What comes after Z? A more nuanced understanding of people

—What if the letter ‘Z,’ as the last letter of the alphabet, is sending us a signal that we should stop lumping people together based on their birthdate, asks Éric Blais—

I’m a baby boomer. Born, through no fault of my own, in 1961.

To give you an idea of the moment, the keyword that year was “Freedom Riders,” a group of civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States to challenge the non-enforcement of Supreme Court decisions on segregated public buses. And Time Magazine’s Person of the Year was President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in Dallas two years later.

Yet, according to demographers, that year does more than just reveal my age—it defines my cohort, members of my generation. And according to David Foot, author of the Canadian best-selling book Boom, Bust, and Echo, and the Nostradamus of the ’90s, “demographics explain two-thirds of everything.”

Being a boomer explains why I had it easy; and why the generations that followed weren’t so lucky. Boomers are the generation of post-war prosperity, affordable education, and seemingly endless opportunities, and social systems that we later altered, either directly or indirectly, in ways that have made economic growth and upward mobility more challenging for subsequent generations.

Gen X grappled with economic instability, recessions, and the advent of outsourcing. Gen Z is quite literally, paying a high price for problems they didn’t create. They are entering adulthood in a world that’s both physically and economically unstable, tasked with solving crises while weighed down by debt.

This taxonomy of generations has been handy as shorthand to describe cohorts in terms of their values, attitudes, and lifestyles. It’s like astrology for business folks. But what if we’ve exhausted the alphabet and the novelty of these labels?

Demographers have always known these cohorts are not homogeneous groups. But these letters and clever names might be taking human complexity and reducing colourful individuals to greyish sameness. Particularly when they’re reduced to bullet points in a PowerPoint.

What if the letter ‘Z,’ as the last letter of the alphabet, is sending us a signal that we should stop lumping people together based on their birthdate?

Meet Generation Alpha.

The name Generation Alpha originated from a 2008 survey conducted by the Australian consulting agency McCrindle Research.

“It just made sense as it is in keeping with scientific nomenclature of using the Greek alphabet in lieu of the Latin,” founder Mark McCrindle told the New York Times back in 2015. “[A]nd it didn’t make sense to go back to A, after all they are the first generation wholly born in the 21st Century and so they are the start of something new not a return to the old.”

Generation Alpha includes those born between 2010 and 2024. Notice that generations appear to be getting shorter. In demography, it’s generally accepted that generation time typically range from 20 to 30 years—i.e.  the average difference in age between parent and offspring. However, there are two types of human generations, family generations and social generations. While it is easy to define the length of a family generation, there is no universal standard for how long a social generation like Generation Alpha is.

Generation Alpha is characterized by their life in a fully digitized environment, complete with AI babysitters and algorithmically curated life choices. On one hand, this offers unparalleled opportunities for learning and socialization. On the other, it opens Pandora’s box of cyberbullying, mental health issues, and a distorted sense of reality. In short, Alphas are predominantly defined by what they consume: technology.

But could it be that the Alpha generation is characterized not by its digital life but by its diversity? Perhaps they embody the justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion principles that are part of the zeitgeist they are growing up in.

If a new generational label is required, one that fits the fluid and complex lives they lead, we could label them “Generation No Labels.” But that’s oxymoronic.

Perhaps the next generation of marketers emerging from this cohort will focus not on demographic tranches but on personas. Which is what marketers of the digital era already know is a more effective way of identifying, analyzing and targeting population groups: the rich, individualistic profiles that, when grouped together, make a sizeable market, regardless of their date of birth, sexual orientation, or skin colour.

In dropping the labels, we might just find that we’re promoting a more nuanced, inclusive way of understanding each other.

Éric Blais is president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec. He can be reached at feedback@headspacemarketing.com

Eric Blais