The cutoff for being born into Generation X was about 1980, the cutoff for Generation Y (a.k.a. the Millennials) was about 1996, and the cutoff for Generation Z was about 2010. What should the next batch of babies be called—what comes after Z?
Alpha, apparently. That’s the (Greek) letter that the unofficial namers of generations—marketers, researchers, cultural commentators, and the like—have affixed to Gen Z’s successors, the oldest of whom are on the cusp of turning 10. The Generation Alpha label, if it lasts, follows the roughly 15-year cycle of generational delineations. Those delineations keep coming, even as, because of a variety of demographic factors, they seem to be getting less and less meaningful as a way of segmenting the population; in recent decades, there hasn’t been a clear-cut demographic development, like the postwar baby boom, to define a generation around, so the dividing lines are pretty arbitrary. How much do members of this new generation, or any generation, really have in common?
A picture of Generation Alpha, if a blurry one, is starting to emerge. In various articles about its members, analysts have stated that they are or will grow up to be the best-educated generation ever, the most technologically immersed, the wealthiest, and the generation more likely than any in the past century to spend some or all of their childhood in living arrangements without both of their biological parents. These are all notable features, but some of them are broad and fairly low-stakes observations, given that the global population has been getting richer, better educated, and more exposed to digital technology for a while now.
Some marketers and consultants who analyze generations have tried to get more specific. One suggested that Generation Alpha might be particularly impatient because they’ll be used to technology fulfilling their desires from an early age. And a branding agency recently polled a bunch of 7-to-9-year-olds on a wide range of mostly nondivisive issues (such as the importance of “making sure everyone has enough food to eat”) and arrived at the conclusion that Generation Alpha “cares more about all issues than their Millennial and Baby Boomer [predecessors] did when they were kids, or even than they do now.”
Many of these takeaways seem premature, or at least overeager. “They’re still kids,” says Dan Woodman, a sociology professor at the University of Melbourne who studies generational labels. “A lot of things we attach to a generation are around the way they start to think about politics, the way they engage with the culture, and [whether they] are a wellspring of new social movements.” The narrative of a generation, he told me, “starts to get filled in with some meaningful—maybe not correct, but at least substantial—content probably more when they start to enter their teens.”
The term Generation Alpha is usually credited to Mark McCrindle, a generational researcher in Australia who runs a consulting agency. McCrindle told me that the name originated from an online survey he ran in 2008 that yielded a slew of now-discarded monikers, many of which focused on technology (the “Onliners,” “Generation Surf,” the “Technos”) or gave the next round of humans the burden of undoing the damage done by the last (the “Regeneration,” “Generation Hope,” the “Saviors,” “Generation Y-not”).
One popular option from the survey was “Generation A,” but, McCrindle told me in an email, he thought the name for a cohort that would shape the future shouldn’t “be labelled by going back to the beginning.” So once the Latin alphabet was exhausted, he hopped over to the Greek one—“the start of something new.”
A consensus has formed around Generation Alpha, but it may be a temporary one. The generic “Generation [Letter]” format began with Generation X. “It was meant to be a placeholder for something a bit uncertain or mysterious, almost like X in some algebraic equation,” Woodman told me. Generation Y followed, though it was usurped, at least in the U.S., by Millennials; nothing has overthrown Generation Z. Placeholder names, in a way, make generational generalizations easier. “They’re almost like empty labels that you can put anything in,” Woodman said. He thinks Generation Alpha will stick for at least a little while, but can also see how it might get replaced by something “a little more descriptive.”