Pew ends generational framing of Gen Z, millennials

Millennials and Gen Zers have been stereotyped in many ways—they’re lazy quiet quitters, immature freeloaders who live with their parents, and spend too much on avocado toast. Usually, a poll or survey is used as evidence of the generational trend.

Now one of America’s oldest research organizations, Pew Research Center, an arm of the venerable 75-year-old Pew Charitable Trust, says it will no longer provide the ammunition. It says it will largely stop putting a generational framework on its well-known polls and surveys that highlight the thinking and lifestyles of different U.S. demographic groups.

“Our audiences should not expect to see a lot of new research coming out of Pew Research Center that uses the generational lens,” Pew’s social trends director Kim Parker wrote in a blog post last month. “We’ll only talk about generations when it adds value, advances important national debates and highlights meaningful societal trends.”

Take the trend of “job hopping,” ascribed by a Gallup report to the supposedly disloyal millennial generation. For its part, Pew previously found that millennials and their seniors, Gen X, jumped jobs at the same frequency. 

More infamously, millennials became the “avocado toast generation,” originating from a 2017 interview in which a billionaire asked young adults to cut seemingly frivolous food expenses so they could afford a new home. That stereotype was an oversimplification of the entire generation’s spending behavior, and inspired counterpoints explaining that any financial woes of millennials could be blamed on their extraordinarily bad economic luck compared to previous generations. 

Why now?

The reason Pew decided to change its system is that the research about generations wasn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. For instance, comparing the behavior of Gen Z, currently 11 and 26 years old, to that of millennials, who are between 27 and 42 years, isn’t fair. The two age groups—which collectively span 30 years in age—could be in vastly different stages of their life. (Those are Pew’s former generational-marking years, although other sources group generations into 20-year brackets.)

“In our publications, we’ve pointed out that these rules aren’t hard and fast and they’re kind of there to put together these groups that we think would share certain characteristics or experiences.. but they’re not scientifically based at all,” Parker told Fortune. She referred to a 2019 article by Pew titled “Defining generations: Where Millennials end and Generation Z begins,” which was frequently used as a reference—but that was unintended.

“People turned to us for these definitions, which frankly, made us a little uncomfortable because we didn’t really want to be in the business of defining generations,” Parker said. 

She told Fortune that Pew was receptive to some of the critiques of its generational research and spent a year reassessing its methods. 

Indeed, the research organization’s end to using generational categories comes after many social scientists and researchers criticized the approach because it pigeon-holes people into brackets that they don’t necessarily identify with or relate to. From a research standpoint, the age categories could lead to generalizations that aren’t always true of people’s personal experiences, even if they belong to millennial or Gen Z groups on paper. 

John Quiggin, who writes the leftist economics blog Crooked Timber, celebrated the decision by Pew, writing that he had campaigned against the use of generational framing “since the beginning of the millennium.” He reminded readers that he had lobbied against them in an opinion piece for The New York Times in 2018, saying, “Dividing society by generation obscures the real and enduring lines of race, class and gender.” 

Pew has previously published research based on generation segments, including each group’s educational levels, financial standing, and racial diversity. One report from 2021 found that Gen Z and millennials are among the loudest climate change activists, while another looked into the state of the economy that members of generations such as Gen Z inherited.

Some of the other changes Pew made include examining vast amounts of historical data to come up with stronger comparisons between generations and making sure its analysis accounts for “period effects,” or events that impact all age groups.    

Does this mean that Pew’s past research along generational lines is no longer meaningful? Not at all, according to Parker. 

“We definitely stand by all our previous research,” she said. “So, I think it’s just more of an evolution than anything else, but we’re definitely not taking down any of our previous research or distancing ourselves from that in any way.”

What are the experts saying?

One of the most notable voices against generational labels is University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen. In 2021, he drafted an open letter to Pew signed by demographers and social scientists urging the organization to give up on labels such as Gen X, millennial and Gen Z because they were “arbitrary” and had “no scientific basis.”

“With the exception of the Baby Boom, which was a discrete demographic event, the other ‘generations’ have been declared and named on an ad hoc basis without empirical or theoretical justification,” Cohen wrote in the letter. “Pew’s own research conclusively shows that the majority of Americans cannot identify the ‘generations’ to which Pew claims they belong.”

Research by organizations outside Pew agree. For instance, a YouGov survey in 2021 commissioned by The Atlantic found that only 39% of Gen Z respondents felt like they could relate to the generation label they were given. That figure is highest among Baby Boomers who, as Cohen highlighted, shared a defining event—the baby boom following World War II.

“Once word gets out (through research or other means) about a particular trait or practice associated with a ‘generation,’ like avocado toast or student debt, it gets processed and reprocessed reflexively by people who don’t, or do, want to embody a stereotype or trend for their supposed group,” Cohen wrote in a 2021 blog post.

Pew’s Parker responded to Cohen’s arguments in a 2021 Washington Post op-ed by acknowledging the limitations of generation as the basis for analysis. But she added that it could still sometimes be useful for understanding public opinion on topics and to react to different experiences.

The pushback against generation stereotypes has become louder in recent times. Gen Z employees are often type-cast as lazy and with a dwindling corporate loyalty. But people in those age groups have dismissed the thinking, arguing that it’s a misconception since younger individuals have a different perspective about flexibility and work-life balance. 

Even business consulting firm McKinsey pointed out earlier this year that social science experts have found that research focusing on generations can confuse people about where they stand individually and warned against treating such an approach as the “gospel truth.”

“Generational research has become a crowded arena,” Pew acknowledged last month. “The field has been flooded with content that’s often sold as research but is more like clickbait or marketing mythology.”


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