There has been more discussion and more research done on people born in the last two decades of the 20th century than on any generation before it. This is partly because most millennials are the offspring of baby boomers, the original "self-reflective" generation, and partly because business leaders are trying to figure out how to mentor the employees of today -- and leaders of tomorrow.
As society changes with each new decade, generational characteristics become more important, especially to people who care about shifting political, economic and social attitudes, like politicians and executives.
Millennial characteristics matter because, according to the Pew Research Center, they now represent the largest living generation. Add new immigrants to the number of kids born between 1980 and 2000, and millennial ranks have swelled to over 80 million. Further, the inexorable diminution of baby boomers means millennials rule the roost today, at least numerically.
Pew's research suggests that no previous generation has been as diverse as millennials. Some 57% are non-Hispanic whites, compared with 61% of Gen Xers and 72% of boomers. The percentage of non-Hispanic whites will continue to fall, as non-white babies make up half of all births today.
According to Pew, millennials are marrying later than any previous generation: Just 26% of those in this cohort are married today, compared with 36% of Gen Xers and 46% of boomers when they were in this age range. The median age of marriage for millennials is 29 for men and 27 for women, the latest in history. Just over a third of millennials describe themselves as religious, the first in U.S. history to not have a majority of members described as such.
While such research is useful, many believe the hyper-focus on millennials is wearing thin. After all, the discussion about them started almost a quarter-century ago (demographers Neil Howe and Bill Strauss introduced the term "millennials" in 1991). While we continue to discuss them as if they were a new generation, a majority of these individuals are now well into adulthood, and they're having children of their own.
Assuming a new generational cohort every 20 or so years, this latest generation of Americans will be born roughly between 2000 and 2020. That means the oldest of them are now in high school and starting to have their own impact on society and the economy. In 2006, Howe's competition to name this group led to the tag "Homeland Generation" -- a bit irrational, considering the vast majority have no memory of 9/11 or its immediate aftermath. Others have proposed "Gen We," a reference to their connectedness, and even "Gen Z," a contemptibly indifferent label.
A more appropriate name, I believe, is "Exponentials." This newest generation is coming of age in a time of exponential technological growth never before experienced by humans -- far more so than even their immediate predecessors, a factor that is sure to establish this latest generation's weltanschauung.
As with millennials, trying to understand this latest cohort serves a purpose. While not much research has been done to date on this group, we can surmise some important characteristics about them:
- Though millennials were raised on technology, their experience won't be comparable to that of the exponentials. Millennials' formative years were in the early Internet era, with dumb phones, dumb cars and cable TV. Exponentials will know only increasingly smarter phones, increasingly automated cars and streaming entertainment where they want it, when they want it.
- Exponentials will be even more diverse and tolerant than millennials. According to Pew, the percentage of intermarriages between people of different races and ethnicities has doubled in the past 30 years. Assuming a continuation of this trend, exponentials (and subsequent American generations) will eventually become biologically less diverse.
Exponentials may not experience the intense level of scrutiny enjoyed by millennials, but expect this new cohort of even more tech-savvy individuals to start playing an increasingly important role in our economy and society in the coming five years.