Generational Differences

Generation Y, Z, and Alpha Characteristics

Baby Boomer: Peace man!!!!
Generation X: Long live Cobain!!!!
Generation Y/Millennial: Who needs Peace and Grunge when you have Lady Gaga!!!
Generation Z: I wish I could buy an iPad, but I’m in debt!
(Urban Dictionary)


Looking at youth through the lens of generational characteristics compares Baby Boomers and Generations X, Y, and Z.[i] Millennial and Y are used interchangeably, the former more often. Most of the generation studies are in the US. William Strauss and Neil Howe’s first book about this topic was Generations in 1991. Their first book about this generation is Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (2002), followed by later books and reports about the Millennials in college and in the workplace.

They were born anywhere from 1977 to 2010–different authors select different dates. The founders of the generational theory, Howe and Strauss use 1982 to 2003 as Gen Y’s birth dates.[ii] For the first time in US history, whites were a minority of the babies born in 2011; 44% born after 1980 aren’t white and 30% are the children of immigrants. I gave SpeakOut questions to youth 19 and younger from 2004 to 2014, so SpeakOut respondents are in the Gen Y group, although some would view the younger ones as Gen Z. Youth are one-third of the US population, from 76 to 100 million people, depending on the author. In Japan, Russia and Southern Europe, Gen Y is smaller than previous generations, and thus they grew up in small families. In Eastern Europe and Russia, Gen Y is the first to grow up without communism. In newly industrial countries like China, India, and Korea, middle class Gen Y grew up in a very different world than their grandparents who lived in poor rural areas.

It’s of course impossible to make accurate generalizations about millions of people, and academics are often critical of the Howe and Strauss generational typologies, comparing it to the 12 astrological types. Howe himself reports, “Academia gives this [theory] no home.”[iii] Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, University of Virginia, believes “Generational thinking is just a benign form of bigotry, in which you flatten out diversity. This is debilitating to the job of trying to work with young people.” Others (as in Diverse Millennial Students in College edited by Fred Bonner II, et al.) point out that young minorities and poor kids weren’t raised to feel special and protected and the huge UCLA longitudinal survey of freshmen doesn’t show they’re more confident, one of the common traits ascribed to the Millennials.

Strauss, Howe and Reena Nadler explain that four major generational types repeat through the centuries. Somehow the dialectical process repeats every 80 years. Four types of generations of around 20 years are found in each cycle in the same order each time, which Strauss and Howe call the “fourth turning” in their book by that title. Each fourth turning alternates between a crisis such as World War II that encourages group cohesion and “awakening” period of inner renewal such as the “consciousness revolution” of the 1960s that encouraged individualism. The US is in its fifth generational cycle of 80 years, which began around 1968 and will last until the middle of this century.

The pattern that prevails now is a dominant idealist generation (Boomers) is confronted by the new group-minded civic generation (Millennials), during a conflict caused by a catalytic event. Howe suggested this catalyst occurred in 2008 with the recession and the election of President Barack Obama. He says this stage will be followed by the “regeneracy” led by a strong leader who helps meld differences by building something new. Howe predicts this may happen before 2016, followed by a climax and resolution around 2026 if the timing of past turnings repeats. The characteristics of the four generations in the current fourth turning are:

Idealists/Prophet—the Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964). Their parents indulged them so they developed strongly held values and little faith in the ability of institutions to adopt their beliefs. They’re individualists who raised group-oriented Millennials, as the generations react to each other. The film Forrest Gump (1994) covers Boomers’ historical milestones. In The Bill Chill (1983) the Boomers have given up their youthful activism.

Reactive/Nomad—Gen X (born 1965 to 1982) were left alone a lot by their parents as portrayed in the film The Breakfast Club (1985). They tend to be individualistic, alienated, entrepreneurial, and pragmatic. See the “Generation X Goes Global” website.

