Why The ‘Z’ In ‘Gen Z’ Means ‘Zombie’

If you’re in your teens or early twenties, you might just be in the midst of an identity crisis.

And not the kind suggested by politically correct headlines, either. This crisis nonetheless does stem from the headline imperative.

You’ve no doubt heard of Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers, Millennials and Gen-Zers.

There’s only one problem with this nomenclature. Researchers in generational studies have yet to officially declare the existence of a generation after Millennials.

That’s right. “Gen-Z” is the zombie generation. It written about as though it’s an actual thing, but it doesn’t really exist.

To get a sense of why you see talk about “Gen-Z” as if it was a living and breathing fact, you need to recall how it all began. For this, you’d need to look to an article from the Spring of 2012 in USA Today titled “After Gen X, Millennials, what should next generation be?”

But it’s not the headline or even the content that you’d want to pay attention to. It’s the sub-headline: “A frantic race to name the next generation of American consumers may be nearing the finish line.”

That tells you everything you need to know. The term “Gen-Z” spawned from the world of marketing, just like the term “Gen-Y” did.

Don’t remember “Generation-Y”? “Gen Y” first appeared in an Advertising Age editorial. Today you call that generation “Millennials.”

How are generations defined?

Chuck Underwood, one of the pioneers in the field of generational study as well as the creator and host of the national-television PBS series, America’s Generations With Chuck Underwood, says, “In legitimate generational study, we need to document that high school graduates, for about 4 or 5 consecutive years, are now demonstrating core values that are significantly different from those of the Millennials. It’s ‘4 or 5’ years to make sure any changes aren’t merely a quick blip on the radar screen. We have not yet documented significant change.”

You might be familiar with the old “roughly every twenty years” definition. Call this the “familial” definition. As in, the number of years between when the parents were born and when their kids were born.

In the past, twenty years was usually the time it took for parents’ children to grow up, get married and start having kids of their own. For example, The G.I. Generation was born between 1901 and 1926, the Silent Generation from 1927 to 1945, the Baby Boomers from 1946 to 1964 and Gen-X from 1964 to 1981.

This means the first Millennials were born in 1982. With some suggesting “Gen-Z” starts anywhere from 1993 to 1997, this implies the Millennials generation lasted only a decade or so. You can understand how this doesn’t just violate biological sense; it also violates common sense.

That doesn’t mean the phenomenon being reported isn’t real. It’s just being mislabeled.

“Today’s 18 to 20-year-olds might simply be Second-Wave Millennials,” says Underwood. “There’s a gray area involved. And the news media, desperate to attract young adults, have pounced on this idea of ‘Gen-Z,’ as have so-called consultants eager to land their next speaking gig or have an excuse to write a book.”

Those old enough to remember saw how First-Wave Baby Boomers differed ever so slightly from Second-Wave members of the same generation. In some ways, Second-Wave-ers have similarities with the next generation, although at the core they retain the same basic values and shared experiences as First-Wave-ers.

“Second-Wave-ers, within all generations, differ slightly from older First-Wave-ers, but not enough to declare them a new generation,” says Underwood. “Usually, the First-Wave/Second-Wave differences arise from the fact that the two waves had parents from different generations. For example, older Millennials have mostly Boomer parents, while younger Mils have Gen-X parents. Parents pass on their own core values to their kids; hence, first and second waves.”

Marketing professionals seek to define groups into consumer categories. This makes their job easier. It doesn’t necessarily help you.

Viewing the generations the same way researchers do may help you understand how and why you might be motivated from an entrepreneurial standpoint. The differences suggested by “Gen-Z” reports may be genuine, but they may be the result of First-Wave and Second-Wave generational tendencies.

And if Underwood is correct, discovering the entrepreneurial difference between Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers may explain what you’re seeing today with Millennials.

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