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How Do Generations Get Their Names?

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I know what a Millennial is, and I'm sure you do, too. There are stereotypes about what Millennials do and do not like, how lazy they may or may not be, and how often they check their Twitter feeds—all because we're comfortable using this single term to refer to an entire age demographic of the population. "Millennial" is a powerful word, and not because of the age group it refers to but because of just how useful it is—just like "Gen X" or "Baby Boomer."

There is no single or even typical way that generations historically get their names, because lumping everyone who's roughly the same age together is a relatively new phenomenon.

According to Peter Francese, a demographic and consumer markets expert, Baby Boomers were the first named generation to exist. (Those that came earlier, like The Greatest Generation that fought in World War II, were named retroactively.) It all started when the Census Bureau referred to the years between 1946 and 1964, during which birthrates rocketed up from around 3 million a year to over 4 million a year, as the "Post War Baby Boom." As the kids born in this boom started to grow into adults (and thus, consumers), ad agencies found traction by marketing their products to so-called "Baby Boomers." This would be the first and last time a generation's "official" name would come from a government organization.

Eventually—as will inevitably happen to all of us, even the most maturity-challenged Millennials—the Baby Boomers got older and thus less appealing to companies with something to sell. The ad agencies wanted another catch-all term for the new members of their target age group and began shopping around different terms.

"They throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks," Francese says. "And in some of the meetings, they don’t stick." That's how Generation Y, a proto-term for Millennials, went in and out of fashion. "Generation Y was too difficult to say, too hard to brand, it didn’t have the cachet, it didn’t have the spark of Millennials," Francese says.

Not sticking is a matter of whether or not media organizations start using the term. And not just any media organization. "I’m talking about the Associated Press or Reuters—people who are syndicated that produce lots and lots of editorial content that they send out to various organizations," Francese says. As for determining the dates for Millennials, it all came down to demographics, and the old adage of comparing apples to apples.

"In 2010, which is when they did the census, Baby Boomers were all 45 to 64 years old," Francese explains. "Now, in order to compare Millennials to the Baby Boomers, because they're the next boom, you have to have what? Twenty years. And so in 2010, Millennials are people between 15 and 34. And then they work back from there to figure out when they were born."

If it seems like we're skipping over a generation, that's because we are. And for the most part, ad agencies did too. In 1991, Douglas Coupland wrote his book Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture about the anonymity he and his contemporaries felt growing up in the shadow of the Baby Boomers. They were products of a 10 to 12 year downturn in birthrates sandwiched between the Boomers and the Millennials, and although the term stuck with the general population, the generation was the wrong size to matter much to marketers.

It seems unlikely ad agencies will take such a passive approach again.

"The ad agencies have a mission and an imperative to bring to their clients news of what’s going on in the marketplace," Francese says. " And so, inevitably, they segment the American populations into various groups. The necessity to do that means that they sit around and they come up with names."

The generation currently being born and growing up—the term Generation Z is often used as a placeholder—doesn't have 20 years of data to work with yet, nor do they have much consumer value. But they will soon, and when that happens, ad agencies will have a perfectly work-shopped label ready to slap on spending reports and style section columns.

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Big Questions
Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?
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Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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