Joe Rydholm can be reached at

I’ve always been fascinated by the enduring strength of the labels and definitions we have placed on groups of people based on when they were born. From Baby Boomer to Gen Z, we’ve been happy to use and therefore codify the terms and the generally accepted ranges of birth dates that demarcate one cohort from another.

I mean, I totally get it. As human beings and as marketers or researchers, we appreciate the ease and efficiency of being able to share a shorthand that helps us communicate in broad strokes about huge numbers of people.

But while each group shares defining traits, viewpoints and habits, I’ve never felt totally comfortable tarring every member with the same brush and have hoped marketers and researchers aren’t too rigid in their applications of generational designations.

That point is one that qualitative researcher and frequent Quirk’s author and Quirk’s Event speaker Susan Fader has made when arguing for the value of what she calls cognitive demographics, which, as she has written “is about recognizing how people self-define versus putting them into demographic categories predefined by marketers or researchers.”

In other words, we can apply all the catchy names and labels we want but we can’t forget that we are talking about people here, in all their inconsistent and idiosyncratic glory.

Thus I read with interest an early-May article from Pew Research (“How Pew Research Center will report on generations moving forward”) on changes the august organization is making in how it thinks about and uses generational labels and definitions.

While Pew’s motivations are certainly unique to its situation, its reasoning is also germane to marketers and researchers. Just as Pew aims to use its data to tell the most accurate stories about the demographic movements and trends it sees, so too are those in the business realm employin...