In a fit of meta, this article from last weekend’s Sunday NYTimes states:
“Suddenly, as you may have noticed, millennials are everywhere.”
And its true: people are talking about Millennials (and generations) at a rate not seen in a long time. Since Neil Howe and William Strauss coined the term back in 1991, its usage has climbed steadily. But so have the terms “Boomer” and “Generation X” increase in that time. Below is a chart of the use of these terms in books cataloged by Google:
What does this tell us? First, it says that the terms “Millennial” and “Boomer” probably refer to something other than generational cohorts (since their numbers were high before 1990) but secondly it means that interest in generations, not just Millennial (born 1982-2004) is rising.
There are good reasons for this dynamic. Part of it comes from the popularity of Strauss and Howe’s theories. In the NYT article it quotes Morley Winograd and Michael Hais who are often refer to the Strauss and Howe theories in their books. But a bigger part comes from the transition we are going through as Millennials shift from childhood to early adulthood.
This shift in a generation’s life stage always heralds a new awareness of the different character of “young people” at the time. This was true back in the 80’s and 90’s when Generation X (born 1961-1981) came of age and were pegged as “Slackers”. Looking back another 20 years, the Boomer (born 1943-1960) were noted for their rebellious and counter-culture as young adults. These shifts always catch the older generations by surprise (unless they have read Strauss and Howe’s theories!) and captivate the collective consciousness.
The NYT article points out that the perceptions of the older generations about the Millennials is somewhat warped. This, again, is no surprise since the way X’ers and Boomers behaved in young adulthood was very different from Millennials and we judge them on that basis. It’s hard to turn off the tape recorder in our brains that says “Back when I was your age…”
The good news is that all this attention is also breeding a bit more understanding this time around. Although some may judge Millennials as narcissistic or entitled, many others recognize that these perceptions are largely based on our biased frame of reference. I have seen many conversations in my personal and professional life become much more productive once people understand the basics of generational theory. And, yes, that means that if you are reading this you should get started on understanding generations too.