Talking about whose generation?

Experts say there are now four different 'generations' in the workplace at once, but 'cohorts' may be a better term for these groups.

Every once in a while we news consumers have to step out of the flow of stuff to look up some actual facts. The other day I decided to check just what birth dates are meant to define the "generations" we keep hearing about.

I was looking at a chart in a study on the Pew Center's website. In concise form in the legend of a chart, Pew defined "Greatest" as those born before 1928; "Silent" as born from 1928 through 1945; "Boomers" as born from 1946 through 1964, with "Generation X" referring to those born during the years 1965 through 1980, and "Millennials" referring to those born in 1981 or later.

Other sources prefer "Generation Y," with birth dates starting in 1974, as an alternative to "Millennials." Both Gen-X and Gen-Y as terms go back to the early 1990s. Gen-X was evidently first used in 1991 to refer to the successors to the ubiquitous baby boomers. Gen-Y is traced to a 1993 column in Advertising Age that used the term to refer to teenagers of the day – that is, those born between 1974 and 1980. Xers can be excused for feeling a little crowded here. What generation lasts only nine years?

These, clearly, are not our forefathers' generations.

But "for the first time in history, there are four generations in the workplace at the same time." This insight is on the lips of all manner of educators and consultants. They aren't talking about generations in the sense of "This business has been in the Smith family for four generations," though.

Generation, in the dictionary sense of "the average interval of time between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring," is generally understood to mean about 30 years. And as biological generations continue to stretch out – who hasn't had the experience of seeing small children in the company of adults with a little gray at the temples and wondering, hmm, older first-time parents, or youthful grandparents? – what we might call workplace or sociological generations are being compressed.

We might be better off calling these "cohorts" instead. The "four-generation workplace" is not one where the average senior employee is 90 years older than the average entry-level worker (though it will seem that way to the junior members of the team). Rather, it's one where four different life perspectives are present: the "Silents," shaped by the Depression and World War II; the boomers, products of no-limits postwar American affluence, but with the shadow of the cold war across their playground; Gen-X, more conservative, politically and financially; and Gen-Y, aka "echo boomers," the boomers' children, who have grown up wired and connected, but with no memory of, say, a "mobile" phone the size of a small backpack.

What will come after Millennials, or Gen-Y? "Generation Z" would be the easy answer. Others suggest "Generation I," for Internet. Those born in this century will never have known a world before the Internet, and that, I suspect, will be the development that future generations (that word again!) will look back on the way we look back on Gutenberg's press and Columbus's voyages.

It's not too soon to be thinking about it. After all, any number of Yers are already slipping past their 30th birthday. And, as some boomers will remember, there was a time when anyone who had reached 30 was just too old to trust.

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