Robert Gray: Millennial, Gen Z, Gen X, Boomer? How About... Reader?

Millennial, Gen Z, Gen X, Boomer. Noting that "generational research has become a crowded arena," Pew Research Center announced this week it had "decided to take a step back and consider how we can study generations in a way that aligns with our values of accuracy, rigor and providing a foundation of facts that enriches the public dialogue."

PRC added that the "field has been flooded with content that's often sold as research but is more like clickbait or marketing mythology. There's also been a growing chorus of criticism about generational research and generational labels in particular." 

I've never liked the term Boomer, so I see this small change of focus by PRC as progress. If I have to have a tag, I'd prefer Reader, and hope this transcends generational labels. Of course I know that it doesn't, but as a Reader I can still imagine it does. That's one of the benefits of reading, along with time travel, which also defies generational labels.

To address the issue, PRC spoke with outside experts, including those who have been publicly critical of its generational analysis; and invested in methodological testing to determine whether it could compare findings from earlier telephone surveys to the online ones being conducted now. Experiments were also conducted with higher-level statistical analyses that would isolate the effect of generation.

The process led to a set of guidelines that PRC believes "will help frame our approach going forward. Many of these are principles we've always adhered to, but others will require us to change the way we've been doing things in recent years.... By choosing not to use the standard generational labels when they're not appropriate, we can avoid reinforcing harmful stereotypes or oversimplifying people's complex lived experiences.... We'll only talk about generations when it adds value, advances important national debates and highlights meaningful societal trends."

PRC also released an article noting that while it can be useful to talk about generations, there are some important considerations for readers to keep in mind whenever they come across a news story or research about generations:

  • Generational categories are not scientifically defined.
  • Generational labels can lead to stereotypes and oversimplification.
  • Discussions about generation often focus on differences instead of similarities.
  • Conventional views of generations can carry an upper-class bias.
  • People change over time.

Reading the news from PRC triggered memories of a couple of SA columns I wrote in 2008 about Boomers and the book trade. Specifically, I recalled this sentence: "Boomers will age, but they won't grow old." Although it would make a fine clickbait headline now, it's actually from a book titled Generation Ageless: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Live Today... and They're Just Getting Started by J. Walker Smith & Ann Clurman.

I was probably intrigued by the title then, but 15 years later it seems like speculative fiction. "Baby boomers, more than any other demographic group, will shape the future of the marketplace," the authors wrote. "They are in control and will remain so for decades to come. For boomers, getting older does not mean resigning oneself to a deceleration into death. They will continue to be actively involved in their lifestyles, spending lots of money and searching for more new things to try.... Boomers will age, but they won't grow old." 

Spoiler alert: We did grow old. In 2008, I wrote, "Cue the theme music from Jaws. Baby Boomers are in the retail waters and they're not leaving soon. Will they still be reading in 2018 or 2028 or 2038? Yes. Will they still be buying books in bricks-and-mortar bookstores? Maybe."

As it turns out, they/we are still buying books from indies, and continued to do so even through a global pandemic. Fifteen years ago, I suggested that "the book world will have to find a way to surf Boomer-infested waters. One of the questions I initially asked readers was whether tech-savvy BBs will be transferring their book reading and buying habits to an online environment by the year 2018."

At the time, one bookseller predicted that while some Boomers might gravitate to an online reading life by 2018, "bricks-and-mortar stores have less likelihood of losing them to the ether than we do the younger generations. They want to talk about what they know about--in person. They want the interaction that the cozy independent bookstore can offer. I think this is the generation that may be doing their research online, but we'll still get the pleasure of their company. Until mobility becomes an issue. Then you start delivering."

Another bookseller called the 2018 question hard to answer, noting: "I've been a bookseller for 15 years, and all I can say for sure about the future is that it will be different. When online skyrocketed, I jumped, and for a couple of years what I was doing worked, but then everything changed, and I had to change again, too. Boomers in general may re-invent themselves over and over out of excitement or new enthusiasms; indie booksellers must re-invent themselves continuously to stay alive. The world is dynamic, and bookselling is a challenging way of life."

The world is dynamic and, as PRC noted, "people change over time." Millennial, Gen Z, Gen X, Boomer. Just call me Reader. And cue the #BookTok video.

--Robert Gray, contributing editor
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