The power and background of generational labels

More stories from Hillary Smith



In a Saturday Night Live skit featuring Miley Cyrus, Millennials were depicted as being lazy, entitled, self-absorbed and obsessed with technology. These are common stereotypes attached to the generation born somewhere around and between 1982 and 2004, though the boundaries are not formally defined.

Traditionally, humans assign labels to any subgroup which springs into existence. It is a pattern of assignment which applies to almost any distinction between groups.

One example in the United States are the labels defining various generations.

For instance, the Baby Boomer generation includes those born post World-War II, from 1946 to 1964, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. These years were established based on the significant change in birth rates.

Generation X came next, tentatively defined as those born from 1965 to 1980, followed by the generation dubbed Millennials.

These definitions are not necessarily stable, said Peter Hart-Brinson, a UW-Eau Claire professor of sociology and communication/journalism. While the Baby Boomers were defined by social science, the other two generations are marked by general estimations of time and labeled accordingly.

Millennials are often perceived in two lights, Hart-Brinson said. On one hand, they are considered to be self-absorbed, privileged, entitled and technologically adept but otherwise incompetent. Conversely, they are also often seen as civic-minded, involved, closely connected and holding the potential to change the world.

However, Hart-Brinson was quick to negate the common definitions he had just summarized.

“It’s all bunk. Everything is bunk, because there’s no such thing as a Millennial,” he said. “‘Millennials’ is a made up label that has no demonstrable, empirical basis.”

Hart-Brinson said every generation has maintained a pattern of old people telling young people they are worse than the previous generation.

“You slap a label on young people and then you can say, ‘Well they aren’t as “blank’” as we were,” Hart-Brinson said. “We were more ‘blank’ than they are,” and it becomes a way for old people to complain about young people.”

Hart-Brinson said he finds it interesting how the term “Millennials” came to being. It started as an arbitrary label but now many young people identify with the title and see it as part of their personal identity.

Sami Blom, a senior studying English education, mentioned the opposing stereotypes for Millennials; some see it as a great potential for the future while others say if this generation is the future; “We’re screwed.”

“I think just because of the birth year I would (identify as a Millennial) but I wouldn’t align myself with those stereotypes, just like I think a lot of us (Millennials) wouldn’t,” Blom said.

Blom said the differing stereotypes and perceptions show it’s impossible to define one person, let alone an entire group, with one label and set of attached beliefs.