May 4, 2012 | By Bruce Horovitz
A frantic race to name the next generation of American consumers may be nearing the finish line.
The winner could walk off with fame, fortune — and way cool bragging rights.
But exactly what do you call a generation of techno-junkies? How about Generation Wii — after the wildly popular home video game console? Or, perhaps, the iGeneration — with a wink and nod to Apple's iPod and iPhone? Both are in the running. So are a bunch of other tech-drenched monikers, including Gen Tech, Digital Natives and, of course, Net Gen.
"Everyone wants to be the first to come up with the name," says Cheryl Russell, dubbed the goddess of demography at New Strategist Publications, who is one of several with claims to have coined the term iGeneration, which she says she created three years ago. "It's cool — and you gain credibility."
The more important question: What does one generation have to gain — or lose — from the name with which it's tagged? Certainly, no one wants to be linked to a generation of deadbeats or lowlifes. Little wonder those names have never risen to the top of any generational list. None officially dubbed Pathetic Generation — at least, not yet. But some might call Gen Z — a term still in-the-running for the next generation — rather off-putting. If Boomers felt a sense of common strength, Millennials may have felt a sense of shared destination. Ultimately, a generational name reflects its hope or pessimism.
"Generational labels don't always reflect reality," says psychology professor and generational writer Jean Twenge. "Often, they reflect the hopes of what people want a generation to be."
Those positioning themselves to crown the next generation with its name include everything from marketing specialists to demographic experts to trade publications to trend gurus. Since the early 1900s, we've gone in roughly two-decade-long socio-groupings, from the GI Generation to the Silent Generation to Baby Boomers to Gen Xers to Millennials. Whatever you call it, the still-forming generation of young folks whose birth dates roughly begin around 1995, will be the technically savviest ever.
Naming it, however, will require an unusual combination of science, art and, perhaps, luck.
"You don't wear a lab coat to name a generation," says Scott Hess, vice president of insight at Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU). "You wear a barrette."
And, perhaps, hold a crystal ball.
"No one knows who will name the next generation," says Neil Howe, who, along with his deceased co-author and business partner, William Strauss, is widely credited with naming the Millennials, a generation he figures spans from about 1982 to 2004. Millennials, he says, lived during a huge cultural change in how to nurture children. It was the era of the Baby on Board stickers. Cocooning. Over-protected kids.
And, arguably, he's got early dibs in to name the next generation, as well. His company sponsored a website contest in 2005, and folks voted overwhelmingly for the "Homeland Generation." That was not long after 9/11, and one fallout of the disaster was a nation that felt more safe staying home.
But he's not set on that name. "We're not totally wed to it," he says. "We've resisted the temptation to name the next generation until we think the Millennial Generation has run its course." That will be a while, he says, because the heart of the next generation is still mostly in nursery school.
Even then, he says, others are trying way too hard to slap a name on them. "Names are being invented by people who have a great press release. Everyone is looking for a hook."
He knows why. Naming the Millennial Generation back in 1989 has been a boon for his own business, though he downplays it. It's made him relatively famous. His best-selling book, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, was published in 2000, and he is now a must-book speaker in demographic circles. He also runs a publishing and consulting company, and his client list includes Viacom and Time Warner.
Back in 2006, Twenge, a psychology professor and mother of three young girls, says she used the term "iGen" in a brief reference in a book she'd written. At that time, there was no iPhone or iPad. But there was an iPod and, yes, an iMac computer.
She remembers getting the idea while driving to visit her mother-in-law, who lives north of San Francisco. Maybe it was because she was driving so close to Silicon Valley. It just popped into her head, she says, that iGen would be a great name for a generation — and for her book. She pleaded with the publisher to change the book's title, but the publisher found the term confusing and stuck with Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled and More Miserable than Ever Before.
If nothing else, the book sold well.
Twenge thinks the length of time between future generations — much like everything that's become time-compressed — is getting the squeeze. Traditional generational cutoffs occur about every 20 years. But with the pace of cultural and technological change accelerating, she says, it's possible that generational shifts are occurring in half the time — say, every 10 years.
