Gen Alpha -- Not

Gen Alpha is not a generation.

Somebody somewhere has decided that 2012 is the last birth year of Gen Z, after which it’s Gen Alpha -- meaning these Alpha kids are children barely 11 or younger. 

Bluntly put, none are old enough to babysit, much less define a proper cohort for generational analysis.

Moreover, the cutoff of 2012 also means that half or more of Gen Z are teenagers, and young teens at that. So, let me add, Gen Z is not a fully formed generation.

I am not pointing this out to diminish generational research, but to caution us that we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Pretending that market research about children — perfectly fine to do — is generational research is what diminishes generational research.



Proper generational research is the study of cohort effects, or the impact of shared formative experiences on behaviors and attitudes that are years down the road. In other words, generational research is the study of adults, not children.

Admittedly, it is the study of enduring youth effects, which is to say that it is about the effects, if any, produced by the societal, economic and/or technological experiences that a contemporaneous group of adults shared during their starting-point years as children, pre-teens, teens and young adults. But it is not the study of children.

I am not discrediting generations. I have made a career of it, so I am hardly unbiased. But few people know generations better than me.

And one thing I know for certain is that Gen Alpha is not a generation. It may never be.

A few years hence, we may figure out that Gen Alpha is nothing but the long tail of Gen Z.

Critics of generational research misunderstand it. Cohorts never march in lockstep. But variability doesn’t disconfirm generational research, which is about formative experiences creating higher likelihoods of doing or believing one thing instead of another. That is exactly how all predictive research works.

It’s true that cohort boundaries are fuzzy, as are all dividing lines. We compare 18-24 to 25-34, but 24 versus 25 is fuzzy. We contrast segmentation groups, but segment assignments are probabilistic, thus fuzzy, and really fuzzy at the edges.

Generational analysis is not bits and bobs of pop culture conjured up into artfully massaged narratives. Such storytelling is an impersonation. Like Gen Alpha.

Formative cohort effects are well-documented. For example, studies have found that 18- to 25-year-olds growing up during wars or repression are more supportive of national defense as adults, as well as less likely to be involved in politics.

A study of 142 countries between 1970 and 2018 found that 18- to 25-year-olds who lived through an epidemic or a pandemic had less trust in governments and elections for decades afterwards.

Students graduating into high unemployment or recessions suffer diminished lifetime earnings. Growing up in a recession shapes opinions later about luck, welfare and politics.

The experience of the Great Depression lowered lifetime stock investing, while growing up during eras of high returns increased it. Living through high inflation raises the likelihood of being a homeowner. Growing up with high gas prices mean less driving and more use of public transportation decades later.

Lifelong voting is shaped by events between the ages of 14 and 24. Life prospects for African-American men born in 2001 are better than those born in 1981 due to decarceration, which led to a reversal in the odds of prison versus a college degree.

The Yankelovich Monitor, my formative professional experience, was launched in 1971 to quantify and track the impact of post-WW2 affluence on the values and lifestyles of the generation then emerging into adulthood.

Gen Alpha may grow up to be a cohort with a unique identity forged by formative experiences. But none of these children have had any shared formative experiences yet.

So hold your horses. You’re going to have to wait a decade or more before coming to terms with them then as a generational cohort, or not.

For now, for sure, Gen Alpha is not a generation.

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