It sometimes feels as though there’s a constant stream of discourse online about different generations and generation gaps: millennials versus gen Zers or Boomers versus gen X, and the list goes on. It’s often hard, if not impossible, to keep up with all the jargon, the endless neologisms—gen X, gen Y, gen Z, then gen Alpha, presumably to be followed by gen Beta?
I’ve never quite been sure which generation I fit into based on broad descriptors. Born in the mid-90s, I seem to fall on the cusp of millennial and gen Z. I’ve grown up with tech, but I still remember dial-up internet and life before smartphones. I recently learned that this, apparently, makes me a zillennial. Once again, the dates for this grouping vary slightly but the term zillennial basically sums up those of us who were born in the mid-90s, the cusp babies.
Usually grouped in 20-year time intervals, the generations are as follows: the Lost Generation (born 1883 to 1900), the Greatest Generation (born 1901 to 1927), the Silent Generation (born 1928 to 1945), Baby Boomers (the first post-WWII births 1946 to 1964), Generation X (born 1965 to 1980), Generation Y, also known as millennials, (born 1981 to 1996), Generation Z, also sometimes called Zoomers, (born 1997 to 2012), and Generation Alpha (born 2013 to now).
These, of course, are defined by a combination of technological and sociopolitical changes that largely affect Western countries. All of the understanding that we have of generations was developed by two Americans, William Strauss and Neil Howe—as to be expected when it comes to American inventions, the theory was unimaginatively deemed ‘the Strauss-Howe generational theory’ and applies primarily to American demographic cycles.
Major international events frequently define generations in terms of sociopolitical ramifications, economic circumstances, and remembered events. Do you recall the Apollo moon landing? What about the 2001 September 11 attacks?
Such rigid delineation of generational groups inevitably leaves out subtlety. Those born on the cusp of two generations might have experienced a sense of exclusion, falling in between both while still not fully belonging to either. For zillennials though, I think this is felt particularly acutely. The defining difference between generations Y and Z is the relationship to technology, the internet in particular.
Technological change happens fast. Think how quickly computers have shrunk, or how seamlessly we shifted from the brick phone to the camera phone to the smartphone—I mean, c’mon, gen Alpha are bound to be whizzes at artificial intelligence when they grow up.
Indeed, generational experiences of technology can shift wildly in just a few years. In broad terms, millennials grew up before the internet revolution while gen Zers had already had their growth spurts by the time Apple got to the iPhone 8.
Zillennials, meanwhile, grew up alongside it. We didn’t really have any life experience of the time before the internet or mobile phones dominated our lives, but we remember when each of these things became ubiquitous.
We all instinctively knew how to use computers, mobile phones, video game consoles—although we did all still nostalgically hold onto our Tamagotchis. We lived through the days of Bebo and MSN Messenger, apps that were tied to the family desktop computer and came a good decade before Snapchat and TikTok. We remember the rise of Facebook and Twitter while we were in secondary school. There were those few rich kids who had the earliest generation of the iPhone, but by sixth form, smartphones were everywhere.
We were the first kids who sat through assemblies on cyber bullying, mostly given by teachers who didn’t quite understand what they were talking about. We remember using floppy disks and memory sticks for homework. ICT or IT was compulsory at secondary school but instead of learning the kinds of code that would’ve gotten us employed with Elon Musk, we spent months becoming experts at Microsoft PowerPoint. We owned every PlayStation console and played every Pokémon game.
By comparison, it seems as though school for those even a few years younger than us zillennials was far more stressful—even more so when you consider the impact the COVID-19 pandemic will have had on gen Alpha’s education. They will forever be known as the COVID generation, I suppose.
That being said, generation Alpha does definitely have the upper hand when it comes to baby bling. So many youngsters have a hold of a tablet before they’ve even held a piece of homework. Technology, with all its joys and destructiveness, is now ubiquitous and inescapable.
Depending on how you look at it, zillennials can be seen from two very different perspectives. One would be that this cohort have the best of both worlds, they’re tech-savvy but not entirely dependent on it, and moreover, they understand its limitations and flaws. On the other hand, zillennials have in many ways been the generational guinea pig.
Do we put too much emphasis on the arbitrary year 2000? It’s ultimately just a quirk of the decimal number system and the Gregorian calendar, there’s nothing special about it. Decades only really gain their defining characteristics in retrospect—the roaring 20s, the swinging 60s—and I’m still not even sure what we’re meant to call the decade from 2010 to 2019. The nightmarish 2010s?
Personally, I find the whole generational framing quite annoying and unhelpful. As more adults are having children later in life, generations are themselves stretching. So, might the generational structure itself be breaking down?
Sometimes, I wonder whether future historians will talk about the second Elizabethan era, 1952 to 2022. A lot changed in those 70 years: the disintegration of the European empire, the Cold War and the Space Race, the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Perhaps we need to think more about our shared experiences and less about the lines that divide us into groups. Generations are a way of understanding our differences, but perhaps we need to instead focus on our similarities.