What are the origins of generation names?
The word seems to crop up every time you read a report on current cultural trends, especially in the US: millennial, referring to a ‘person reaching young adulthood around the year 2000’. But how did we end up with the term in the first place? And what about those other generation terms, like the Beat Generation, Lost Generation, the baby boomers, Generation X, the Silent Generation?
The term lost generation is often applied to those who reached young adulthood during and just after the First World War, due to the high proportion of the population that perished in the war and the directionless, aimless life led by some post-war. The term is often used more broadly to refer to any generation that has ‘lost’ its values or morals, etc. Lost generation can be traced back to one of the two epigraphs in Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises (published as Fiesta in the UK). The epigraph, quoting American author Gertrude Stein in conversation, presumably with Hemingway, reads: ‘You are all a lost generation.’
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the Greatest Generation refers to the ‘generation of Americans reaching adulthood during the Second World War (1939–45)’. While evidence exists for greatest generation being used to refer to these men and women during the Second World War, Greatest Generation as a moniker was more or less coined by journalist Tom Brokaw in his 1998 book The Greatest Generation. This generation is also sometimes known as the G.I. Generation.
The silent generation is composed of the Americans born between the mid-1920s and the early 1940s. Due to the effects of the Great Depression and World War II on the birth rate, this generation had a much smaller population that those that followed. The term silent generation first appeared in a 1951 essay in Time magazine, with reference to their silence during the McCarthy era and their willingness to assimilate into the social order.
While there are doubts about the etymology of this sense of beat, it seems pretty straightforward where the term beat generation came from. In a 1948 conversation with writer John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac is noted as having spoken of a ‘beat generation’. The term came to refer to the ‘movement of young people in the 1950s who rejected conventional society and favored Zen Buddhism, modern jazz, free sexuality, and recreational drugs’. Unlike other terms in this list, this term refers more to a subculture than an entire demographical cohort. For more information on beat, the beat generation, and beatnik, you can read our recent post on the topic.
The most famous American generational cohort, the baby boomers or the boomers refer to the generation born during the ‘baby boom’ following World War II, usually in the period between 1945 and 1960. The term baby boom, referring to a conspicuous rise in childbirth, has been in American English since the late 19th century. Another term for baby boom is bulge.. Though originally North American, the term is now also used in other English-speaking countries.
Although Generation X is generally used to refer to the generation of North Americans reaching adulthood in the 1980s and 1990s, the term itself is a few decades older. The term Generation X can be traced back to as early as the 1950s, when it was used more broadly to refer to a ‘generation of young people about whose future there is uncertainty’. Over the next two decades, the term made several notable appearances, including in the 1965 book Generation X by British journalists Charles Hamblett and Jane Deverson, which examined Mod culture, and as the name of Generation X, an English punk rock group formed in 1976 (Billy Idol was the lead singer), which took its name from Hamblett and Deverson’s book.
The term Generation X experienced a resurgence in the 1990s thanks to another book, the 1991 novel Generation X by Doug Coupland. Along with the term MTV generation, referring to the popularity of the television network among young adults at the time, Generation X has come to refer more specifically to the generation born in the early 1960s to the late 1970s, which is ‘often perceived to be disaffected and directionless’. Born in the ‘baby bust’ after the post-war ‘baby boom’, this cohort is also significantly smaller than both the baby boomers and Generation Y.
In an alphabetically sensible move, the generation loosely following Generation X is often known as Generation Y. Thought to hold attitudes and values in contrast to those of Generation X, Generation Y is also a much larger cohort than the preceding Generation X. Because many members of Generation Y are the children of baby boomers, the cohort is also known as echo boomers, referring to those born between the late 1970s and the early 1990s.
The term millennial, referring to the generation entering adulthood around the turn of the 21st century, has been around since the early 1990s. It dates from the 1991 book Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe, which covers their theory of social generations, now known as the ‘Strauss-Howe generational theory’. Strauss and Howe have gone on to write several books about the social impact of the millennials. Additionally, there is some vagueness as to whether millennial refers to those entering adulthood around the year 2000, or those who are born around the year.