Philip N. Cohen criticized the use of generation labels. Generations are one of many analytical lenses researchers use to understand societal change and differences across groups. While there are limitations to generational analysis, it can be a useful tool for understanding demographic trends and shifting public attitudes. For example, a generational look at public opinion on a wide range of social and political issues shows that cohort differences have widened over time on some issues, which could have important implications for the future of American politics.
In addition, looking at how a new generation of young adults experiences key milestones such as educational attainment, marriage or homeownership, compared with previous generations in their youth, can lend important insights into changes in American society.
To be sure, these labels can be misused and lead to stereotyping, and it’s important to stress and highlight diversity within generations. At Pew Research Center, we consistently endeavor to refine and improve our research methods. Therefore, we are having ongoing conversations around the best way to approach generational research. We look forward to engaging with Mr. Cohen and other scholars as we continue to explore this complex and important issue.
Kim Parker, Washington
I was happy to see this, and look forward to what they come up with. I am also glad to see that there has been no substantial defense of the current “generations” research regime. Some people on social media said they kind of like the categories, but no researcher has said they make sense, or pointed to any research justifying the current categories. With regard to her point that generations research is useful, that was in our open letter, and in my op-ed. Cohorts (and, if you want to call a bunch of a cohorts a generation, generations) matter a lot, and should be studied. They just shouldn’t be used with imposed fixed categories regardless of the data involved, and given names with stereotyped qualities that are presumed to extend across spheres of social life.
Several people have asked me for suggestions. My basic suggestion is to do like you learned in social science class, and use categories that make sense for a good reason. If you have no reason to use a set of categories, don’t use them. Instead, use an empty measure of time, like years or decades, as a first pass, and look at the data. As I argued here, there is not likely to be a set of birth years that cohere across time and social space into meaningful generational identities.
In the Op-Ed, I wrote this: “Generation labels, although widely adopted by the public, have no basis in social reality. In fact, in one of Pew’s own surveys, most people did not identify the correct generation for themselves — even when they were shown a list of options.” The link was to this 2015 report titled, “Most Millennials Resist the ‘Millennial’ Label” (which of course confirms a stereotype about this supposed generation). I was looking in particular at this graphic, which I have shown often:
It doesn’t exactly show what portion of people “correctly” identify their category, but I eyeballed it and decided that if only 18% of Silents and 40% of Millennials were right, there was no way Gen X and Boomers were bringing the average over 50%. Also, people could choose multiple labels, so those “correct” numbers was presumably inflated to some degree by double-clickers. Anyway, the figure doesn’t exactly answer the question.
The data for that figure come from Pew’s American Trends Panel Wave 10, from 2015. The cool thing is you can download the data here. So I figured I could do a little analysis of who “correctly” identifies their category. Unfortunately, the microdata file they share doesn’t include exact age, just age in four categories that don’t line up with the generations — so you can’t replicate their analysis.
However, they do provide a little more detail in the topline report, here, including reporting the percentage of people in each “generation” who identified with each category. Using those numbers, I figure that 57% selected the correct category, 26% selected an incorrect category, 9% selected “other” (unspecified in the report), and 8% are unaccounted for. So, keeping in mind that people can be in more than one of these groups, I can’t say how many were completely “correct,” but I can say that (according to the report, not the data, which I can’t analyze for this) 57% at least selected the category that matched their birth year, possibly in combination with other categories.
The survey also asked people “how well would you say they term [generation you chose] applies to you?” If you combine “very well” and “fairly well,” you learn, for example, that actual “Silents” are more likely to say “Greatest Generation” applies well to them (32%) than say “Silent” does (14%). Anyway, if I did this right, based on the total sample, 46% of people both “correctly” identified their generation title, and said the term describes them “well.” I honestly don’t know what to make of this, but thought I’d share it, since it could be read as me misstating the case in the Op-Ed.
An update from Pew, today’s thoughts, and then another data exercise.
After sending it the folks in charge at the Pew Research Center, I received a very friendly email response to our open letter on generation labels. They thanked me and reported that they already had plans to begin an internal discussion about “generational research” and will be consulting with experts as they do, although the timeline was not given. I take this to mean we have a bona fide opportunity to change course on this issue, both with Pew (which has outsized influence) and more widely in the coming months. But the outcome is not assured. If you agree that the “generations” labels and surrounding discourse are causing more harm than good, for researchers and the public, I hope you will join with me and 140+ social scientists who have signed the letter so far, by signing and sharing the letter (especially to people who aren’t on Twitter). Thanks!
Why “generations” won’t work
Never say never, but I don’t see how it will be possible to identify coherent, identifiable, stable, collectively recognized and popularly understood “generation” categories, based on year of birth, that reliably map onto a diverse set of measurable social indicators. If I’m right about that, which is an empirical question, then whether Pew’s “generations” are correctly defined will never be resolved, because the goal is unattainable. Some other set of birth-year cutoffs might work better for one question or another, but we’re not going to find a set of fixed divisions that works across arenas — such as social attitudes, family behavior, and economic status. So we should instead work on weaning the clicking public from its dependence on the concept and get down to the business of researching social trends (including cohort patterns), and communicating about that research in ways that are intelligible and useful.
Here are some reasons why we don’t find a good set of “generation” boundaries.
1. Mass media and social media mean there are no unique collective experiences
When something “happens” to a particular cohort, lots of other people are affected, too. Adjacent people react, discuss, buy stuff, and define themselves in ways that are affected by these historical events. Gradations emerge. The lines between who is and is not affected can’t be sharply drawn by age.
2. Experiences may be unique, but they don’t map neatly onto attitudes or adjacent behaviors
Even if you can identify something that happened to a specific age group at a specific point in time, the effects of such an experience will be diffuse. To name a few prominent examples: some people grew up in the era of mass incarceration and faced higher risks of being imprisoned, some people entered the job market in 2009 and suffered long-term consequences for their career trajectories, and some people came of age with the Pill. But these experiences don’t mark those people for distinct attitudes or behaviors. Having been incarcerated, unemployed, or in control of your pregnancy may influence attitudes and behaviors, but it won’t set people categorically apart. People whose friends or parents were incarcerated are affected, too; grandparents with unemployed people sleeping on their couches are affected by recessions; people who work in daycare centers are affected by birth trends. And, of course, African Americans have a unique experience with mass incarceration, rich people can ride out recessions, and the Pill is for women. When it comes to indicators of the kind we can measure, effects of these experiences will usually be marginal, not discrete, and not universal. (Plus, as cool new research shows, most people don’t change their minds much after they reach adulthood, so any effects of life experience on attitudes are swimming upstream to be observable at scale.)
