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Analysis | It’s time to formalize ‘Gen Z’ as the ‘lockdown generation’


I am a member of Generation X, the group of Americans born immediately after the baby boom ended in 1964. The name comes from Douglas Coupland’s novel “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture,” an exploration of a group of young Americans who demonstrated the carefreeness and skepticism of their elders that remains a stereotype for our age cohort.

That name came about later. A few other names were tried first, things like “babybusters” or “posties,” both of which base our identities on the generation that preceded us. In the end, “Gen X” stuck. As the millennial generation (those who followed us) emerged, the same process unfolded. For a while, they were referred to as “Gen Y,” as in “the generation after Gen X.” But “millennials” carried the day, a reference to their young adults as the millennium dawned — and grew up amidst the changes that coincided with the new millennium, such as the Internet.

“Gen Y” stuck around long enough to inspire the name “Gen Z”, the generation that came after. Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z. But unlike the forced anonymity of “X” or the transition implied by “millennial”, “Z” means nothing. Fortunately, it is not the last generation. It’s just still in that transition period from having a nickname to having a real name.

Some real names have been tried, like the “Homeland Generation” (a nod to 9/11) or MTV’s “the Founders” (a nod to… no idea). But there is an appropriate alternative that has gained popularity in recent years: the lockdown generation.

It’s time to make it formal. No more “Gen Z”. Now: “closure.”

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Before I argue for this specific name, let’s address the issue of generational boundaries in a broad sense.

Most discussions of generations use the boundaries established by the Pew Research Center for the simple reason that they established some. I’ve spoken to their team and they have good reasons to push the boundaries where they have them, but there’s nothing hard about Gen X ending in 1980, for example. It’s exactly where they drew the line. (The baby boom is the exception; the wave of births that accompanied the boom is demographically distinct. The boom is the only generation recognized by the Census Bureau.)

We mainly use these groupings because they are convenient and fun. It’s helpful to be able to refer to people born in the 80’s and 90’s as “millennials” instead of constantly referring to them as “people born in the 80’s and 90’s”. It is fun to discuss the characteristics of generations as we discuss horoscopes. But this is not particularly strict. There is nothing prevent aligning ourselves that we should rename “Gen Z” to something more evocative.

Each of the other generations identified by Pew has a name derived from something specific to the generation’s cohort. The “silent” generation is elsewhere referred to as the “greatest” generation because it served in World War II. “Silent” is a reflection of its modest size, which is drowned out by the more populous boomers, whose generational name has an obvious root. As mentioned above, “X” and “millennial” are suggestive of those generations.

So what defines “Z”? If you ask members of the generation, they will often mention gun violence and school shootings. The first time I heard the term “lockdown generation” was in 2021 when I interviewed Melissa Deckman, then Washington College political science professor (she now directs PRRI.) Her work focused on activism among Gen Z members.

“What’s interesting about Gen Z, especially Gen Z women — their formative socialization experiences, they’re not just growing up in the Trump era, but it’s growing up as a lockdown generation,” she told me. “They have been through these shooting exercises. For many of the young women I’ve spoken to, especially the very active ones, who were involved after Parkland, the March for Our Lives, almost all of them participated and organized that. That introduced them to what political organizing was.”

This was specifically not her term. It was adopted as part of the gun control activism that emerged after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida in 2018. But it also predates that time. One of its earlier uses in this context was in a 2013 Atlantic article responding to the mass shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.

“Mass shootings are a common threat today that we routinely prepare our most vulnerable citizens – school-aged children – with ‘lockdown drills,’ which are now mandatory in many states,” wrote Sarah Goodyear. “If you’re under 25, you may have experienced this yourself.”

That was probably true, especially in the context of schools. The Washington Post has tallied the school shootings that followed the Columbine High School bombing in Colorado in 1999. From 1999 to 2017, the country averaged about 11 school shootings per year. Since then, we have averaged over 30. The incidents are not widespread, but they are common, requiring states to conduct drills as intended by Goodyear. Where I live, in New York, the mandate for school lockdown exercises was implemented in 2016. Other states had them before.

You’ll notice that the chart above overlaps another defining lockdown: the coronavirus pandemic.

In December 2021, the Associated Press released the results of a poll conducted in conjunction with MTV that evaluated the effects of the pandemic shutdowns on Americans. The generation group that put the most pressure on relationships and pursuing a career or education was Gen Z. The year with the fewest school shootings in the past seven years was 2020 – as many schools were closed due to the pandemic.

If we use Pew’s annual boundaries for the generation, you can see how their lives overlapped with these traumatic incidents. Columbine happened before most were born, but the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, occurred when many members of the generation were in elementary school themselves. The Parkland shooting happened when many of them were in high school. The pandemic hit when most of them were in school or college.

It is a generation that is consistently locked up. So much so that when Michigan State University went on lockdown this week for an actual gunman, several students sought shelter who had previously been present at school shootings. One had been to Sandy Hook.

The name fits. It’s reminiscent of the period in a way that “Homeland” isn’t really anymore. So let’s move on to a practical consideration: what do we call them?

The answer is simple. We call baby boomers “boomers.” We call members of Gen X “members of Gen X.” We call millennials “millennials.” We can call members of the lockdown generation ‘lockdowners’ or ‘members of the lockdown generation’. The latter isn’t as spicy as “millennial,” but neither is “members of Gen Z.”

In the aftermath of the Michigan shooting, Representative Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.), the first member of this generation elected to Congress, proposed a new name for his cohort.

Allow me to propose a more concise alternative.

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