The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents

I recently finished reading the book, Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents and wanted to share about it. The book is written by Jean Twenge, who is a professor of Psychology at San Diego State University.

The book talks about the six most recent generations in the US: Silents (born 1925-1945), Boomers (born 1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1979), Millennial (1980-1994), Generation Z (1995-2012), and an as-yet unnamed generation born after 2013 (referred to Polars or Gen Alpha). Through talking about these generations, the book essentially tells a story of how things have changed over the past century, which makes for an interesting reading.,c_limit,f_auto,q_auto:good,fl_progressive:steep/

The cutoffs for generations are somewhat arbitrary, as there isn’t a particular year which really separates different generations. The naming is interesting too. The Silent generation is called that because unlike the previous generation who had fought for “changing the system,” the Silent Generation was about “working within the system.” They did this by keeping their heads down and working hard, thus earning themselves the “silent” label. But as the author argues in this book, this norm is not quite correct as this generation played a big part in the changes in the country. After the World War 2, there was a big spike in birth rates in the US after men returned from the war. The children born as a result are called Baby Boomers, or just Boomer generation. Generation X is sort of an unlucky one, because it didn’t get any particular name, so people started referring to it as the Generation X, where X is a commonly used in Mathematics and other fields to represent some unknown variable.

Millennials are interesting because I was under the impression that it refers to the generation born after 2000, but as it turns out, I am a Millennial too. The naming was apparently given because the oldest Millennials became adults around 2000. Millennials are also referred to as the Generation Y, because previous generation was X, and Y follows X. This also explains how Generation Z gets its name. And of course, since we have reached Z, the only obvious way to go is to go back to the beginning. That’s why the generation born after 2012 might get its name as Generation Alpha (Greek letter for English letter A). For some time, “millennial” has been the term used to refer to young people but Gen Z is replacing the Millennials as the young generation now, with the oldest Millennials now in their 40s. As the author writes, “Knowing your Hogwarts house, once a sign that you were young, is quickly becoming a sign of the opposite.”

Generations are hard to study usually, because if you just compare people born in different years, you are capturing two effects, effects of age plus the effects of being born in different years. So for example, if you do a survey in 2023 and find that the older generations are more conservative while younger generations are more liberal, that won’t necessarily be a generational difference, that would also be an age difference. Particularly, folk wisdom says (although there is some debate) that people generally become more conservative as they age. So, to understand how generations are different, you need to interview 20 years olds, but born in different generations, and similarly, 50 years olds, born in different generations.1 Large surveys over many decades make the generational comparison possible. This book, for example, uses twenty four datasets, some of them going back to 1940s, which makes it possible to compare people of same age in different generations, and also study changes in people with their age. The datasets contain questions about education, income, time use, political affiliation, sexuality, birth rates, views about gender, race, and mental health and happiness, among many other things.

The book then documents and analyzes the trends in behaviors of people born in different generations, including their contributions to the changes that the last century has seen. Through this journey, it also tells how much things have changed in some settings. In one of the examples, she says that how if someone says, “Good Morning, Mike” in the office, you can’t guess whether that Mike is his boss, colleague or his employee. Before around 1990, no employee would call the boss “Mike.” He’d be “Mr. Smith.” I also experienced this change when I came to the US for the first time. I was always used to calling our teachers back in India as Sir/Ma’am that the idea of calling my professors by first name seemed very disrespectful to me. While I have come more on terms with it now, I still struggle with it sometimes. For example, while writing an e-mail to my PhD advisor, I would still write “Dear Prof. Foster, hope you are doing well.”, rather than “Hey Andrew, how’s it going!”.

Some of the differences highlighted between Millennials/Gen Z vs older generations are also quite interesting and funny!

Boomer culture is having your ringer on full volume and letting it ring for a whole minute before answering, Millennial culture is not knowing what your ringtone sounds like because your phone’s been on vibrate since 2009.

As a Gen Xer writes:,c_limit,f_auto,q_auto:good,fl_progressive:steep/

The book argues that technological changes over the years and its two daughters, Individualism and Slower Life have largely led to the generational differences that we see today. Individualism is a view which places more emphasis on the individual self and values individual choice and freedom. Slower Life implies that some of the milestones of adolescence, adulthood and old age; such as age of working full time, age of marriage and age of retirement have become delayed. She provides the graph below to show how more individualistic phrases have become more common, as an example of how individualism has increased over the years.,c_limit,f_auto,q_auto:good,fl_progressive:steep/

The author argues that technology has made the individualism possible. Consider as an example, progress in TVs. Earlier, we had one per family, which would only show one channel. So the family would sit together and watch whatever that channel was showing. So there is less freedom in terms of what to watch and when to watch, but with the recent advances, now each family member can have their own phone, put earbuds in, and watch whatever they want to watch, whenever they want to watch, giving a lot of personal freedom and choice. She argues that while individualism has increased over the years, it’s not clear that individualism is all good or collectivism is all bad. They both involve trade-offs. While individualism allows for more individual freedom and choice, collectivism offers tighter social connections at the expense of less freedom.

As you can imagine, the book has a lot more to it, including a lengthy discussion of impact of social media on Gen Z teenagers. It’s definitely one of the more dense books I have read. Although the book and that data it uses are specific to US, a lot of the recent trends would likely apply more broadly in other places too. The book can also be helpful for social science researchers, as well as for anyone else who’s interested in this topic.