3. It’s global now, too
Local experiences don’t translate directly to local attitudes and behavior because we share culture instantly around the world. So, 9/11 happened in the US but everyone knew about it (and there was also March 11 in Spain, and 7/7 in London). There are unique things about them that some people experienced — like having schools closed if you were a kid living in New York — but also general things that affected large swaths of the world, like heightened airline security. The idea of a uniquely affected age group is implausible.
Once word gets out (through research or other means) about a particular trait or practice associated with a “generation,” like avocado toast or student debt, it gets processed and reprocessed reflexively by people who don’t, or do, want to embody a stereotype or trend for their supposed group. This includes identifying with the group itself — some people avoid it and some people embrace it, and some people react to who does the other things in other ways — until the category falls irretrievably into a vortex of cultural pastiche. The discussion of the categories, in other words, probably undermines the categories as much as it reinforces them.
If all this is true, then insisting on using stable, labeled, “generations” just boxes people into useless fixed categories. As the open letter puts it:
Predetermined cohort categories also impede scientific discovery by artificially imposing categories used in research rather than encouraging researchers to make well justified decisions for data analysis and description. We don’t want to discourage cohort and life course thinking, we want to improve it.
Mapping social change
OK, here’s today’s data exercise. There is some technical statistical content here not described in the most friendly way, I’m sorry to say. The Stata code for what follows is here, and the GSS 1972-2018 Cross-Sectional Cumulative Data file is free, here (Stata version); help yourself.
This is just me pushing at my assumptions and supplementing my reading with some tactile data machinations to help it sink in. Following on the previous exercise, here I’ll try out an empirical method for identifying meaningful birth year groupings using attitude questions from the General Social Survey, and then see if they tell us anything, relative to “empty” categories (single years or decades) and the Pew “generations” scheme (Silent, Baby Boom, Generation X, Millennials, Generation Z).
I start with five things that are different about the cohorts of nowadays versus those of the olden days in the United States. These are things that often figure in conversations about generational change. For each of these items I use one or more questions to create a single variable with a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1; in each case a higher score is the more liberal or newfangled view. As we’ll see, all of these moved from lower to higher scores as you look at more recent cohorts.
Liberal spending: Believing “we’re spending too little money on…” seven things: welfare, the environment, health, big cities, drug addiction, education, and improving the conditions of black people. (For this scale, the measure of reliability [alpha] is .66, which is pretty good.)
Gender attitudes: Four questions on whether women are “suited for politics,” working mothers are bad for children, and breadwinner-homemaker roles are good. High scores mean more feminist (alpha = .70).
Confidence in institutions: Seven questions on organized religion, the Supreme Court, the military, major companies, Congress, the scientific community, and medicine. High scores mean less confidence (alpha = .68).
General political views from extremely conservative to extremely liberal (one question)
Never-none: People who never attend religious services and have no religious affiliation (together now up to about 16% of people).
These variables span the survey years 1977 to 2018, with respondents born from 1910 to 1999 (I dropped a few born in 2000, who were just 18 years old in 2018, and those born before 1910). Because not all questions were asked of all the respondents in every year I lost a lot of people, and I had to make some hard choices about what to include. The sample that answered all these questions is about 5,500 people (down from almost 62,000 altogether — ouch!). Still, what I do next seems to work anyway.
Once I have these five items, I combine them into a megascale (alpha = .45) which I use to represent social change. You can see in the figure that successive cohorts of respondents are moving up this scale, on average. Note that these cohorts are interviewed at different points in time; for example, a 40-year-old in 1992 is in the same cohort as a 50-year-old in 2002, while the 1977 interviews cover people born all the way back to 1910. That’s how I get so many cohorts out of interviews from just 1977 to 2018 (and why the confidence intervals get bigger for recent cohorts).
The question from this figure is whether the cohort attitude trend would be well served by some strategic cutpoints to denote cohorts (“generations” not in the reproductive sense but in the sense of people born around the same time). Treating each birth year as separate is unwieldy, and the samples are small. We could just use decades of birth, or Pew’s arbitrary “generations.” Or make up new ones, which is what I’m testing out.
So I hit on a simple way to identify cutpoints using an exploratory technique known as k means clustering. This is a simple (with computers) way to identify the most logical groups of people in a dataset. In this case I used two variables: the megascale and birth year. Stata’s k means clustering algorithm then tries to find a set of groups of cases such that the differences within them (how far each case is from the means of the two variables within the group) are as small as possible. (You tell it k, the number of groups you want.) Because cohort is a continuous variable, and megascale rises over time, the algorithm happily puts people in clusters that don’t have overlapping birth years, so I get nicely ordered cohorts. I guess for a U-shaped time pattern it would put young and old people in the same groups, which would mess this up, but that’s not the case with this pattern.
I tested 5, 6, and 7 groups, thinking more or fewer than that would not be worth it. It turns out 6 groups had the best explanatory power, so I used those. Then I did five linear regressions with the megascale as the dependent variable, a handful of control variables (age, sex, race, region, and education), and different cohort indicators. My basic check of fit is the adjusted R2, or the amount of variance explained adjusted for the number of variables. Here’s how the models did, in order from worst to best:
One linear cohort variable
My cluster categories
Decades of birth
Each year individually
Each year is good for explaining variance, but too cumbersome, and the Pew “generations” were the worst (not surprising, since they weren’t concocted to answer this question — or any other question). My cluster categories were better than just entering birth cohort as a single continuous variable, and almost as good as plain decades of birth. My scheme is only six categories, which is more convenient than nine decades, so I prefer it in this case. Note I am not naming them, just reporting the birth-year clusters: 1910-1924, 1925-1937, 1938-1949, 1950-1960, 1961-1974, and 1975-1999. These are temporary and exploratory — if you used different variables you’d get different cohorts.
