Friday, January 16, 2015

Hey, Millennials! It's 2015: Your 15 Years of Fame Are Up! What Will You Do Next?

It's 2015 and it won't be long before Millennials will have to cede their crown to a new generation. The leading edge of the post-Millennial generation turns 15 this year. If someone doesn't coin a name for them quickly, they will define themselves, and that definition will be all about owning the 21st century. If you were 15, wouldn't you?

The only reason those born in the 21st century don't have a name yet is because English is really bad at describing the first decade of a century. What do you call that? The Pre-Teens? The Double-Oughts, as they did in the 20th century? How about something more modern, say, the Double Zeros, or slicker, 00s? Before you choose the latter, remember that 00 is used to designate bathrooms in Europe. Yeah, I got nothing, either. Nothing catchy, anyway. As a linguist, this shouldn't be a huge challenge for me. I'm sure other writers have arrived at this juncture and said "Yeah, I'm not going to throw THAT out there".

How did this generation-naming thing get started, anyway? Maybe there's some inspiration there.

As far as I can tell, it started with the Baby Boomers ("Wait? Not everything does?" - The Baby Boomers), the generation BORN between 1945 and 1960 (sometimes you'll see 1965). For several reasons that include post-war optimism and medical advances, the U.S. saw a huge spike in births post-1945. This effect propagated, with a slight delay, to other countries post-WWII. Born in late 1961, I'm at the trailing edge of the Boomer generation  and I remember one constant from my childhood: Everything was getting super-crowded. Starting school on time for everyone was getting to be a challenge for still struggling economies such as West Germany. There was a teacher's shortage, a classroom shortage, a textbook shortage. I wanted to start 1st grade at 5, which was possible, but had to wait until I turned 6, because too many others who were already 6 weren't in school yet.

This dramatic birth rate increase was an actual spike in the demographic charts and was thus named a baby boom before the Boomer concept ever existed. It was the sheer number of Boomers that earned them notice and a generational designation, one that every subsequent generation tried to imitate. Or at least people never stopped hanging labels on following generations, none of which has equaled or rivaled the Boomers in numbers. So I'm not sure why it was continued.

I suppose one reason is wanting to differentiate yourself from the Boomers and their numerical superiority. To emerge from the shadow of a numerically unequaled generation. Let's not forget advertising and marketing, who like their "target demographics" neatly defined and labeled. This is, in some ways, a doomed effort. With more and more Boomers entering retirement age each year, their numbers and expected unprecedented longevity ensure that Boomers will remain part of the demographic picture, a marketing and voting block to be reckoned with for decades to come.

So where does that leave the post-Millennials? I have a suggestion: Why not drop this whole thing of labeling yourself with a marketable and catchy name and instead embrace the 21st century?

And Millennials? You came in at some point after the whole GenX / GenY mess (does anyone even remember the difference?) - labels used for those born between roughly 1965 and 1985. Those labeled as "Millennials" today actually have birth dates in the twilight of the 1900s, yet are defined, curiously, as the generation who "came of age" at the millennium: those born between 1985 and 1999. 

First, that's not how the Boomers did it. They went by their birth dates, not some vague notion about "coming of age" during the 1960s. The "coming of age" label doesn't fit the very trailing births of the 1900s anyway: those who were young kids when the century turned, just like the Boomer label never truly fit me.

Second, whether it is true or not, the actual Millennials (born 2000 and after) will look at you as the previous generation trying to appropriate a designation that didn't belong to you yet. Or at least not as fully as it does to those born post-1999. The generation that will contest your Millennial crown is only now getting around to becoming aware of such things. And they will seize upon the one thing that is fully theirs and that of the generations to come: a birth date after 1999.

And with that, dear post-Millennials, you win the generational jackpot. The labels of the 20th century worked only because the definitions of where the boundaries fell remained somewhat vague, with ranges used more often than fixed points in time. There's nothing vague about defining post-Millennials, you are one if you were born 12:01 a.m. or later on Jan. 1, 2000. You don't need any other label than that to embrace your identity and your future. 

Yet generational identity isn't just about dates. Post-Millennials are the first generation to grow up experiencing social media and cell phones not as an emerging oddity, but a daily routine. Even those of us who are early adopters of emerging technologies can't lay claim to knowing what it's like learning to navigate social media or smart phone usage as we grew up. Today's parents are taking social media literacy seriously, and the most precocious teens are already rocking it, with the potential of reaching millions, and soon, billions of people through an online presence. If you were 15 today, and the entire world could be your potential audience, what would you do with that? 

Millennials grew up largely without social media or social media-literate parents (your parents probably thought social media were a fad) and the guidance needed to avoid pitfalls such as dangerous encounters, overexposure or divulging embarrassing and private information that will remain public for the rest of your life. One of the more interesting approaches I've seen to teaching responsible social media use is to create accounts for your kids, let them use or post to them while growing up, let them read with supervision, yet keep everything private, limited only to trusted family members until the kid turns 18, with the understanding that the kid will know the difference between responsible, productive social media use and irresponsible, dangerous uses by then. Millennials had to muddle through all that on their own.

So post-Millennials, the 21st century is all yours now. You will develop and acquire technologies as strange to my generation as TV would have been to my great-grandfather. You will change the world in ways that previous generations cannot predict. You refuse to follow the patterns of your predecessors. You don't seem to be a good future market segment for gas-powered cars, coffee, tobacco or anything involving throw-away wastefulness - staples of the 20th century. Marketing people don't know what to make of you, and I think you should keep it that way. 

Oh, and don't sweat the label thing. You don't have to invent one, because you already have one: a birth date of 20xx!

If there is one piece of advice I can give you from the tail end of the Boomer generation: Don't limit your real life or social media experiences to those in your own age and socio-cultural group; why would you? You have the whole world at your fingertips; all you need to do now is choose wisely how to interact with it.

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