My life is super exciting, so Friday night I was looking through the galleys of the new edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, and I noticed a little change from the previous edition. In the past, Chicago said to lowercase “generation X,” even though other style books said to capitalize it. With the new edition in September, Chicago is going to be in line with the Associated Press, making editors’ lives easier: capitalize “Generation X.” And if you call us “Gen Xers” on second reference, capitalize that too.
But knowing when to capitalize the name of a generation isn’t as straightforward as you’d think. Although “Generation X” is capitalized, “baby boomer” and “millennial” are lowercase, but then “the Greatest Generation,” which generally means Americans who became adults during World War II, is often capitalized.
So what’s going on? Well, my best guess is that “baby boomer” and “millennial” are made-up names that describe the generations, but “Generation X” and “the Greatest Generation” were both popularized by books that have those titles, so there’s some pressure or feeling that they should be capitalized. The Oxford English Dictionary does show people occasionally using both of these names before the books came out, but it was really the books that made these names popular.
‘Generation X’ Was a Book Title
“Generation X” was the title of a novel published by Douglas Coupland in 1991. The publisher’s description says the main characters “Andy, Claire, and Dag, each in their twenties, have quit ‘pointless jobs done grudgingly to little applause’ in their respective hometowns and cut themselves adrift on the California desert. In search of the drastic changes that will lend meaning to their lives, they’ve mired themselves in the detritus of American cultural memory.”
‘The Greatest Generation’ Was a Book Title
“The Greatest Generation” was the title of Tom Brokaw’s best-seller that profiled military heroes, community leaders, and ordinary citizens who served their country during World War II. Before they were called “the Greatest Generation,” they were sometimes called the “G.I. Generation” or the “World War II Generation.”
Single Letters Are Usually Capitalized
Further, because we usually capitalize a lone letter, like X in “X-ray” and T in “T-shirt,” the capitalized X in “Generation X” put further pressure on capitalizing the word “generation.”
So, for these reasons, there’s some inconsistency in whether you capitalize generation names. Keep “baby boomer” and “millennial” lowercase. You’ll see more variety in how publications treat “the Greatest Generation” and “Generation X,” but they’re often capitalized.
‘Generation Z’ Needs a Better Name
Oh, and so far, the generation after the millennials seems to be going by “Generation Z.” Follow the style of “Generation X” and capitalize “Generation Z” too. The reason I say “so far” is that millennials were originally called “Generation Y,” but then they got a better name, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed for Generation Z’s prospects.
What Years Were These Generations Born?
Another tricky point is how to actually define these generations because, aside from the baby boomers (who get all the good stuff), people don’t agree on the definitions.
Everyone seems to agree that baby boomers are the people who were born after World War II, between 1946 and 1964. The AP Stylebook says that span is defined by the Census Bureau. Boomers have also been called the “me generation.”
But then Generation X is defined simply as the generation after the baby boomers, and millennials are defined as two generations after the baby boomers.
If the baby boomer generation ends in 1964, then Generation X must start with people born in 1965. When it ends is the fuzzy part, but most sources say the last Gen Xers were were born in 1980, plus or minus a couple of years. Generation X was also sometimes called “the MTV generation.”
Given the uncertain end-date of Generation X, the millennial generation is even less well-defined. Their start date is whenever you agree that Gen X ended and there’s an even broader range of when people say the last millennials were born?anywhere from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s.
I’m not even going to try with Generation Z. Ethnographic studies from the Census Bureau say that we’ll only know the best boundaries for younger generations after more time passes.
So generations are trickier than you might have thought. The cut-off dates are fuzzy and you capitalize some (the Greatest Generation, Generation X, and Generation Z) and you keep others lowercase (baby boomers and millennials).
Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.”