In my latest column for the Visual Thesaurus, I look at how and why we give names to generations, from Lost to Greatest to Millennial and beyond. (There have already been proposals to name the generation being born, or coming of age, during the COVID-19 pandemic: “Generation C”—for COVID or coronavirus.)
“My Generation” (1965): “I hope I die before I get old”
Full access is restricted to subscribers; here’s a slightly edited excerpt:
The first invented generational names were the products of war and literature. “The Generation of ’98” was the name given, in a 1913 essay collection, to a group of modernist writers and thinkers influenced by Spain’s territorial losses in the Spanish-American War. Spain also had a “Generation of ’27”: a group of poets born between 1891 and 1905 and, in many cases, persecuted or killed during the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939).
War and literature also influenced the naming of the Lost Generation of the 1920s and the Beat Generation of the 1950s. The American expatriate poet Gertrude Stein is said to have come up with “Lost Generation” to describe the post–World War I cohort of disillusioned, directionless young people; the label was popularized by Ernest Hemingway, who used it in the epigraph of his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises: “You are all a lost generation.” “Beat Generation,” which first appeared in print in 1952, is usually credited to the writer Jack Kerouac, who applied it to the poets, artists, and musicians he associated with in San Francisco. Early on, it was speculated that “beat” meant “weary,” but Kerouac himself insisted it was a religious appellation, short for “beatitude.”
Blog bonus: Because of length restrictions, I ended up omitting a lot of material. For example, we’ve been informally naming generations after technology for a century now. Automobile generation first appeared in 1920, television generation in 1957, and gamer generation in 2006. Wired magazine described the gamer generation as a group whose charter members came of age with Atari and Nintendo.
Between the Greatest (or G.I. Generation), born between 1901 and 1927, and the Baby Boom Generation (1946 to 1964), there was the Silent Generation. This group, born between 1925 and 1942, or between 1928 and 1945—the bracket varies—owes its name to a 1951 article in Time magazine headlined “The Younger Generation”:
The most startling fact about the younger generation is its silence. With some rare exceptions, youth is nowhere near the rostrum. By comparison with the Flaming Youth of their fathers & mothers, today’s younger generation is a still, small flame. It does not issue manifestoes, make speeches or carry posters. It has been called the “Silent Generation.”
Bonus fact: If Joe Biden (born in 1942) wins the election in November, he will be the first member of the Silent Generation to become US president.
Another single-source generation name is Generation Jones, an infrequently used label for people born between 1955 and 1965 who’d otherwise be labeled “late Boomers” or “early GenXers.” The term was coined by social commentator Jonathan Pontell, who took the name not from “keeping up with the Joneses” but from the slang term jonesing—craving, especially for a drug fix—which was popularized in the 1970s, when GenJonesers were in their teens. (“Jones” is an old synonym for heroin.) Pontell says key characteristics of GenJones are anonymity and “huge expectations left unfilled.”
I asked Twitter to tell me what non-English-speaking countries call various generations. The answers were interesting. Rochelle Kopp, a consultant specializing in Japan, told me that in Japanese, Baby Boom is “Dankai Sedai”: “Dankai means a lump or nodule. Sedai means generation.” Sandra Jansen informed me that Germany has Nachkriegsgeneration (boomer—literally “after-war-generation”) and Generation Golf (the equivalent of Generation X), named not for the sport but for the Volkswagen model that defined this cohort’s tastes. (The car model is not named for the sport, either, but means “gulf,” as in “gulf stream”; it was marked in the US as the Rabbit). To those labels Eva von Schaper added 68er Generation (the generation that took part in the student protests of 1968) “and maybe Nach-Wende-Generation” (“after the fall of the Berlin Wall”).
I've always loved this one: In Hungary, the term "DuckTales generation" (Kacsamesék generáció) refers to the people who were born in the early to mid-1980s, because the death of the Prime Minister was announced during a DuckTales episode in 1993.— Our Bold Hero (@ourboldhero) April 21, 2020
Then there’s Quebec.
Apparently I’m a member of la génération tampon: https://t.co/SlZdrJwqBM— Q. Pheevr (@qpheevr) April 20, 2020
(presumably because we’re a buffer between les bébé-boumeurs et -boumeuses and les millénarial-e-s).
It seems that parents and kids sniped at each other for eons without anyone coming up with a snappy descriptor for the conflict until the early 1960s, when someone coined generation gap. The OED’s earliest citation is a July 28, 1962, headline in the Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, Daily Record: “Generation Gap Affects Parent-Child Relations.” In 1969, Don and Doris Fisher of San Francisco—both members of the Silent Generation—opened the first of their stores dedicated to selling two things: jeans and records. Don had wanted to call it Pants and Discs, but Doris, having a better grasp of branding and the zeitgeist, prevailed. The store was named The Gap, short for “generation gap.”
It would be the first of many generational references in branding. Generation Hope, founded in 2010, provides support to teen parents in the Washington, DC, area. Generation Rescue, founded in 2005 and made famous (or infamous) by its spokesperson Jenny McCarthy, “advocates the scientifically disprovenview that autism and related disorders are primarily caused by environmental factors, particularly vaccines” (Wikipedia). Seventh Generation, founded in 1988, sells cleaning and personal-care products; its name is said to be a reference to the Great Law of the Iroquois, which considers the impact of a decision on the next seven generations.
Finally, raise a class to the Pepsi Generation, the theme of an ad campaign for Pepsi-Cola that launched in 1963, shortly after “generation gap” gained currency. The full slogan—“Come Alive! You’re the Pepsi Generation!”—was submitted by Ellen M. Reimer of Appleton, Wisconsin, in a contest. (Her prize: a new car.) Pepsi ad executive Alan Pottasch, who created the contest and the compaign, later said: “For us to name and claim a whole generation after our product was a rather courageous thing that we weren't sure would take off.” In 1984, Pottasch created a follow-up campaign, “The Choice of a New Generation.”
The song featured in the original ad was sung by Joanie Sommers. The lyric:
It's the Pepsi Generation
Comin' at ya,
Put yourself behind a Pepsi
When you're livin...