The upper threshold of when we no longer consider an individual a “youth” is 35. As Generational theory has been accepted and gained understanding we have seen several labels rise that cover this group, and the cohort under them. For clarity sake it is useful to consider what these labels mean and where they have originated.

Generation Yshutterstock_225764986

The most common label in use. The defining characteristic of this label is that it doesn’t actually reference anything particular in this group but rather in the Generation X group that preceded them. Effectively, it is a placeholder label that was put there while the group was growing up and the defining events of the generation were unfolding. As happened with Generation X though the label has not fallen away as we have begun to identify the unique traits and defining experiences of this group. The age range covered by this label is also quite broad and general. The Generation Y label can be applied to anyone who was born through the 1980’s and 1990’s. Basically, Generation Y just means that the person identified is a young person who is not from Generation X.


Strauss and Howe the originators of Generational theory research defined the Millennial Generation as those who were born between 1982 – 2004. They were called Millennials because they were the children who would be finishing, graduating, or have recently graduated from school in the year 2000. The upper-threshold of the group’s label indicates that the millennial transition into the 21st century was merely a reference point rather than a rock solid defining moment. While the Millennials have been labeled for the turning of the century it has been argued that the events of Sept 11, 2001 were more defining of this group’s values and worldview. But, while some have bandied the label 9/11 generation about the generally accepted label has remained as Millennials. Strauss and Howe have stated that this label should be used in favour of the Generation Y label because it is more reflective of the milieu in which they grew up.
There are two other labels that are worth considering.

Digital Natives

In 2001 Marc Prensky wrote a paper directed at educators where he proposed that those born after 1980 should be called Digital Natives. He argued that due to their access to digital- and media-rich content it was impossible to effectively educate this group without using similarly digital- and media-rich education tools. As we have moved through the digital age this insight is becoming increasingly appropriate. While the term of the millennium, 9/11, the global recession, and the global war on terror have had their impact on this generation the greater pervasive influence is that of the digital world. All of the above experiences were felt more acutely, more immediately, and more vividly than ever before as a result of their delivery via digital channels. Add the rise of social networking and the internet of things and it is a totally appropriate comment to state that the biggest impact on the lives and worldview of those born after 1980 is that they were born into a digital technology as opposed to mechanical technology world. They are Digital Natives because working with and living with digital tech is natively natural and comfortable to them – it is normal.

Born Free’s

In South Africa we speak of the Born Free generation as those born after 1994 when we had the first democratic election. Born Frees grew up in a world where Apartheid as a legal and political reality was only something they read about in history books. It is tempting to see this label as only applying to South Africa, but, while the date period may differ slightly, it is a relevant label for post-colonial and post-independence dictatorship experiences around the world. Many previously colonial countries were granted independence in the late 20th century only to be controlled by dictators or military juntas. It was only toward the end of the century that many of the post-colonial countries experienced true democracy and real “free and fair” elections. So, while the label may have originally been applied to South Africans born after 1994, it can be expanded to cover the experiences of many in the 2/3rds world in the twilight of the 20th century.

The final label worth considering is that being applied to today’s children, those aged 0-14 : Generation Z

Again, as with Generation Y this is a place holder label that is more about distinguishing them from the Millennials than about specifically identifying them as a group. While Generation Z is still the most commonly used label at the moment there are some descriptive labels that are beginning to arise.  Strauss and Howe ran a survey to ask what the most useful label would be for this group and the label that came back was the “Homeland Generation”. This label is particularly reflective of the USA experiences post 9/11. It has some use but its US-centricity makes it less comfortable as a label for the rest of the world. The most relevant label we are hearing at the moment is probably the “iTouch Generation”. This reflects the digital experience of these children, and acknowledges that they are the first generation who have not needed to be able to read or write to use a computer. The advent of touch screen devices and their icon based user interface means that as soon as a child could recognise the icon for a program they could interact with it via a touch screen rather than a keyboard and mouse.
Labels are interesting because they are both useful and limiting. They are useful because they form a common point of reference for what is being labelled, but they are limiting because they tend to take a lowest common denominator approach to the group or item structure being labelled. When we are dealing with today’s youth knowing and understanding these labels helps us know who we are talking to, what they hear us saying, and how they will react. These insights are all critical if we want to be effective employers of choice, or target them as customers in an expanding market.

We have two keynote presentations / workshops that provide a better understanding of the different generations. Mind the Gap explores all the generations, their influences, values and how they work together. Meet the Digital Natives looks specifically at this younger generation, and what you need to know to get the most out of them and connect with them. If you’re serious about talent and your people these are both great options to further learning and understanding in your organisation.


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