Generations are tricky. 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).
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.”