Here’s what they look like with my social change indicators:
Shown this way, you can see the different pace and timing of change for the different indicators — for example, gender attitudes changed most dramatically for cohorts born before 1950, the falling confidence in institutions was over by the end of the 1950s cohort, and the most recent cohort shows the greatest spike in religious never-nones. Social change is fascinating, complex, and uneven!
You can also see that the cuts I’m using here look nothing like Pew’s, which, for example, pool the Baby Boomers from birth years 1946-1964, and Millennials from 1980 to 1996. And they don’t fit some stereotypes you hear. For example, the group with the least confidence in major institutions is those born in the 1950s (a slice of Baby Boomers), not Millennials. Try to square these results with the ridiculousness that Chuck Todd recently offered up:
So the promise of American progress is something Millennials have heard a lot about, but they haven’t always experienced it personally. … And in turn they have lost confidence in institutions. There have been plenty of scandals that have cost trust in religious institutions, the military law enforcement, political parties, the banking system, all of it, trust eroded.
You could delve into the causes of trust erosion (I wrote a paper on confidence in science alone), but attributing a global decline in trust to a group called “Millennials,” one whose boundaries were declared arbitrarily, without empirical foundation, for a completely unrelated purpose, is uninformative at best. Worse, it promotes uncritical, determinist thinking, and — if it gets popular enough — encourages researchers to use the same meaningless categories to try to get in line with the pop culture pronouncements. You get lots of people using unscrutinized categories, compounding their errors. Social scientists have to do better, by showing how cohorts and life course events really are an important way to view and comprehend social change, rather than a shallow exercise in stereotyping.
The categories I came up with here, for which there is some (albeit slim) empirical justification, may or may not be useful. But it’s also clear from looking at the figures here, and the regression results, that there is no singularly apparent way to break down birth cohorts to understand these trends. In fact, a simple linear variable for year of birth does pretty well. These are sweeping social changes moving through a vast, interconnected population over a long time. Each birth cohort is riven with major disparities, along the stratifying lines of race/ethnicity, gender, and social class, as well as many others. There may be times when breaking people down into birth cohorts helps understand and explain these patterns, but I’m pretty sure we’re never going to find a single scheme that works best for different situations and trends. The best practice is probably to look at the trend in as much detail as possible, to check for obvious discontinuities, and then, if no breaks are apparent, use an “empty” category set, such as decades of birth, at least to start.
It will take a collective act of will be researchers. teachers, journalists, and others, to break our social change trend industry of its “generations” habit. If you’re a social scientist, I hope you’ll help by signing the letter. (I’m also happy to support other efforts besides this experts letter.)
Note on causes
Although I am talking about cohorts, and using regression models where cohort indicators are independent variables, I’m not assessing cohort effects in the sense of causality, but rather common experiences that might appear as patterns in the data. We often experience events through a cohort lens even if they are caused by our aging, or historical factors that affect everyone. How to distinguish such age, period, or cohort effects in social change is an ongoing subject of tricky research (see this from Morgan and Lee for a recent take using the GSS) , but it’s not required to address the Pew “generations” question: are there meaningful cohorts that experience events in a discernibly collective way, making them useful groups for social analysis.
One of the problems with the fake “generations” discourse is it confuses people on the importance of age (how old people are) versus cohort (when they were born). At any one point in time, these two concepts are measured the same way — asking people how old they are. But if you follow people over time, they answer two different questions. The first tells you how younger people are different from older people (for example, old people are more likely to die of heart attacks, because their hearts wear out as they age), while the second tells you how people’s lives may have changed as they live them. So, young people today live in a world where their grandparents are less likely to die of heart attacks because of improvements in medicine, which changes the nature of childhood and then adult life as well. That’s a cohort story.
One of the problems with the way the Pew Research Center reports on their polls is they usually survey people at one point in time (age), and then describe the results by “generation” (cohorts). Here’s a figure they just published:
This seems to tell a clear “generations” story: “OK, Boomer,” that story goes, “it’s time to get serious about climate change.” But why didn’t Pew just title the figure, “younger people more active than older people addressing climate change”? You’d have to ask them their reasons, but their “generations” framing sure is popular. (Pause for outrage over the fact that, not only do the figures not tell readers the ages of these “generations,” treating them as if they are obvious to everyone, but even in the text of the report, where they do mention in passing the birth years for Millennials and Gen Z, they never give the birth years for Gen X and Boomers.)
But what if it’s not a “generations” (cohort) story, but an age story? How would you know? You would ask the same question to people over time, and see how their attitudes may have changed over the course of their lives. That’s difficult and expensive, and besides the questions you might want to ask change over time. But you can come close by asking a random sample of people the same questions over time — something the clever sociologists behind the General Social Survey figured out 50 years ago, and they’ve been doing it ever since. In fact, the General Social Survey (GSS) since 1973 has been asking people, “are we spending too much, too little, or about the right amount on the environment?” (in another version of the question they added, “improving and protecting” before “the environment”; I use both questions). It’s not exactly what Pew asked, but it gives us an idea. And that idea is: this is much more of age story than a “generations” (cohort) story.
Since the 1970s, between 70% and 75% of Americans under 35 have said we’re spending “too little” on “improving and protecting the environment.” (Note this age breakdown is arbitrary, using a common definition of “young adult.”) It’s not all an age story, though. Over time, this age gap has closed some, which means some of those pro-environment spending young people have grown into pro-environment spending older people — which is a cohort story. But you can’t reasonably tell a dramatic “generations” story about “Generation Z” unless you compare them to people at the same age in the past.
That cohort story
Cohorts, and the life course perspective with which they are associated, are important, however. So telling the cohort story could be valuable. If you were going to tell that story, how would you do it?
First, you could look at survey respondents by individual year of birth, which is the most detailed breakdown you can get from the GSS. One problem with that is sample size. Breaking the sample up into 90 cohorts or so leaves you with as few as 21 respondents and no more than 1,200 for any one cohort who answered this question. The other problem is it’s harder to interpret because you have a lot of data points.
