The Pew Research Center, one of the country’s most highly respected survey organizations, recently announced a major change to how it conducts generational research. In a May letter, it stated: “We’ll only do generational analysis when we have historical data that allows us to compare generations at similar stages of life.” That means that Pew will mostly compare the experiences of today’s Gen Z, for example, with the experiences of millennials when they were Gen Z’s age. The change came about after a yearlong review of its generational research, and is expected to severely curtail Pew’s work in this area. (Disclosure: I served on the board of the Pew Research Center for eight years.)
The decision did not come as a complete surprise. In 2021, Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, sent a letter to Pew signed by more than 150 social scientists critical of the methodology behind contemporary generational research. Among the familiar criticisms: that generational divisions are arbitrary, that the research undermines important cohort and life cycle research, and that Pew’s generations “sow confusion.” Many were disappointed in Pew’s decision. The talented young Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson—herself author of a generation-themed book The Selfie Vote and an admirer of Pew’s work—tweeted that Pew’s announcement “lets the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, acknowledges the many criticisms of generational research at the outset of her new book, Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents—and What They Mean for America’s Future. “Generational groupings are not perfect” she writes, but they “persist because they are useful.” (These groupings are useful, though there are many other lenses researchers use to understand what makes a complex public tick.) In her book, Twenge describes and uses 24 different datasets, many of which are long-running, invaluable government and university series that provide insights if one knows how to use them. Twenge does, and she writes about them clearly.
Each of Twenge’s chapters contains a short demographic sketch of today’s six living generations: the Silents (1925-1945), boomers (1946-1964), Gen X (1965-1979), millennials (1980-1994), Gen Z (1995-2012), and, adding her own coinage, “polars” (2012-present). She lists prominent actors and politicians from each generation, popular words and phrases they use, and common boy and girl first names they have. She also touches on their coming-of-age experiences, such as Vietnam, 9/11, the 2008 financial crash, and the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Twenge cautions against making historical events the cornerstone of generational research. This approach “misses the rest of cultural change—all the ways in which life today is so different from life twenty years ago, fifty years ago, or one hundred years ago.”