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The Lost Generation (born between 1885-1900

WW I soldier
Brennan C Gauthier / Getty

In 1915, half of the American population of 100 million were under the age of 25. At the start of the 1910s, only 9% of people older than 18 had high school diplomas.

Around this time, you’d typically work 55 hours a week for 22 cents an hour.

A defining moment for this generation was when the U.S. entered World War I in April of 1917.

Often, a Lost Generation boy’s first job was in the armed forces, and a girl’s was supporting the war effort. An entry-level soldier was paid $30 a month, ($698.47 in 2022 dollars).

Their childhoods had been the first with marked social improvements in terms of education, public healthcare and indoor plumbing, so they had more leisure time, such as it was, than any preceding generation.

In this decade, tiny movie theaters that charged a nickel for admission — nickelodeons — had proliferated, working out of abandoned storefronts. They not only gave teenagers a place to go, but helped create the demand for the silent movie industry.

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The Greatest Generation (born between 1900-1925)

Teenage couple doing the Charleston
Bettman / Getty

The first American radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, launched in 1920, and by 1929 there were more than 12 million radios in homes across the country. Music became a consuming hobby for a majority of teenagers, who went out to dance halls whenever possible.

The U.S.’s GNP grew by 40% between 1922-29; due to the radio’s ability to keep America in touch with each other, a nation-wide consumer culture was born.

Then came 1929’s stock market crash and the resulting Great Depression.

The Depression was sudden, swift, and meant that there wasn’t much money to spend on anything, much less leisure activities. Very cheap diversions like board games and playing cards made a resurgence, and mini golf was the decade’s most in-vogue pastime. Mini golf courses were cheap to build, and the games were cheap to play (between 25 and 50 cents each).

Male teens born later in this cohort would become soldiers in World War II. It is estimated that there were over 200,000 underage men and women who enlisted.

Female teens, if they weren’t working at volunteer efforts at home, signed up to be nurses or work in a clerical capacity for the army.

Historians agree that most teens of the Greatest Generation were impacted by World War II. As a group they were both more economically cautious and politically conservative than their parents.

The Silent Generation (born between 1928-1945)

Teenage girls looking over a movie program
FPG Staff / Getty

The Silent Generation gets its name because of its relatively small size (about 52.5 million), and its relatively minor impact on infrastructure.

During their adolescence, the economy was good, which meant both they and their parents made more money.

They saw the beginning of mass media and the beginning of the Cold War, and they enjoyed the novelty of watching television at home. In 1950, only 9% of homes had a television, but by 1959, that percentage had mushroomed to 85%.

Teens also visited drive-in movie theaters in droves. Drive-ins reached a peak of 4,000 screens throughout the country in 1958.

Most teenagers at this point were concentrating on their studies, but if they were to work, it was typically during the summer months. In cities, retail jobs were becoming more common, like behind the counter at the recently launched, modern discount stores. In more rural areas, manufacturing jobs held sway.

They were the first generation to aspire to have a single job for their entire working lives — partly because coming of age during the Depression had made them cautious, but also because the strong economy during their adolescence had made the “one job for life” option possible for the first time.

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Baby Boomers (born between 1946-1964)

Girls at a malt shop counter
Brennan / Getty

When Baby Boomers started to turn 60 in 2005, they were 78.2 million strong — such a large cohort that they are split into “Early” and “Late”, depending on whether they were born closer to the 1940s or 1960s.

With the advent of children’s television programming during Boomer childhoods, advertisers were able to market directly to their young audience.

In tandem with their adolescence, teen magazines like Seventeen and Young Miss flooded the mainstream.

A January 1965 issue of Time put the population of people between the ages of 13-19 at 24 million. Half of their waking hours were spent at school. They spent $570 million on toiletries, $1.5 billion on entertainment, and $3.6 billion on women’s clothes.

Though they didn't invent the concept of dating, the idea of “going steady” with one partner became popular with Baby Boomer teens, and through the availability of cars and the booming post-war economy, they were able to create a dating culture all their own.

Baby Boomers were children during the Korean war and the beginning of the Vietnam war, and came of age during the Civil Rights era, which influenced their activism in their late teens and early 20s.