Second, you could go with some generation scheme you import from another source, from conventional wisdom, or something that might get you more clicks. That might mean using cohorts based on political trends in general, or economic or demographic trends. That is, you could pick a category scheme from somewhere else and hope it’s relevant to this analysis, too. This is the Pew approach. The crucial thing to do in this case, which is what Pew does not do, is acknowledge that you have done something either arbitrarily or based on theory, and that it might or might not be a reasonable fit to your data. Don’t just assume they’re the right categories and pretend no others exist.
Third, in the absence of a clear theory or other data to suggest a way to group individual years, you go with something “empty” and simple, such as binning them by decade of birth.
Fourth, you could try to use empirical methods to identify the best groupings from the data. If you’re better at statistics than me, like Bruce Western and Meredith Kleykamp, you could do something like their “Bayesian Change Point Model for Historical Time Series Analysis” (free copy). Or you could use other methods, or eyeball it. I have experimented with this using a few different GSS trends. Based on variance explained, my very messy results have failed to do better than single years or decades, and done either better or worse than Pew’s generations depending on how I do it. So for now I’ll just show you the results from the first three options here.
Here is Stata code for what follows (and to cut the data by cohort and look for patterns in the variance explained by cohort, which I’m not showing in the post).
Using the three methods — single years of birth, Pew generations, and decades of birth — I made six linear probability models (OLS regressions with a dichotomous dependent variable), with one for each scheme with and without a set of demographic control variables: age (and age-squared), sex, race/ethnicity, region, and education. The main way I compare these models in the table below is with the adjusted R2, which is a measure of variance explained by the model, taking into account the number of variables used. Looking at the adjusted R2 for models 2, 4, and 6 shows that individual years explain the most (.0447), followed by decades (.0440) and then Pew’s generations (.0437). These aren’t big differences, but then the models aren’t explaining that much of this trend altogether. (When I added presumably-endogenous measures for political ideology, political party identification, and church attendance, which are all correlated with views on the environment, I got this adjusted R2 up to .0874.) Note I only used people born from 1910 to 1999 (age 19 in 2018; GSS only interviews adults age 18+).
The linear probability model results are easy to interpret because the coefficients tell you how far each variable moves the average case from 0 (doesn’t think we spend too little) toward 1 (thinks we spend too little). For example, in model 6, the average person born in the 1950s is 11.2% more likely to think this than someone born in the 1910s (controlling for age and the other factors).
So the individual-year model performs best, and Pew’s generations perform worst. Here’s what they predict for each cohort, again using models 2, 4, and 6, at the mean of the controls:
The single-year panel (A) shows the messiness of single years, as at the end of the series we have fewer and fewer cases — all the people born in 1999 in the GSS were interviewed in one survey, 2018, and they were all ~19, so we don’t have much to go on; it’s better to pool some of those years for more stable estimates. (You can also see that wider confidence interval for the Pew generations panel (B), where there are only 108 respondents in Generation Z in the data [born before 2000].) Still, you can see that the single-year panel suggests a mild wave, peaking in the 1950s, sliding for people born in the 1970s and 1980s, and rising again. Pew, which cuts the data at 1965, 1981, and 1997, mostly misses this — but it shows up in the decades panel (C). People born in the 1950s and 1960s were most likely to think we spend too little on the environment (65%), those born in the 1970s and 1980s a little less so (63%), and then those born in the 1990s spiked back upward to 68% (this last estimate based on 996 people born in the 1990s).
So, there are some interesting cohort trends here, captured worse by the Pew categories than by decades or single years of birth. Still, none of these cohort differences is as big as the simple age difference I started with. (If you add control variables to the figures at the top, the age gap remains 12% to 19%.) Young people have been, and remain, more likely to say we spend too little money on the environment. That’s not a bad story.
Given its popularity, it’s important to note the Pew model performs worst among these three. Of course, if Pew’s generations were real things, clearly defined with respect to other social trends, associated with social identities, and with empirical research to support their relevance, it might still be justified to analyze this question according to those categories. (For example, even though we don’t measure “race” perfectly, the variable as measured is associated with lots of important disparities and trends, and people feel affinities with their racial identities, so it’s not wrong to look at something like attitudes toward the environment by “race,” as commonly defined.) But the Pew categories are not justified in that way. Any cohort binning will show you something, especially for trends that are strongly patterned across time and age. But it doesn’t follow that any common binning is the best — that’s a question for research, research that hasn’t been done.
Full disclosure: I am an unpaid member of the General Social Survey advisory board. (And, like most people who say “full disclosure,” I’m mentioning this mostly to impress you, and secondarily to disclose any potential conflict of interest.)
This post has been updated with the final signing statement and a link to the form. Thanks for sharing!
I have objected to the use of “generation” divisions and names for years (here’s the tag). Then, the other day, I saw this introduction to an episode of Meet the Press Reports, which epitomized a lot of the gibberishy nature of generationspeak (sorry about the quality).
OK, it’s ridiculous political punditry — “So as their trust in institutions wanes, will they eventually coalesce behind a single party, or will they be the ones to simply transform our political system forever?” — but it’s also generations gobbledygook. And part of what struck me was this: “millennials are now the largest generation, they have officially overtaken the Baby Boom.” Well-educated people think these things are real things, official things. We have to get off this train.
If you know the generations discourse, you know a lot of it emanates from the Pew Research Center. They do a lot of excellent research — and make a lot of that research substantially worse by cramming into the “generations” framework that they more than anyone else have popularized — have made “official.”
After seeing that clip, I put this on Twitter, and was delighted by the positive response:
So I wrote a draft of an open letter to Pew, incorporating some of the comments from Twitter. But then I decided the letter was too long. To be more effective maybe it should be more concise and less ranty. So here’s the long version, which has more background information and examples, followed by a signing version, with a link to the form to sign it. Please feel to sign if you are a demographer or other social scientist, and share the link to the form (or this post) in your networks.
Maybe if we got a lot of signatories to this, or something like it, they would take heed.
