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Generational Labels: What Purpose Do They Serve?



We so commonly refer to ourselves and one another through the lens of generational labels. Generational labelling has its strengths and pitfalls. Read on as we consider the purposes such labels serve and how we can continue to remember the nuance and complexity that exists within and between us.

“We’re still talking about Millennials and avocados?” I said, as someone in the Youthscape office showed me an Instagram post from Tatton Spiller, one of the names behind ‘Simple Politics’. In his post, Spiller had shared an article from The Times titled Millennials Set to Become ‘Richest Generation in History’, below which there was a picture of a group of ‘millennials’ looking up at avocados cut in different ways”.

“Whilst this post did lead to a discussion about how we might reproduce the first avocado option at home (!), it also got me thinking about generational labels. As

someone who would fit into the ‘millennial’ category, meaning I grew up in the age of hoodie bans1 and, more recently, became associated with excessive spending on avocados and sourdough2, these generalised associations are everywhere. Not only have such associations informed how I see myself and my ‘millennial’ peers, but also moulded the way in which I see the generations before and after me. So, as any Researcher would, I have done some research into generational labels and their value / pitfalls. Read on to find out more.”.

What Are Generational Labels and Where Did They Come From?

The term ‘generation’ is one used in our everyday vocabulary as a sense-making tool, a way in which to differentiate between age groups and enable us to identify our own location within time and space3. We might refer to “my generation”, the “older generation”, or the “younger generation” as we make claims and statements about characteristics, behaviours, or changes which we feel are bound to a particular age group. In Sociology, this is studied within the field of Generational Theory which, in simplistic terms, is the study of ‘eras’ and the affects these have on individual/collective world views4. It is generally accepted that a generation represents a time span of 15-20 years5. The foundational Sociological work within this field comprises seminal writings such as Karl Mannheim’s 1923 essay The Problem of Generations6 and Strauss and Howe’s7 1991 book The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. However, in recent years, generational conversations have become detached from their Sociological roots as the media has grasped onto an ‘appetite’ for categorisation, something which Kitty Drake8 argues offers a ‘vacuous’ sense comfort because of its over-simplification.

Does the idea of categorisation according to generations provide you with comfort?

The Generational Labels

Despite the appetite for age-based categorisation, there is often confusion, and little consensus, over their boundaries. Helpfully, Beresford Research9 have produced a table which presents the generational labels, the years across which these spans, and the age range within:

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/po...
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/li...
  3. Pilcher, J. (1994). Mannheim’s Sociology of Generations: An Undervalued Legacy. The British Journal of Sociology, 45(3), pp 481-495 https://www.jstor.org/stable/5...
  4. Kinght, Y. (2009). Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation: A Brief Introduction to Generational Theory. Planet, 21(1), pp 13-15. https://www.tandfonline.com/do...
  5. Pew Research Center. (2015). The Whys and Hows of Generation Research. https://www.pewresearch.org/po...
  6. Mannheim, K. (1923). The Sociological Problem of Generations. https://1989after1989.exeter.a... (p170).
  7. Strauss, W and Howe, N. (1991). The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. New York City: Morrow.
  8. Drake, K. (2021). Why Do We Cling to Vacuous Generational Labels Such as ‘Millennial’? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/co...
  9. Beresford Research. (2024). Age Range by Generation. https://www.beresfordresearch....

Not included in this table is Generation Alpha or Gen-A, born after 2012, making them 0-11 years-old.

To demonstrate the media focus on generational topics, below is a sample of recent headlines for Gen X, Y, Z, and A:


  • “Generation X Delaying Legacy Pledges Due to Economic Pressure, Research Finds” Third Sector
  • “Gen X Workers Want Different Benefits. Companies Are Answering the Call” BBC
  • “Why More and More of Generation X Have No Intention of Retiring” The Telegraph


  • “Millennials Set to Become ‘Richest Generation in History” The Times
  • “British Millennials Still Bearing Scars of 2008 Financial Crisis, Says Research” The Guardian
  • “How Millennials Became the Hardest Working Generation” Independent


  • “Gen Z Need Life Lessons More Than Therapy” The Times
  • “Gen Z Ushering in ‘Post-Truth Media Age’ Says Former No 10 Communications Chief” Independent
  • “A Manager’s Guide to Working with Gen Z Employees” Forbes


  • “Gen Alpha Are Ready to Spend – And They Want to Be Treated Like Adults” BBC
  • “Move Over, Millennials and Gen Z – Here Comes Generation Alpha” The Guardian
  • “We’re Generation Alpha (14 And Under with Millions of Followers)” The Times

Which generational label do you fit into? How do these headlines make you feel?

The Usefulness of Generational Research in Youth Ministry

Two of the big American research centres engaged with researching faith and young people, Barna and the Pew Research Center, have both made commitments to studying the generations and learning from changes and similarities across them. According to the Pew Research Center:

‘[a]ge cohorts give researchers a tool to analyze changes in views over time; they can provide a way to understand how different formative experiences interact with the life-cycle and aging process to shape people’s view of the world’.

Other Christian organisations, including us here at Youthscape, Youth for Christ, Alpha, and Scripture Union have engaged in landmark pieces of research which seek to understand the experiences, values, and faith journeys of our current young people (Gen-Z). Much of this research is generationally focussed with the aim of understanding the changes that young people have faced following the surge of the digital and the pressing concerns around mental health and the decline in church attendance. Carrying out research which seeks to speak into generational experiences thus enables Youth Workers and others working alongside young people to understand the current trends (see for example the Translating God Trend Report10) and be responsive to this. As stated on the Translating God Trend Report, understanding ‘more about what has, and hasn’t changed, for young people’ enables ‘lazy myths and stereotypes’ to be put to bed.

How are generational labels and associated trends helpful for your work with young people?

Reading Generational Research with Nuance in Mind

However, generational focused research must also be acknowledged in parallel with the very real nuances and complexity that characterises human life. Such acknowledgement enables all those working with young people to ‘see’ the individual within the world they inhabit – not the as the world they inhabit – with more ‘clarity and compassion’11. On one end of the spectrum, generational labelling might be seen as the vacuous offering of over-simplified self-locating within time and space whilst, at the other, is an objective way of quantifying the human experience according to age. Somewhere in the middle, however, is a space in which generational themes and trends, identified by rigorous research, provide an entry way into understanding the experiences of the young people we work with and providing curiosity to learn more about the wonderful diversity with which we are surrounded by.

How will you maintain a focus on the nuance and complexity within generations that are made up of unique individuals?

10 https://www.youthscape.co.uk/r...

11 As above.

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