Generation X (1965-1980)

Two 80s teens sitting on a fireplace, reading
Classic Stock Images / Getty

The oldest members of this generation became teenagers in the 1980s. A particular phenomenon of that decade was the mall — which reached its peak of influence in 1992. But in 1987, there were 30,000 malls across the country.

This accounted for 50% of all retail dollars spent — a cool $676 billion, or 13% of the gross national product.

In 1988, most Gen X teens had their first jobs in fast food, retail, or maintenance, which could all theoretically take place at the mall.

The Game Boy arrived in 1989, and was an immediate hit with teenagers and retailers alike. Gen X loved the novelty, and stores enjoyed how relatively little room game cartridges took up on the shelves, allowing them to literally make extra room for profits.

That year, The New York Times reported that out of every dollar spent on toys, 16 cents were Nintendo’s — $2.7 billion out of a total $16.8 billion.

Gen X were also the first to line up for the Walkman, and they glued themselves to televisions to watch MTV. When CDs hit the mainstream, the polycarbonate “plastic frisbees” also ate up a chunk of their money.

A Pew study found that although Gen Xers are financially better off than their parents because of their debt load, they have less wealth.

Coming of age during two separate recessions, Gen Xers are perceived to be resourceful, independent, and keen on maintaining boundaries between their work and personal lives.

Millennials (1981-1996)

Millennial femme teen, balancing a tray full of dishes, standing in front of a restaurant counter
GrapeImages / Getty

The millennial generation is one of the biggest in recorded history, projected to peak in influence at 74.9 million in 2033.

They were the first generation of teenagers to be steeped in an entirely digital-forward culture that included reality tv shows, smartphones and social media. They are also better educated than any of the previous generations.

In 1998, 42% of teenagers with a job reported spending most of their income on their personal needs and entertainment, but their purchases signified a turn from consumption-for-consumption’s-sake to more money spent on “experiences”, like concerts, travel, social events, or athletic pursuits.

In a Bureau of Labor and Statistics study conducted in 2000, it was reported that 34% of teenagers aged 15-17 worked at some point during the school year — 42% worked as servers, 23% as laborers, 20% in retail, and 20% in some administrative capacity.

Millennials have had the worst luck economically compared to any previous generation.

They entered the workforce between two significant recessions and competed for jobs against more experienced workers, while entry-level jobs that had been the “foot in the door” for previous generations seemed to evaporate.

Generation Z (1996-2010

a group of Gen Z teenagers sitting on a beach taking casual photo
charmedlightph / Getty

A New York-based PR firm found that Gen Zs spend most of their discretionary income on electronics, with technology, personal health and wellness products following suit.

Gen Zs have fewer part-time jobs than other generations, but that’s because their schedules are packed with enrichment activities to prepare them for post-secondary life.

Easy access to social media and online news has made this “digital native” generation not only socially aware, but financially aware as well. They prefer to spend their money with smaller, local businesses, and 77% say that shopping online helps them find businesses that they want to support.

The 2008 recession and the pandemic are two global events that have left a lasting mark on Gen Z’s financial consciousness.

They bristle against the notion, held by earlier generations, that their productivity matters more than they do.

According to a 2022 Bank of America survey, although close to half are already in either credit card or student loan debt, 66% of them are actively saving towards their financial goals.

What’s going to happen next?

American teenagers of each generation are, more often than not, eerily similar to one another.

They want independence, their own identity, and different choices than their parents. But the choices they are able to make are shaped by what is happening in the world around them — political strife, the economy, the people who are bringing them up.

The generation born after 2010 and before 2025 has been dubbed, for the time being, Generation Alpha.

According to a 2020 article in The Atlantic, Generation Alpha is projected to be the best educated generation (ever), the most technologically immersed, the wealthiest, and, compared with other generations, the generation most likely to have spent a portion of their childhood without their biological parents.

Only time will tell what’s in the cards for the youngest generation, but if they inherit just one of the defining characteristics of each of the preceding generations — civic-mindedness, work ethic, fiscal responsibility, optimism, resourcefulness, living in the present moment, and self worth — they’ll do just fine.

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Bronwyn Petry Email Specialist

Bronwyn is currently part of the email content team for Moneywise. Before starting here, they freelanced for several years, focusing on B2B content and technical copy. Pre-pandemic, you could find them planning their next trip, but lately, if they're not at work, you can find them hanging out with their cat and dog.

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