Preamble by me
Pew’s generation labels — which are widely adopted by many other individuals and institutions — encourage unhelpful social science communication, driving people toward broad generalizations, stereotyping, click bait, sweeping character judgment, and echo chamber thinking. When people assign names to generations, they encourage anointing them a character, and then imposing qualities onto whole populations without basis, or on the basis of crude stereotyping. This fuels a constant stream of myth-making and myth-busting, with circular debates about whether one generation or another fits better or worse with various of its associated stereotypes. In the absence of research about whether the generation labels are useful either scientifically or in communicating science, we are left with a lot of headlines drawing a lot of clicks, to the detriment of public understanding.
Cohort analysis and the life course perspective are important tools for studying and communicating social science. We should study the shadow, or reflection, of life events across people’s lives at a cultural level, not just an individual level. In fact, the Pew Research Center’s surveys and publications make great contributions to that end. But the vast majority of popular survey research and reporting in the “generations” vein uses data analyzed by age, cross-sectionally, with generational labels applied after the fact — it’s not cohort research at all. We shouldn’t discourage cohort and life course thinking, rather we should improve it.
Pew’s own research provides a clear basis for scrapping the “generations.” “Most Millennials Resist the ‘Millennial’ Label” was the title of a report Pew published in 2015. This is when they should have stopped — based on their own science — but instead they plowed ahead as if the “generations” were social facts that the public merely failed to understand.
The concept of “generations” as applied by Pew (and many others) defies the basic reality of generations as they relate to reproductive life cycles. Pew’s “generations” are so short (now 16 years) that they bear no resemblance to reproductive generations. In 2019 the median age of a woman giving birth in the U.S. was 29. As a result, many multigenerational families include no members of some generations on Pew’s chart. For example, it asks siblings (like the tennis-champion Williams sisters, born one year apart) to identify as members of separate generations.
Perhaps due to their ubiquitous use, and Pew’s reputation as a trustworthy arbiter of social knowledge, many people think these “generations” are official facts. Chuck Todd reported on NBC News just this month, “Millennials are now the largest generation, they have officially overtaken the Baby Boom.” (NPR had already declared Millennials the largest generation seven years earlier, using a more expansive definition.) Pew has perhaps inadvertently encouraged these ill-informed perspectives, as when, for example, Richard Fry wrote for Pew, “Millennials have surpassed Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living adult generation, according to population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau” — despite the fact that the Census Bureau report referenced by the article made no mention of generations. Note that Chuck Todd’s meaningless graphic, which doesn’t even include ages, is also falsely attributed to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Generations are a beguiling and appealing vehicle for explaining social change, but one that is more often misleading than informative. The U.S. Army Research Institute commissioned a consensus study report from the National Academies, titled, Are Generational Categories Meaningful Distinctions for Workforce Management? The group of prominent social scientists concluded: “while dividing the workforce into generations may have appeal, doing so is not strongly supported by science and is not useful for workforce management. …many of the stereotypes about generations result from imprecise use of the terminology in the popular literature and recent research, and thus cannot adequately inform workforce management decisions.”
As one of many potential examples of such appealing, but ultimately misleading, uses of the “Millennial” generation label, consider a 2016 article by Paul Taylor, a former executive vice president of the Pew Research Center. He promised he would go beyond “clichés” to offer “observations” about Millennials — before describing them as “liberal lions…who might not roar,” “downwardly mobile,” “unlaunched,” “unmarried,” “gender role benders,” “upbeat,” “pre-Copernican,” and as an “unaffiliated, anti-hierarchical, distrustful” generation who nevertheless “get along well with their parents, respect their elders, and work well with colleagues” while being “open to different lifestyles, tolerant of different races, and first adopters of new technologies.” And their “idealism… may save the planet.”
In 2018 Pew announced that it would henceforth draw a line between “Millennials” and “Generation Z” at the year 1996. And yet they offered no substantive reason, just that “it became clear to us that it was time to determine a cutoff point between Millennials and the next generation [in] order to keep the Millennial generation analytically meaningful, and to begin looking at what might be unique about the next cohort.” In asserting that “their boundaries are not arbitrary,” the Pew announcement noted that they were assigning the same length to the Millennial Generation as they did to Generation X — both 16 years, a length that bears no relationship to reproductive generations, nor to the Baby Boom cohort, which is generally considered to be 19 years (1946-1964).
The essay that followed this announcement attempted to draw distinctions between Millennials and Generation Z, but it could not delineate a clear division, because none can be drawn. For example, it mentioned that “most Millennials came of age and entered the workforce facing the height of an economic recession,” but in 2009, the trough year for that recession, Millennials by Pew’s definition ranged from age 13 to 29. The other events mentioned — the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the election of Barack Obama, the launch of the iPhone, and the advent of social media — similarly find Millennials at a range of ages too wide to be automatically unifying in terms of experience. Why is being between 12 and 28 at the time of Obama’s election more meaningful a cohort experience than being, say, 18 to 34? No answer to this is provided, because Pew has determined the cohort categories before the logical scientific questions can be asked.
Consider a few other hypothetical examples. In the future, we might hypothesize that those who were in K-12 school during the pandemic-inflicted 2020-2021 academic year constitute a meaningful cohort. That 13-year cohort was born between 2003 and 2015, which does not correspond to one of Pew’s predetermined “generations.” For some purposes, an even narrower range might be more appropriate, such as those who graduated high school in 2020-2021 alone. Under the Pew generational regime, too many researchers, marketers, journalists, and members of the general public will look at major events like these through a pre-formed prism that distorts their ability to pursue or understand the way cohort life course experiences affect social experience.
Unlike the other “generations” in Pew’s map, the Baby Boom corresponds to a unique demographic event, painstakingly, empirically demonstrated to have begun in July 1946 and ended in mid-1964. And being part of that group has turned out to be a meaningful experience for many people — one that in fact helped give rise to the popular understanding of birth cohorts as a concept. But it does not follow that any arbitrarily grouped set of birth dates would produce a sense of identity, especially one that can be named and described on the basis of its birth years alone. It is an accident of history that the Baby Boom lasted 18 years — as far as we know having nothing to do with the length of a reproductive generation, but perhaps leading subsequent analysts to use the term “generation” to describe both Baby Boomers and subsequent cohorts.
