Megan Gerhardt Coronavirus and Zoom have marked a generation. Let's call them Zoomers.

We cannot in good conscience name this generation for a tragic disaster. To do so saddles them with that burden of negativity for life.
Image: Young people wearing masks raise their fist in protest, another takes a selfie in a graduation cap and gown, and another yells through a bull horn.
In many ways, the until-now-ubiquitous Generation “Z” was just a placeholder — waiting for this new cohort to have its defining moment.C.J. Robinson / for NBC News
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By Megan Gerhardt, professor of leadership and management at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University

Historically speaking, the name of a generation has evolved as the generation itself does. The Silent Generation and the Greatest Generation were both named after the fact. Gen X began the trend of letters as monikers, but even that generation started with a different name (“The 13th Gen.” in honor of their being the 13th generation born in the United States since the American Revolution). We tried for a while to build enthusiasm about calling the next group Gen Y, but that name eventually gave way to Millennials when the significance of both the end of the 20th century and the impact of 9/11 became clear. So in many ways, the until-now-ubiquitous Generation “Z” was just a placeholder — waiting for this new cohort to have its defining moment.

I think we can all agree it has one now.

The word speaks to both the rapid pace of change that has marked its members’ early years as well as the nature of the change itself.

The world-altering event of the coronavirus pandemic has prompted suggestions ranging from the Coronas, to Gen P (Generation Pandemic) to Gen V (for virus). The Urban Dictionary is even pushing for a subgroup of those born between 2001 and 2007 to be called The Quaranteens. But we cannot in good conscience name this generation for a tragic disaster. To do so saddles them with that burden of negativity for life.

We didn’t call those who grew up in the late 1920s and early 1930s the “Depression Generation,” nor was Gen X the “AIDS Generation” or Millennials the “9/11s” — those were things they survived, but not how they were defined. Therefore we must find a name for this generation of young people that honors what they’ve been through, but also emphasizes the positive.

Instead, by far the best name is the one that captures the resiliency this generation will need to bounce back from the impact of the pandemic: The Zoomers. It’s a nod to the former moniker of “Z,” a play on the “Boomers” (the only generation ever to be formally recognized by the U.S. Census Bureau) and an acknowledgment of the dramatic shift to remote communication that will shape the interactions of this generation. The word speaks to both the rapid pace of change that has marked its members’ early years as well as the nature of the change itself.

Zoomer is already making inroads into the public consciousness. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, for one, refers to Zoomer as a word lexicographers are watching closely, stating, “Zoomer has been used as a nickname for members of Generation Z since at least 2016,” though they note the word was “still not widely used enough to justify a dictionary entry as of January 2020.”

Importantly, it’s also a name Gen Z itself has begun to claim — and long before the pandemic overturned everything. My son AJ, born in 2005 (making him a Quaranteen), looked over my shoulder several months ago as I was working on some generational research and said, “Gen Z is a lame name. We should be the Zoomers. Obviously.” At the time I thought it was fairly clever of him, but a quick search revealed he was hardly the first to gravitate toward the name. In the past few years, social platforms like reddit and TikTok have seen members of Gen Z claiming the Zoomer label for themselves.

That's appropriate for a precocious cohort that uses social media to catapult into forums and institutions long controlled by elder statesmen — and to write the narrative about how they want to be perceived. That, more than anything else, speaks to what sets this generation apart.

While prior age groups had little choice but to settle for the nomenclature thrust upon them by their elders, Gen Z has the voice and media presence to largely define themselves. And the irony of how the name aligns with the events of the last few months has not been lost on them. This week on Twitter, user @psiodyne commented: “i remember when i saw memes calling gen z's ‘zoomers’ and then months after here i am, in a damn zoom conference for class again. literally a zoomer now.”

With the naming of the Zoomer generation comes the concurrent need to delineate its timespan. A generation tends to range somewhere between 15 to 20 years in length. (The Silent Generation and the Baby Boomers span 19 years, while Gen X and the Millennials comprise 16 years each.)

The decision on where to end one and start the next comes from cultural, political, economic or social events that a particular group has undergone during their childhood and adolescence — what is known as formative experiences. While everyone alive during a particularly significant event experiences it in their own way, research shows that events that occur during one’s early years have a much more substantial impact on their attitudes, values and behaviors than those who are older.

Such shared experiences create what is known as the “peer personality” of a generation: a shared perspective that results from being born during a common period of history and experiencing significant phenomena during collective life stages. For example, the Pew Research Center determined 1996 to be the cutoff date for the Millennial generation based on the idea that those born afterward would be unlikely to remember the turn of the century and 9/11.

While prior age groups had little choice but to settle for the nomenclature thrust upon them by their elders, Gen Z has the voice and media presence to largely define themselves.

Using the same logic, the Zoomer generation that began in 1997 should end with those born in 2014. This creates a generation that spans 18 years in length and makes the youngest Zoomers 6 years old — the age of most of today’s kindergartners. This generation will have the shared memories of an abrupt shift to remote learning, the development of the term “social distancing,” the widespread use of masks, the traumatic loss of life and the sense that personal safety is fragile.

This generation above all others has been plunged headfirst into an entirely new reality that has affected their education, their career paths, their experience of work and their worldview. They deserve a name that doesn’t represent the disaster that caused these things, but the adaptability and creativity needed to get through them. OK, Zoomers?