07/29/2013 03:06 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2013

The Name Game

At the start of every new academic term I ask my class, comprised of mostly young college-age students, what generation they think they are a part of. It's a simple question, but one that (without fail) gets a mixture of answers. Most often, a few class members confidently state they are a part of Generation X, while others avoid eye contact as a sign that they would rather not guess. What is most fascinating about this is that both answers are incorrect. The 18- to 20-somethings in my class are not members of Generation X, nor should they express uncertainty about their social grouping. So what causes this temporary identity crisis? Is it first day of school jitters? Is it apathy? Or could it have to do with wider uncertainty regarding the identity of the generation? Perhaps the answer can in-part be found in the name itself.

There is a long history of naming the group of people born between 1982 and 2001. The original name for the group was introduced by Ad Age magazine in 1993 who declared this group of young people "Generation Y." The magazine suggested this generation was different than the previous one, "Generation X," because of differences in their consumption and purchasing behaviors.

Later, generational theorists and social critics, William Strauss and Neil Howe offered the name, "Millennial" to describe the group of people born between 1982 and 2004. Since this time, "Millennial Generation" is certainty one of the most popular and widely used names to describe the group.

However, "Generation Y," and "Millennials" are not the only names used. Over the past ten years a slew of new names have become popular. In 2006, Jean M. Twenge introduced the name "Generation Me" to highlight her thesis that this was a self-involved generation. Mark Bauerlein followed up in 2009, calling the group, "The Dumbest Generation," referring to America's declining test scores. Since then, the term "Young-Nones" has also gained popularity in the media as a way to conceptualize the lack of religious affiliations found within the group.
And then there are names that refer to the generation's technological roots. Kathryn C. Montgomery called the group "Generation Digital," emphasizing the positive and negative effects of the Internet on youth. Similarly, the name "Digital Natives" was introduced by Marc Prensky to describe the ways this generation differed from others because of time spent in an online environment.

What is important about all these names are the identities that they assume, project, and create. Even without any context, these names pack a punch and conjure a variety of mental images. Further, these names often have mixed connotations. "Generation Y" is named because it comes after "X," giving the illusion of being second or after. The term "Generation Me" also offers a negative view, especially as it ignores the group's renewed focus on helping others and volunteering. "The Dumbest Generation" speaks for itself. But, the terms "Generation Digital" and "Digital Natives" are a bit more ambiguous, relying on the listener to interpret the group's adoption of technology as a good or a bad trait.

This variety in naming does not happen with all generations. For example, The "GI Generation," "The Greatest Generation," and "The Lucky Few" all refer to those who were of fighting age in WWII. Despite referencing the different traits and experiences of the WWII Generation, there is still an optimistic and positive tone to these names.

My question the first day of class is not meant to be a trick, but now that I think about, it kind of is. With so many names out there for this group of people, it is not a surprise that they would express confusion or answer incorrectly.

The point here is not that the Millennial generation is a good or bad generation, but rather these names suggest that we as a society have not yet made that decision. Thus, I would like to offer one more name that may characterize the uncertainty of society as demonstrated through these names, as well as the uncertainty of the millennials as demonstrated through my class' reaction: Generation Undecided.