[ANALYSIS] How are generations formed?

Jayeel Cornelio

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[ANALYSIS] How are generations formed?
'[G]enerational categories as Baby Boomer, Gen X, millennial, or even Gen Z are arguably inappropriate in the Philippine context. There are two reasons.'

Last week, the edited volume Rethinking Filipino Millennials: Alternative Perspectives on a Misunderstood Generation was launched at the Manila International Online Book Fair. Released by UST Publishing House, the book is a collection of 12 chapters written by 17 young scholars from different universities around the country. 

As a contribution to Filipino youth studies, the book challenges many stereotypes about millennials, and, by extension, provides a suitable framework in thinking about the emergence of new generations. As its editor, I wrote the introductory chapter, which provides a different way of understanding millennials. 

In this piece I will echo some of the book’s points on how generations are formed and contest the narrow views that dominate the discourse about the rise of millennials and Gen Z in the Philippines.

Defining generations

Too often generations are defined according to age brackets or the inclusive years cohorts are born in. If one were to rely on Pew Research, Gen X includes those born from 1965 to 1980, millennials from 1981 to 1996, and Gen Z from 1997 to 2012. 

In themselves, these brackets do not necessarily mean anything.

From a sociological perspective, what defines generations are the experiences people have collectively undergone, which are usually brought about by social transformations. Technological advancements, economic growth, wars, and political developments are some of these shared experiences.

Karl Mannheim, a German sociologist whose writings on generations remain influential, refers to these shared experiences as generational location. Whether positive or otherwise, these moments shape a generation’s political choices, religious practices, moral worldviews, and cherished values.

This is why being specific with the years to define a generation can be misleading and even arbitrary. 

Thus, in the case of the Philippines, it might be far more useful to think of generations shaped by World War II, the Martial Law period, and the state-sanctioned export of Filipino workers around the world.

Concerning the latter, imagine, for example, the impact of growing up with at least one parent working as an OFW on one’s social, political, and economic consciousness. 

Analytical mistakes

In this light, such generational categories as Baby Boomer, Gen X, millennial, or even Gen Z are arguably inappropriate in the Philippine context. There are two reasons.

First, these categories are directly imported from Western societies, which have their own historical conditions. Specific historical moments have shaped the consciousness of their young people as they were growing up. 

In North America, these categories make sense given their historical experience with World War II and the ensuing growth of the economy and the population. Furthermore, each generation in the US has its own cultural and political markers. Baby Boomers, for example, were behind the countercultural hippie movement. That movement then gave birth to progressive politics that resisted the Vietnam War.

In describing local millennials, Filipino commentators fall into the trap of simply repeating what has been said about millennials and Gen Z in the West. The panic about their narcissism, because they are preoccupied with taking selfies, is an example of this trap. 

The second mistake is not only analytical irrelevance; commentators also run the risk of essentializing our young people by using such general categories. 

To illustrate, the accusation that Filipino millennials are self-entitled overlooks the fact that being entitled is a function of growing up privileged. One hardly finds privilege in many parts of the country, especially in places affected by inequality, conflict, and malnutrition. 

In fact, that many students around the country are unable to access their online classes these days debunks all the celebratory talk that Filipino youths are digital natives.


In 2016 I wrote a piece for Rappler questioning the claims made about Filipino millennials. Specifically, they have been referred to as “young people who are educated, tech-savvy, well-traveled, and cosmopolitan with their choices in life.” (READ: The Filipino Millennial?)

Now the same ideas are being replicated to talk about Filipino Gen Z. According to some local writers, they are passionate, eager, and ambitious, even more willing to learn a new set of skills to pursue their dreams.

Market researchers are heavily invested in understanding this emerging segment of the population for the sake of advertising. HR practitioners also want to understand them so they could manage them better. 

But it is a big mistake to describe all Filipino youths in these terms. Too often, these qualifications refer to only a very small segment of our young people — highly educated and affluent. 

But what about the rest? Consider the youth in rural areas, urban poor settlements, indigenous communities, and vulnerable locations.

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Therefore, in Philippine society, millennial and Gen Z culture is not only articulated by adults and internalized by the youth. The culture is defined by the privileged about the privileged. 

The problem though is that it becomes pervasive. The discourse about the minority is being imposed on the majority, for whom such characterizations as passionate, adventurous, and cosmopolitan are ill-suited.

This is the unintended consequence of importing characterizations about millennials and Gen Z. By now it should be clear that these generational categories are not neutral. 

They are loaded with assumptions about the affluent. As a result, they render invisible everyone else — the majority of the Filipino youth. –

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD is Associate Professor, the Director of the Development Studies Program, and a 2017 Outstanding Young Scientist of the National Academy of Science and Technology. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio. Rethinking Filipino Millennials is available on the website of the Manila International Online Book Fair until January 3, 2021.

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