She's got other possible names in the hopper for the next generation. Like Multi-Gen, she says, because this is a generation of multicultural, multimedia, multiracial and multifamily kids.
But Hess, whose specialty at TRU is youth research, has his own moniker for the next generation: Post Gen.
By that, Hess means, this is a generation that's arriving on the scene immediately following a number of culturally seismic events. Post recession. Post Obama election. Post tsunami. Post 9/11. Post Millennial. "It will be defined more by what came before it than what comes after it," Hess says.
He favors the term Post Gen because, he says, this is the generation that "posts" everything on Facebook. It's a generation, he says, that takes Obama for granted. It takes smartphones for granted. And it takes its own safety and security for granted.
But marketers take nothing for granted. If you're a car company with a 10-year planning cycle, says Hess, your product design team has to be focusing like a laser on this generation. "If you're a designer in the auto space, you're designing cars for 12-year-olds right now," Hess says.
There's more than "fun" involved in naming a generation, Hess says. There can be profit, too — and pride. "We realized there was a naming derby going on," Hess says. "We said, 'Heck, let's throw our hat in the ring.' "
Last July, TRU sent all of its 150 clients a report dubbed "Meet the Post Gen" that named and defined the next generation. "When you say, 'Here's the name of the next generation,' " says Hess, "people lean forward and smile."
Then, again, a major media consultancy has recently stamped this moniker on the first generation of the 21st century: The Pluralistic Generation.
This will be America's last generation with a Caucasian majority, notes Jack MacKenzie, VP at Frank N. Magid Associates, which consults for clients ranging from Disney to Anheuser-Busch. The Plurals, he says, will be the most positive about America becoming ethnically diverse. But Plurals are the least likely to believe in the American dream.
It's not simple being a Pluralist kid, he says. They will come of age in a society increasingly driven by women. As adults, they will have to manage conflicts in a pluralistic society where there is no majority race, no dominant media and no dominant family unit.
Even the trade magazine Advertising Age has planted a stake in the generational naming mix.
It's credited with concocting the term Gen Y, which has since been replaced by the term Millennial. It coined Gen Y back in 1993, in an editorial. Then, in another editorial last year, it threw in the towel by conceding that Millennials is a better name than Gen Y.
Like several others, Ad Age is betting on the iGen name for the next generation. "We think it's the name that best fits and will best lead to understanding of this generation," says Matt Carmichael, director of data strategy at Advertising Age.
The guy who unintentionally coined the term Gen X is staying out of the fray. Douglas Couplan, the Canadian novelist whose first novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, stamped the term in the cultural zeitgeist after it was published in 1991, is mum about the next generation.
"I'm staying away from all the Millennial stuff," he says in an e-mail, in which he declined to be interviewed. "Marketing stories have always made me itchy and weird."
But marketing is everything to Nickelodeon. And the cable TV channel that targets kids 2 to 11 is eager to not only know the name of the next generation, but to study its habits under a magnifying glass. It talked to more than 70,000 kids last year in surveys, focus groups and in-home shop-alongs, says Ron Geraci, executive vice president of research and planning. "This is a generation that will not take a lot of risks personally or professionally," he says. "They're growing up in a cocoon and everything is done for them."
Then, there's Gen Wii.
That's a term used by Taco Bell executives to describe the next generation. It picked up the term Gen Wii, executives say, in consultations with MTV.
"This is the generation that makes a game out of everything," says Brian Niccol, chief marketing and innovation officer at Taco Bell. "For them, life is a game." The term Gen Wii, he says, is "shorthand for connectivity."
But the folks at Nintendo — makers of Wii — aren't thrilled with that single-generational moniker.
One of the chief legacies of Wii, says Scott Moffitt, Nintendo of America's executive VP of sales and marketing, is its ability to get many generations to play together. "In essence," Moffitt insists, "we're all part of Gen Wii."
Unless, of course, the generational gods decide otherwise.