by Colin McIntosh
It’s a feature of younger generations through the centuries that they feel the need to give themselves an identity through their ideas, their fashion, their politics, and their language. Leaving aside their language for another post, let’s look at the labels they’ve given themselves, that they’ve given others, and that others have given them, many of which are new additions to the Cambridge English Dictionary.
The Beat Generation, born in the US in the 30s, were probably the trailblazers. Young people who thought that personal experience was more important than accepted norms, they created the pattern for future generations of disaffected youth. Like their British equivalents, the Angry Young Men, the Beats tended to have a literary focus, although the term could also be used with a wider reference.
The boomers, or baby-boomers, born in the baby boom after the Second World War, were the ones who, in Harold MacMillan’s famous phrase “never had it so good”, and they’re still thought of in this way by succeeding generations who had it worse. They’re now being blamed for high property prices, the debt crisis, and impossible university tuition fees.
Generation X, the group of people who were born in the 1960s and 1970s, were often portrayed as having no clear direction to their lives. They were typified by the TV series Friends (although the Friends were better groomed and dressed than most Generation Xers). Generation Y, the baby-boomers’ children, who followed Generation X in the 1980s and early 1990s, were slightly luckier, thanks to their status as digital natives. Generation Y will be the most adept ever with emerging technology – that is, until the millennials take over the world.
Millennials (also called Generation Z) were born around the time of the millennium, that is around the year 2000, so are now on the threshold of adulthood. According to the media, the outlook for millennials is grim. Unable to get on the housing ladder, they will be condemned to a life of sofa-surfing.
Two interesting word variations on the word youth show the influence of sources of inspiration for young people. In the 80s and 90s, yoof was the target audience for UK broadcasters. The word reflects the non-standard London pronunciation of youth, but was taken up by the media as a humorous way of referring to TV’s obsession with youth culture. Nowadays its place is taken by yute, this time reflecting a Caribbean influence in its pronunciation.
Young people also refer to older generations in various disparaging ways, including wrinklies, dinosaurs, fossils, and old farts. Less ageist commentators would talk about seniors, silver surfers, and silver foxes. A new kid on the block in the world of ageist insults are the compounds with dad. Dads commit the worst sin (in the eyes of their children) of behaving in a way that is not age-appropriate. Thus we have dad dancing, as well as dad jokes, dad hairstyles, and dad clothes, all of which cause embarrassment to their over-sensitive offspring, by attempting to be youthful when they are clearly past it.