Why naming Gen Z is so complicated.
You’ve likely heard the term Generation Z, especially if you follow our work. But have you ever wondered why they’re called Gen Z to begin with? Z has always been a bit of a placeholder name to mark the generation following Millennials (first called Generation Y). Zs (born 1997-2012) come after Ys (born 1981-1996). We got Generation Y thanks to Generation X (born 1965-1980) – the generation with a placeholder name that actually stuck.
Gen Z has also been referred to from time to time as Gen Wii, Homelanders or the iGeneration. And now there’s another name gaining in popularity for Zs – Zoomer. It’s a nod to the Boomers, honors the initial Z moniker, and makes sense given how quickly technology has changed in their lifetime. It may have even more relevance given the rise of video-conferencing and distance learning via Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The term Zoomer isn’t exactly new. It was first used in 2016 in reference to Generation Z. But Zoomer was actually used before that to refer to active Baby Boomers, because they were “zooming” around. There’s even a Canadian media company that publishes a magazine for active Boomers, Zoomer Magazine.
There’s a decent incentive to be the person who coins the name of a generation. It often comes with lucrative book deals, consulting and speaking fees, and the general notoriety of being the expert on that group. Even businesses try to be the ones to name a new generation. Taco Bell and MTV, for example, were the ones who initially tried to call Zs Generation Wii. Nintendo, the maker of the Wii gaming console, was not impressed.
It might seem strange that there’s not a clear consensus on what to call Zs. But here’s the thing; there’s no governing body or group who decides what to call generations. It’s a haphazard process that is a bit like throwing spaghetti at a wall – wait and see what sticks.
Take Gen X, or as they were first called, the Baby Busters for example. They went unnamed until the 1990s, even though they were born post-Boomers in the mid-60s and through the 70s. Baby Busters was the first attempt at a name due to their relatively low birth rates after the boom of, well, the Boomers. Ultimately Generation X was meant to be a placeholder, but thanks to Billy Idol claiming the name for his band, and Douglas Coupland’s 1991 book titled Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, named after the band, the placeholder stuck. Gen Xers, like Boomers, the Silent Generation, and the Greatest Generation (monikered after journalist Tom Brokaw wrote a book titled as such), were all named after their generations had come into their own.
The same thing happened for Millennials. In 1993, the advertising trade magazine Advertising Age was one of the first to refer to Millennials as Gen Y. It wasn’t until the year 2000 when Neil Howe and William Strauss wrote their book titled Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation that Gen Ys got a name that stuck. And what really helped that name stick was when we saw the new millennium turn and shortly thereafter experienced 9/11. Generations are grouped together based on their large collective experiences; it’s what can really impact one generation versus another. We didn’t know the year 2000 and 9/11 would be defining moments for Millennials when they were first being born in the 80s, but now we do.
That’s also why we’re still figuring out what to call Zs. We need to see how they will come into their own, and what name will best epitomize their formative years. It’s entirely possible that we are currently living during the defining time for Zs. The pandemic will change the world in ways we haven’t yet seen. So will Zs become Zoomers? It’s possible. But even Merriam-Webster is on the fence. It’s on their list of words to watch, but has yet to meet their criteria for entry into the dictionary. As for us, we’re with Webster. We’re going with Generation Z for now, but we’re waiting to see what sticks.