The good researchers at Pew are in a tough spot (as are others who rely on their categories). The generations concept is tremendously appealing and hugely popular. But where does it end? Are we going to keep arbitrarily dividing the population into generations and giving them names — after “Z”? On what scientific basis would the practice continue? One might be tempted to address these problems by formalizing the process, with a conference and a dramatic launch, to make it even more “official.” But there is no scientific rationale for dividing the population arbitrarily into cohorts of any particular length for purposes of analyzing social trends, and to fix their membership a priori. Pew would do a lot more to enhance its reputation, and contribute to the public good, by publicly pulling the plug on this project.
Open letter to the Pew Research Center on generation labels
We are demographers and other social scientists, writing to urge the Pew Research Center to stop using its generation labels (currently: Silent, Baby Boom, X, Millennial, Z). We appreciate Pew’s surveys and other research, and urge them to bring this work into better alignment with scientific principles of social research.
Pew’s “generations” cause confusion.
The groups Pew calls Silent, Baby Boom, X, Millennial, and Z are birth cohorts determined by year of birth, which are not related to reproductive generations. There is further confusion because their arbitrary lengths (18, 19, 16, 16, and 16 years, respectively) have grown shorter as the age difference between parents and their children has lengthened.
The division between “generations” is arbitrary and has no scientific basis.
With the exception of the Baby Boom, which was a discrete demographic event, the other “generations” have been declared and named on an ad hoc basis without empirical or theoretical justification. Pew’s own research conclusively shows that the majority of Americans cannot identify the “generations” to which Pew claims they belong. Cohorts should be delineated by “empty” periods (such as individual years, equal numbers of years, or decades) unless research on a particular topic suggests more meaningful breakdowns.
Naming “generations” and fixing their birth dates promotes pseudoscience, undermines public understanding, and impedes social science research.
The “generation” names encourage assigning them a distinct character, and then imposing qualities on diverse populations without basis, resulting in the current widespread problem of crude stereotyping. This fuels a stream of circular debates about whether the various “generations” fit their associated stereotypes, which does not advance public understanding.
The popular “generations” and their labels undermine important cohort and life course research
Cohort analysis and the life course perspective are important tools for studying and communicating social science. But the vast majority of popular survey research and reporting on the “generations” uses cross-sectional data, and is not cohort research at all. Predetermined cohort categories also impede scientific discovery by artificially imposing categories used in research rather than encouraging researchers to make well justified decisions for data analysis and description. We don’t want to discourage cohort and life course thinking, we want to improve it.
The “generations” are widely misunderstood to be “official” categories and identities
Pew’s reputation as a trustworthy social research institution has helped fuel the false belief that the “generations” definitions and labels are social facts and official statistics. Many other individuals and organizations use Pew’s definitions in order to fit within the paradigm, compounding the problem and digging us deeper into this hole with each passing day.
The “generations” scheme has become a parody and should end.
With the identification of “Generation Z,” Pew has apparently reached the end of the alphabet. Will this continue forever, with arbitrarily defined, stereotypically labeled, “generation” names sequentially added to the list? Demographic and social analysis is too important to be subjected to such a fate. No one likes to be wrong, and admitting it is difficult. We sympathize. But the sooner Pew stops digging this hole, the easier it will be to escape. A public course correction from Pew would send an important signal and help steer research and popular discourse around demographic and social issues toward greater understanding. It would also greatly enhance Pew’s reputation in the research community. We urge Pew to end this as gracefully as possible — now.
As consumers of Pew Research Center research, and experts who work in related fields ourselves, we urge the Pew Research Center to do the right thing and help put an end to the use of arbitrary and misleading “generation” labels and names.
I had the opportunity to make a presentation at the National Academies to the “Committee on the Consideration of Generational Issues in Workforce Management and Employment Practices.” If you’ve followed my posts about the “generation” terms and their use in the public sphere you understand how happy this made me.
The committee is considering a wide array of issues related to the changing workforce — under a contract from the Army — and I used the time to address the uses and misuses of cohort concepts and analysis in analyzing social change.
In the introduction, I said generational labels, e.g., “Millennials”:
encourage what’s bad about social science. It drives people toward broad generalizations, stereotyping, click bait, character judgment, and echo chamber thinking. … When we give them names and characters we start imposing qualities onto populations with absolutely no basis, or worse, on the basis of stereotyping, and then it becomes just a snowball of clickbait confirmation bias. … And no one’s really assessing whether these categories are doing us any good, but everyone’s getting a lot of clicks.
The slides I used are here in PDF. The whole presentation was captured on video, including the Q&A.
From my answer to the last question:
Cohort analysis is really important. And the life course perspective, especially on demographic things, has been very important. And as we look at changes over time in the society and the culture, things like how many times you change jobs, did you have health insurance at a certain point in your life, how crowded were your schools, what was the racial composition of your neighborhood or school when you were younger — we want to think about the shadow of these events across people’s lives and at a cultural level, not just an individual level. So it absolutely is important. … That’s a powerful way of thinking and a good opportunity to apply social science and learn from it. So I don’t want to discourage cohort thinking at all. I just want to improve it… Nothing I said should be taken to be critical of the idea of using cohorts and life course analysis in general at all.
You know, this is not my most important work. We have bigger problems in society. But understanding demographic change, how it relates to inequality, and communicating that in ways that allow us to make smarter decisions about it is my most important work. That’s why I consider this to be part of it.
I am ambivalent about these trends. Divorce is often painful and difficult, and most people want to avoid it. The vast majority of Americans aspire to a lifelong marriage (or equivalent relationship). So even if it’s a falling slice of the population, I’m not complaining that they’re happy. Still, in an increasingly unequal society and a winner-take-all economy, two-degree couples with lasting marriages may be a buffer for the select few, but they aren’t a solution to our wider problems.
Here’s my media scrapbook, with some comment about open science process at the end.
The story was first reported by Ben Steverman at Bloomberg, who took the time to read the paper, interview me at some length, send the paper to Susan Brown (a key expert on divorce trends) for comment, and produce figures from the data I provided. I was glad that his conclusion focused on the inequality angle from my interpretation:
“One of the reasons for the decline is that the married population is getting older and more highly educated,” Cohen said. Fewer people are getting married, and those who do are the sort of people who are least likely to get divorced, he said. “Marriage is more and more an achievement of status, rather than something that people do regardless of how they’re doing.”
