Food Writer's Diary
Baby with laptop and cell phone

Beyond Millennials: What to expect from the next generation

This post is part of the Food Writer’s Diary blog.

Are you tired of reading about Millennials, that demographic of socially conscious, socially networked, free-thinking, tech-savvy people born around 1980 or later who are the absolute darlings of marketers everywhere?

Well you’re not alone. As this kale- and quinoa-eating demographic (who of course are not always averse to tucking into a Taco Bell Doritos Locos Taco or a Wendy’s Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger) move out of their parents’ homes, get married and have kids, demographers are turning their eyes to the next age group, the oldest of whom are now starting college.

What to name this group of youngsters? The fallback term so far is Generation Z.

That’s a terrible name, unless they’re zombies or we assume they’ll be the last generation ever.

The term Generation Z derives from Generation X, a moniker tacked on to my age group — people born between 1965 and 1980 or so — by our older cousins, the Baby Boomers. My recollections are biased of course, but I remember the Baby Boomers sneering at us when I was growing up, disdaining our music, insulting our values — they protested against Vietnam, what were we doing? — and in general thinking of us the way anyone thinks of people 10 years younger than them.

What were we supposed to protest against, the 10-minute war in Grenada?

Millennials were called Generation Y for awhile, but that was discarded, because these guys were important — not just the next group after Gen X, but a huge cohort, and the beloved children of Baby Boomers. Before everyone settled on the term Millennials, some people called them Generation Why, because they were so delightfully curious and inquisitive, as far as their parents the Baby Boomers were concerned.

The first name I thought of for Generation Z was “little bastards,” at first just to be a jerk, but this group, born starting around 1995, does contain a higher percentage of people born out of wedlock, and there are some indicators that the childhood obesity epidemic might have peaked in recent years. So they might be empirically littler.

I don’t think that name’s going to stick, however, and once I started to think about who these youngsters are, I became more sympathetic — because they’re the children of Generation X. I don’t have kids, but I have nieces and nephews, and my friends’ children mostly fit into this group, which means they’ll likely have to contend with living in the shadows of the Millennials.

Photo: Thinkstock

Here’s how American generations have worked for the past century or so: First there were the parents of the Baby Boomers. These were the people who struggled during the Great Depression and then went off to fight the Second World War. They came home, celebrated and started making babies. Birth rates spiked starting in 1946, the year after World War II ended, and stayed high through 1964 — the Baby Boomers literally were born during a baby boom. They were the teenagers of the late 1950s and 1960s, the hippies who then got jobs and turned into yuppies in the 1980s and dominated American culture through the Millennium, occasionally glancing down their noses at my age group while we listened to New Wave, Grunge, Rap and Hip Hop and started the first dot-com boom.

Baby Boomers were rebels and agents of social change — they drove the early civil rights, women’s liberation and gay rights movements — but they also loved their parents, and dubbed them The Greatest Generation.

But how about those people born between 1928 and 1945, who grew up during depression and war but didn’t have to fight or provide for their families? They’re called the Silent Generation. That’s partly because there aren’t that many of them, because who wants to have kids during depression and war? They also kept their heads down and worked hard — they were told that “children should be seen and not heard” — and their elders were engaged in the serious business of getting food on the table and fighting against evil. I imagine they also said to the Silent Generation things like, “Shut up! You didn’t fight in a war, and besides we don’t care what you think.”

I’m projecting, of course, assuming that they were treated by the Greatest Generation the way I feel like the Baby Boomers treated us.

But I bet it’s true, anyway. Think about how, in Mad Men, Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper (Greatest Generation) belittled Don Draper and Pete Campbell and all their other subordinates of the Silent Generation.

Also, the Silent Generation are largely the parents of Generation X, so I’m protective of them.

And so, with little reflection, I’m also feeling protective of the Millennials’ little as-yet-nameless cousins. If I were to bet on which of the terms being bandied about for them is likely to stick, it would be iGen.

That’s the term Jason Dorsey prefers. He’s a Millennial-loving Millennial and chief strategy officer of The Center for Generational Kinetics, a research firm which studies Millennials.

But it fits. As this story on howstuffworks.com points out, “they have never known a world without the Internet, cell phones or iPods.”

Dorsey draws the dividing line between Millennials and iGen at September 11, 2001. If they remember it, they’re Millennials.

Let us pause now and think about the fact that people who are currently getting their driver’s licenses don’t remember 9/11.

iGeners have grown up in an era of fear and political gridlock and economic malaise. That Howstuffworks article suggests that has given them “a sense of social justice, philanthropy and maturity that comes with growing up during one of the most severe economic recessions in history.”

They also have always had pretty much unlimited access to information. Their relationship with technology is intimate. My oldest niece, now 19 and with a dim memory of 9/11, so arguably a Millennial, called my laptop a ’pooter (short for computer, obviously), when she was 2. On the other end of the iGen spectrum, a friend my age who now has an infant and toddler at home told me how he would cradle his older son and tell him stories every night. But once when he was out of town he skyped him instead, and the lad climbed up on his dad’s laptop (Gen Xers still have laptops) and cuddled up to his dad’s image instead.

Adorable or sad, or both. You decide.

The Howstuffworks article is a great read, and describes these kids as self-directed, because they know technology better than we do, but kind of lazy because information is always at their fingertips. They’re quick to join in causes, because it’s easy to do so, and crave immediate feedback, because that’s what they’re used to.

How will they act as employees? Probably very much like all teenagers, but possibly even more distracted. As customers? I bet they’ll make Millennials look tolerant of slow service and lack of transparency.

Of course it’s really too early to tell, but I feel pretty good about them.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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