and gender. When, for example, baby boomers are blamed for “ruining America,” the argument lumps together Donald Trump and a 60-year-old black woman who works for minimum wage cleaning one of his hotels.

Now, I’m pleased to say, Pew has changed its view, partly in response to a “growing chorus of criticism about generational research and generational labels in particular.”

From now on, they will take proper account of age, cohort and period effects, with the result that

our audiences should not expect to see a lot of new research coming out of Pew Research Center that uses the generational lens. We’ll only talk about generations when it adds value, advances important national debates and highlights meaningful societal trends.

What’s striking is that this is happening at a time when political views, at least in the US, UK and Australia, show a really strong age gradient, with old people far more likely to be on the political right. Understanding this is important, and the use of sloppy labels like “Boomers” (focusing attention on a demographic event 60-80 years ago) is unlikely to be useful.



marcel proust 06.06.23 at 1:44 am


EB 06.06.23 at 12:19 pm

As far as I can tell, the tendency to characaterize cohorts by supposed personal or group characteristics gained momentum when those born immediately post-WWII were called Baby Boomers, but this designation was primarily an attempt to highlight the large numbers of chidlren born during that time, not an attempt to describe other features that they may (or may not) have shared.


nastywoman 06.06.23 at 8:58 pm

OK –
as I always had this… this ‘feeling? -‘ that some of you ‘Elders’ just don’t like
me and I really didn’t want to call ‘y’all ‘Boomers’ let me at least quote a bit
more extensively how Wikipedia describes – ‘the problem’

“OK boomer” or “okay boomer” is a catchphrase and internet meme that has been used by Gen-X, Millennials and Gen Z to dismiss or mock attitudes typically associated with baby boomers – people born in the two decades following World War II. The phrase first drew widespread attention due to a November 2019 TikTok video in response to an older man, though the phrase had been coined years before that. Considered by some to be ageist, the phrase has developed into a retort for resistance to technological change, climate change denial, marginalization of members of minority groups, or opposition to younger generations’ values.[1][2][3]

The first recorded instance of “OK boomer” is in a Reddit comment on 29 September 2009,[5] and it appeared from 2015 on 4chan, usually in reference to conservatives who were pro-Israel.[6][7] “OK boomer” reached mass popularity in late 2019 as a reaction to an unidentified older man’s rant on TikTok condemning “infantile” younger generations “hobbled” by social media and participation trophies. He said, “millennials and Generation Z have the Peter Pan syndrome […] they don’t ever want to grow up [and] they think that the utopian ideals that they have in their youth are somehow going to translate into adulthood”. Thousands of viewers responded with “OK boomer” as “a sophisticated, mass retaliation” against the impact of past generations.[8]

The phrase has been used as a retort for perceived resistance to technological change, climate change denial, or opposition to younger generations’ opinions.[1][2][3] Various media publications have noted the meme’s usage on social media platforms beyond TikTok,[6][2][9] and The New York Times wrote that “teenagers use it to reply to cringey YouTube videos, Donald Trump tweets, and basically any person over 30 who says something condescending about young people – and the issues that matter to them.”[2] As of November 2022, videos tagged with #OkBoomer on TikTok had been viewed about 4 billion times.[10]

AND – shouldn’t an Australian know that =
‘New Zealand MP Chlöe Swarbrick (born 1994) reacted to a heckle from fellow MP Todd Muller (born 1968) with the phrase “OK boomer”.
In early November 2019, while giving a speech supporting a climate change bill, New Zealand MP Chlöe Swarbrick claimed that the average age of parliamentarians was 49 years old, and Gen X MP Todd Muller interrupted her, to which she responded “OK boomer”.[11][12] She wrote in an article in The Guardian that her comment “symbolised exhaustion of multiple generations.”



tenacitus 06.06.23 at 11:17 pm

Ever since I discovered my generation was to be called Gen X. I intuited marketers wanted a easy, lazy label for selling things to young people. The baby boom was a global event. Maybe a similar book happened after WW1 and the 1918 flu but people wrapped up in generation tropes might not pay attention to something that happened a generation ago. Many times when journalists and people on the media start taking about millennials, zoomers, gen Xers I just know they are more interested in putting people in boxes and avoid the complexity and effort needed to understand groups in cohorts and groups across cohorts. But playing generational warfare is easy and brings clicks and eyeballs. So glad Pew listened to you and other people


bad Jim 06.07.23 at 5:52 am

I’m inclined to lump my adult nieces and nephews into the same generation, because my sister and brothers and I are unquestionably boomers, yet some are Gen X and some millennial. Their progeny are all Gen Z or whatever we’re going to call it.

In my life generations seemed more a function of parentage than calendar year. My grandfather called me “Yimmy”; in that sense I’m a third generation Swede. My parents were certainly children of the depression for whom “Roosevelt” and “President” were synonyms; my father went to college on the GI bill and bought our first house with a VA loan. I went to college on a scholarship from an aerospace company.

The spread in birth dates in the following generation attests to a rather leisurely approach to attachment and reproduction by my siblings, suddenly reversed by their progeny, with six kids arriving in as many years, a couple more a few years later.


bad Jim 06.08.23 at 6:09 am

Popular music has long been a way of categorizing and stratifying generations. Swing was the sound of the Greatest Generation, and in many respects jazz of some sort or another remains a default mode of entertainment. I have in mind my town’s community band, but it’s been a convention of late night TV shows since their inception.

Boomers weren’t quite the original rock and roll generation, but in the 60’s rock and R&B became so mainstream that even my grandparents were listening to the Beatles, as are my nieces and nephews and, I’m pretty sure, my grandlings as well.

That’s not to say that they don’t puzzle over some of the titles in my record collection, and wouldn’t immediately understand a comparison between Blondie’s Rapture and The Purple People Eater. I certainly haven’t kept up with contemporary music. I’ll note, though, that my youngest nephew, quite the pianist, wowed his classmates with a rendition of Coldplay’s Clocks, from an album assisted by my near contemporary Brian Eno.

It seems odd to think there was a time when music was thought to define generations.


engels 06.16.23 at 9:37 pm



engels 06.17.23 at 10:30 am

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