Many poorer and less educated Americans are opting not to get married at all. They’re living together, and often raising kids together, but deciding not to tie the knot. And studies have shown these cohabiting relationships are less stable than they used to be.
Fewer divorces, therefore, aren’t only bad news for matrimonial lawyers but a sign of America’s widening chasm of inequality. Marriage is becoming a more durable, but far more exclusive, institution.
The Bloomberg headline was, “Millennials Are Causing the U.S. Divorce Rate to Plummet.” Which proved irresistible on social media. I didn’t use the terms “millennials” (which I oppose), or “plummet,” but they don’t fundamentally misrepresent the findings.
Naturally, though, the Bloomberg headline led to other people misrepresenting the paper, like Buzzfeed, which wrote, “Well, according to a new study, millennials are now also ‘killing’ divorce.” Neither I nor Bloomberg said anyone was “killing” divorce; that was just a Twitter joke someone made, but Buzzfeed was too metameta to pick up on that. On the other hand, never complain about a Buzzfeed link, and they did link to the paper itself (generating about 800 clicks in a few days).
Then Fox 5 in New York did a Skype interview with me, and hit the bar scene to talk over the results (additional footage courtesy of my daughter, because nowadays you provide your own b-roll):
The next day Todaydid the story, with additional information and reporting from Bowling Green’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research, and Pew.
The Maryland news office saw the buzz and did their own story, which helped push it out.
Rush Limbaugh read from the Bloomberg article, and was just outraged: “Now, who but deranged people would look at it this way?”
How anybody thinks like this… You have to work to be this illogical. I don’t know where this kind of thing comes from, that a plummeting divorce rate is a bad sign for America in the left’s crazy world of inequality and social justice and their quest to make everybody the same. So that’s just an example of the… Folks, that is not… That kind of analysis — and this is a sociology professor at the University of Maryland. This is not stable. That kind of thinking is not… It’s just not normal. Yet there it is, and it’s out there, and it’s be widely reported by the Drive-By Media, probably applauded and supported by others. So where is this coming from? Where is all of this indecency coming from? Why? Why is it so taking over the American left?
The Limbaugh statement might have been behind this voicemail I received from someone who thinks I’m trying to “promote chaos” to “upend the social order”:
I had a much more reasonable discussion about marriage, divorce, and inequality in this interview with Lauren Gilger in KJZZ (Phoenix public radio).
The Chicago Tribuneeditorial board used the news to urge parents not to rush their children toward marriage:
This waiting trend may disturb older folks who followed a more traditional (rockier?) path and may be secretly, or not so secretly, wondering if there’s something wrong with their progeny. There isn’t. Remember: Unlike previous generations, many younger people have a ready supply of candidates at their fingertips in the era of Tinder and other dating apps. They can just keep swiping right. Our advice for parents impatient to marry off a son or daughter? Relax. The older they get, the less likely you’ll be stuck paying for the wedding.
The Catholic News Agency got an expert to chime in, “If only we could convince maybe more of them to enter into marriage, we’d be doing really well.”
I don’t know how TV or local news work, but somehow this is on a lot of TV stations. Here’s a selection.
Fox Business Network did a pretty thorough job.
Some local stations added their own reporting, like this one in Las Vegas:
And this one in Buffalo:
And this one in Boise, which brought in a therapist who says young people aren’t waiting as long to start couples therapy.
Jeff Waldorf on TYT Nation did an extended commentary, blaming capitalism:
Open science process
Two things about my process here might concern some people.
The first is promoting research that hasn’t been peer reviewed. USA Today was the only report I saw that specifically mentioned the study is not peer reviewed:
The study, which has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, has been submitted for presentation at the 2019 Population Association of America meeting, an annual conference for demographers and sociologists to present research.
But, when Steverman interviewed me I emphasized to him that it was not peer-reviewed and urged him to consult other researchers before doing the story — he told me he had already sent it to Susan Brown. Having a good reporter consult a top expert who’s read the paper is as good a quality peer review as you often get. I don’t know everything Brown told him, but the quote he used apparently showed her endorsement of the main findings:
“The change among young people is particularly striking,” Susan Brown, a sociology professor at Bowling Green State University, said of Cohen’s results. “The characteristics of young married couples today signal a sustained decline [in divorce rates] in the coming years.”
For the story to be clear enough to become a news event, the research often has to be pretty simple. That’s the case here: what I’m doing is looking at an easily-identified trend and providing my interpretation of it. If this has to be peer-reviewed, then almost anything an academic says should be. Of course, I provided the publicly verifiable data and code, and there are a lot of people with the skills to check this if it concerned them.
On the other hand, there is a lot of research that is impossible to verify that gets reported. Prominent examples include the Alice Goffman ethnographic book and the Raj Chetty et al. analysis of confidential IRS data. These were big news events, but whether they were peer reviewed or not was irrelevant because the peer reviewers had no way to know if the studies were right. My conclusion is that sharing research is the right thing to do, and sharing it with as much supporting material as you can is the responsible way to do it.
The second concern is over the fact that I posted it while it was being considered for inclusion in the Population Association of America meetings. This is similar to posting a paper that is under review at a journal. Conference papers are not reviewed blind, however, so it’s not a problem of disclosing my identity, but maybe generating public pressure on the conference organizers to accept the paper. This happens in many forms with all kinds of open science. I think we need to see hiding research as a very costly choice, one that needs to be carefully justified — rather than the reverse. Putting this in the open is the best way to approach accountability. Now the work of the conference organizers, whose names are listed in the call for papers, can be judged fairly. And my behavior toward the organizers if they reject it can also be scrutinized and criticized.
Although I would love to have the paper in the conference, in this case I don’t need this paper to be accepted by PAA, as it has already gotten way more attention than I ever expected. PAA organizers have a tough job and often have to reject a lot of papers for reasons of thematic fit as well as quality. I won’t complain or hold any grudges if it gets rejected. There’s a lot of really good demography out there, and this paper is pretty rudimentary.
