One Friday back in mid-October, my sister and I were headed down I-75 South towards Atlanta. The sunshine was almost as bright as our hopes for the weekend as we loaded up our bags with business cards and carefully-curated outfits. We were traveling for Create & Cultivate – a conference centered around what it means to be a woman entrepreneur in the digital age. The range of attendees was visibly wide as we met women of all ages, places, and faces. We listened to icons in a range of industries, from Jen Gotch to Nicolette Mason to Nicole Richie, and were introduced to rookies who, like us, were eager to soak everything up like a sponge.
Among the many things that have stuck with me from that weekend was a conversation I had with a woman whose business counsels Millennial women about pursuing their passions in the face of adversity. A while into our conversation, she identified “Millennial” women as those born between 1980 and 1990.
Wait, I thought, so does that mean I’m not a Millennial?
Suddenly all of the ways I had oriented myself to the world began to shift slightly. Obviously I haven’t had nearly the same life experiences as someone in his or her late 30’s, but does that really mean the ones I have had are more on par with those of a middle schooler? Someone who grew up with Doc McStuffins instead of Dragon Tales? Someone who doesn’t remember rewinding VHS tapes before taking them back to Blockbuster? Someone who wasn’t even alive for 9/11?
As it turns out, everyone is a little divided on this. Some people, like my Create & Cultivate friend, think the title “Millennial” is reserved exclusively for the decade of 80’s babies who were actually old enough to remember the entrance into a new millennium. Some people like to expand their Millennial circle to include those born into the early 2000’s, which would include today’s high school freshmen. Millennials are often categorized as whiny, entitled, and hypersensitive to political correctness; they are shamed for the “participation prize” philosophy they were raised on and criticized for expecting the world handed to them on a silver platter. However, they are also the ones who have revolutionized the tech industry and laid the foundation for technological advancements we cannot even conceive.
On the other side, there is Gen Z, the youngest generation that’s been around long enough to have a label. Gen Z-ers are more creative, connected, and socially-conscious than any that have come before them and this is largely because of everything (read: ISIS, iPhones, TOMS, etc.) they’ve grown up around. That they are strong-willed is also an understatement. Notable Gen Z-ers like Maya Penn, Amandla Stenberg, and Willow and Jaden Smith are constantly speaking out against of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forces of oppression that prior generations have had the luxury of ignoring. This often gives them the reputation of being even more hypersensitive than their Millennial predecessors and are seen as having idealistic perceptions of reality.
Truthfully, I would be honored to call myself a part of Generation Z, but it seems that they don’t want to include me either – some sources say that Gen Z is comprised of those born in the mid 90’s until the early 2010’s, while others restrict the identity to only those born 2000 and later.
So what is a mid-90’s girl to do? While studies about Gen Z-ers’ beliefs are more reflective of my own than those of Millennials, it is difficult to believe that I have more in common with a 6-year-old than a 36-year-old. I am adamant in my pursuit of social equality, but I am also faced with the very real threats of unemployment and political corruption. Perhaps this is why there is so much gray area surrounding this question. No one wants to unanimously agree on one generational division because of the backlash they might face if they did.
Which begs the question, why the heck does it matter so much anyway?
To me, it matters because of how a generation’s needs are framed. Baby Boomers have concerns about financial stability as they grow closer to retirement, creating more anxiety about the future of Social Security. My parents’ generation, Generation X, has been more focused on economic and social status, which has led to tensions surrounding a blurry middle class. Millennials have led the foray into the technological future – they have never known a time without some of our most basic ideas of technology and they have been the ones who have prioritized making the tech industry what it is today. And finally, Generation Z has been the one to bring social issues into the spotlight, as they have been primed to see everyone as equals and are waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.
So what does it mean that the problems facing both Millennials and Gen Z-ers are ones that resonate with me equally? I remember sitting on the kitchen floor when I was in 4th grade and asking my dad if I could have my own cell phone when I turned 13. The popular girls in my grade already had them and I couldn’t wait to say I had one, too – a feeling I’m still reminded of with each new iPhone release.
In the same breath, I also remember being called a “lesbo” by another girl on the playground one day because I wanted to play kickball with the boys instead of swinging on the swing set with her. I remember the malice behind her words and feeling like a “lesbo” was not something I wanted to be, even though I had no real clue what a lesbian even was at the time. The presence of a non-heterosexuality, however negative the light in which it was cast, was something to which prior generations were barely receptive.
Maybe I will find myself fitting in with one group more than another as time goes on. Certainly, those falling at the ends of generational divides must have felt at some point as I do now. As I barrel towards graduation and prepare to enter the “real world” of adulthood, though, I am perplexed by questions of identity – Who am I? and What do I want? haunt my dreams and color my waking hours. If I can’t even figure out which generation I belong to, how the heck am I supposed to decide where my place is in the world?