Civic/Hero—Millennial (1982 to 2004) were protected as children similar to The Bill Cosby Show family in an “attachment” parenting style. Thus they want their employers to provide mentoring and guidance, and assume they’re special and deserve attention from older people. Although they come of age in a period of intense turmoil, they’re pragmatic optimists. They want to resolve social challenges and fix institutions, similar to the previous civic generation, the GI Generation (1901-1924) active during the New Deal. Their archetype is the Hero who likes teamwork and is rather conventional. Civics like to work together in groups. Howe points to a US Marine Corps recruitment ad directed at youth: “This campaign represents an opportunity to share who the Marines truly are–tough warriors, but also leaders in service and altruism–two of the core values of the millennial generation.”[iv]

Further blurring the distinctions between generations, market researchers at the Isenberg School of Management distinguish between younger Millennials and older ones born after 1981 as having different values.[v] They name the younger Gen Ys an “entitlement” cohort, more hedonistic than the older ones, more secular and sexually permissive. Their defining moment was the recession, while the spread of the Internet in 1995 was the defining moment for the older ones. Instead of valuing thrift, the “entitled” teens want to enjoy life. They are also less concerned about politics, sustainability, and saving. The Isenberg researchers define overall Millennial characteristics similar to other researchers: tech-savvy, ambitious, entrepreneurial, respectful of institutions, accepting of diversity, like to work in teams, community-minded with a global perspective, and wanting to make a difference in the world.

The film Juno (2008) expresses their indie comfort with untraditional roles and unique styles. She wears plaid flannel shirts, stripped shirts and boys’ jeans and makes flippant comments. Juno decides to permit a single woman to adopt her baby, saying “normalness was never our thing.” The Matrix (1999) and The Social Network illustrated the importance of technology to Gen Y. They grew up along with Harry Potter.

Adaptive/Artist—(2005 to 2025). Howe calls them Homelanders. Their predecessor in the pattern was the Silent Generation, born 1925 to 1945. Growing up in a crisis, they are overprotected as children, creating adults who tend to be conformists who avoid risk.


From India, Principal retired Colonel Atamaran Sekar worries about the pressure middle-class parents put on their one or two children to study hard. He worries abut the health of these youthful couch potatoes who increasingly consume American-style junk food. (Among poor children, more than 40% of children under age three are underweight.[i] In response, the government promised to subsidize grains in ration shops for the two-thirds of Indians who live below the poverty line.) In contrast, when Mr. Sekar was a boy, he enjoyed life more, played sports and had more freedom to do what he liked. His teachers were freer to expand on the textbook material, not just teaching to pass the college entrance exams. “Following the American system” of divorce rather than cohesive extended families also worries him.

Millennials are of course shaped by their nationality. A Japanese film titled Nobody Knows (2004) tells the story of four children in Tokyo, ages five to twelve with different fathers, who are abandoned by their mother when she moves to Osaka to marry. They are very different from children in the West. The child actors were nonprofessionals and the director’s goal was to give minimal adult direction as the cameras followed them over a year in a small apartment to see how the children would behave on their own. They react stoically and without complaint, much differently than I imagine European children would react to the responsibilities of managing to find food and water without money. They don’t even cry or ask for help when the older sister is killed falling off a stool.

Having been to Japan over a dozen times to teach workshops, I’ve noticed this emotional reserve except when businessmen get together after work to drink. It might be fair to say Japanese tend to be more controlled in their emotional expression than, say, Brazilians or Italians, and that individualistic Baby Boomers tend to be different than group-oriented Millennials.

Taika reports values are more traditional in Ethiopia,


I really don’t know how kids from my corner (Ethiopia) can be categorized. The thing is, we are not affected by natural disasters, shootings and attacks and terrorist activities.  Yes we are really into tech. but it is not that much part of our lives. Friends and playgrounds have been where our world revolved around. Family is always part of our existence. Relations between parents and kids aren’t open, but this is changing a little more these days. Technology isn’t really part of the movement except phones. They still hold the strong bond with the family. Education and a better life style are still the goals of every person. Religions is still holds an important part in our values.


[i] Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze. An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions discusses failure to adequately feed Indian women and children. Princeton University Press, 2013.


[i] Johanna Wyn and Dan Woodman, “Generation, Youth and Social Change in Australia,” Journal of Youth Studies, Vol. 9, Issue 5, November 2006, pp. 495-514.

[ii] Neil Howe and Reena Nadler, “Yes We Can: The Emergence of Millennials as a Political Generation,” New American Fondation, 2009.

[iii] All quotes in this paragraph are from Eric Hoover, “The Millennial Muddle,” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 11, 2009.


[v] “Researchers Detect New Generational Cohort Emerging in Response to the Great Recession,” UMass Amherst: In the Loop, April 9, 2012.


One thought on “Generational Differences

  1. Pingback: Brave: The Global Girls’ Revolution draft introduction | Global Youth Transform the Future

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