I’m finishing up revisions for the second edition of The Family, and that means it’s time to update the population pyramids.
Because it’s not so easy (for me) to find population by age and sex for single years of age for the current year, and because there is a little trick to making population pyramids in Excel, and because I’m happy to be nearing the end of the revision, I took a few minutes to make one to share.
The data for single year population estimates for July 1, 2016 are here, and more specifically in the file called NC-EST2016-AGESEX-RES.csv, here. To make the pyramid in Excel, you multiply one of the columns of data by -1 and then display the results as absolute values by setting the number to a custom format, like this: #,###;#,###. Then in the bar graph you set the two series to overlap 100%.*
In this figure I highlighted the Baby Boom so you can see the tsunami rolling into the 70s now. Unlike when I discuss cohorts previously, when I let it slide, here I actually adjusted this from what you would get applying the official Baby Boom years (1946-1964) with subtraction from 2016. That would give you ages 52 to 70, but the boom obviously starts ate age 69 and ends at age 51 here, so that’s what I highlighted. Maybe this has to do with the timing within years (nine months after the formal end of WWII would be May 2, 1946). Anyway, this is not the official Baby Boom, just the boom you see.
Click to enlarge:
* I put the data file, the Census Bureau description, and the Excel file on the Open Science Framework here: https://osf.io/qanre/.
The other day I showed trends in employment and marriage rates, and made the argument that the generational term “Millennial” and others are not useful: they are imposed before analyzing data and then trends are shoe-horned into the categories. When you look closely you see that the delineation of “generations” is arbitrary and usually wrong.
Here’s another example: fertility patterns. By the definition of “Millennial” used by Pew and others, the generation is supposed to have begun with those born after 1980. When you look at birth rates, however, you see a dramatic disruption within that group, possibly triggered by the timing of the 2009 recession in their formative years.
I do this by using the American Community Survey, conducted annually from 2001 to 2015, which asks women if they have had a birth in the previous year. The samples are very large, with all the data points shown including at least 8,000 women and most including more than 60,000.
The figure below shows the birth rates by age for women across six five-year birth cohorts. The dots on each line mark the age at which the midpoint of each cohort reached 2009. The oldest three groups are supposed to be “Generation X.” The three youngest groups shown in yellow, blue, and green — those born 1980-84, 1985-89, and 1990-94 — are all Millennials according to the common myth. But look how their experience differs!
Most of the fertility effect on the recession was felt at young ages, as women postponed births. The oldest Millennial group was in their late twenties when the recession hit, and it appears their fertility was not dramatically affected. The 1985-89 group clearly took a big hit before rebounding. And the youngest group started their childbearing years under the burden of the economic crisis, and if that curve at 25 holds they will not recover. Within this arbitrarily-constructed “generation” is a great divergence of experience driven by the timing of the great recession within their early childbearing years.
You could collapse these these six arbitrary birth cohorts into two arbitrary “generations,” and you would see some of the difference I describe. I did that for you in the next figure, which is made from the same data. And you could make up some story about the character and personality of Millennials versus previous generations to fit that data, but you would be losing a lot of information to do that.
Of course, any categories reduce information — even single years of age — so that’s OK. The problem is when you treat the boundaries between categories as meaningful before you look at the data — in the absence of evidence that they are real with regard to the question at hand.
When you make up “generation” labels for arbitrary groups based on year of birth, and start attributing personality traits, behaviors, and experiences to them as if they are an actual group, you add more noise than light to our understanding of social trends.
According to generation-guru Pew Research, “millennials” are born during the years 1981-1997. A Pew essay explaining the generations carefully explains that the divisions are arbitrary, and then proceeds to analyze data according to these divisions as if are already real. (In fact, in the one place the essay talks about differences within generations, with regard to political attitudes, it’s clear that there is no political consistency within them, as they have to differentiate between “early” and “late” members of each “generation.”)
Amazingly, despite countless media reports on these “generations,” especially millennials, in a 2015 Pew survey only 40% of people who are supposed to be millennials could pick the name out of a lineup — that is, asked, “These are some commonly used names for generations. Which of these, if any, do you consider yourself to be?”, and then given the generation names (silent, baby boom, X, millennial), 40% of people born after 1980 picked “millennial.”
“What do they know?” You’re saying. “Millennials.”
The generational labels we’re currently saddled with create false divisions between groups that aren’t really groups, and then obscure important variation within the groups that are arbitrarily lumped together. Here is just one example: the employment experience of young men around the 2009 recession.
In this figure, I’ve taken three birth cohorts: men born four years apart in 1983, 1987, and 1991 — all “millennials” by the Pew definition. Using data from the 2001-2015 American Community Surveys via IPUMS.org, the figure shows their employment rates by age, with 2009 marked for each, coming at age 26, 22, and 18 respectively.
Each group took a big hit, but their recoveries look pretty different, with the earlier cohort not recovered as of 2015, while the youngest 1991 group bounced up to surpass the employment rates of the 1987s by age 24. Timing matters. I reckon the year they hit that great recession matters more in their lives than the arbitrary lumping of them all together compared with some other older “generations.”
Next, marriage rates. Here I use the Current Population Survey and analyze the percentage of young adults married by year of birth for people ages 18-29. This is from a regression that controls for year of age and sex, so it can be interpreted as marriage rates for young adults (click to enlarge).
From the beginning of the Baby Boom generation to those born through 1987 (who turned 29 in 2016, the last year of CPS data), the marriage rate fell from 57% to 21%, or 36 percentage points. Most of that change, 22 points, occurred within the Baby Boom. The marriage experience of the “early” and “late” Baby Boomers is not comparable at all. The subsequent “generations” are also marked by continuously falling marriage rates, with no clear demarcation between the groups. (There is probably some fancy math someone could do to confirm that, with regard to marriage experience, group membership by these arbitrary criteria doesn’t tell you more than any other arbitrary grouping would.)
Anyway, there are lots of fascinating and important ways that birth cohort — or other cohort identifiers — matter in people’s lives. And we could learn more about them if we looked at the data before imposing the categories.