Just what is a millennial, anyway?
BY CHRIS OSTERNDORF
Vocativ ran a pretty interesting article this week about millennials. But even before you get to the actual content of the piece, you’re met with a striking image: the casts of Clerks and Spring Breakers standing next to each other, seemingly to signify the difference between Generation X and Generation Y.
Spring Breakers isn’t necessarily a bad movie to define millennials by, especially American and Western millennials. Perhaps the only other film to really take a stab at doing so would be The Social Network. Both depict ruthless, power-hungry, rule-breaking individuals, but the latter finds those individuals beset on hedonism and debauchery, while the former focuses on acclaim and achievement.
Both films get at key aspects of who millennials are, or at least, who we think millennials are. But neither are very flattering portraits. Then again, most portraits of millennials aren’t.
Assuredly, you’ve heard lots about millennials by now. You probably know all about them. How they’re great at drinking, bad at work, cloaked in irony, addicted to technology, have unconventional sex, and worship Netflix. The latest charge against millennials looks to be that they’re messing up marriage (maybe it’s all that unconventional sex they’ve been having).
But the narrative about millennials is changing. The Vocativ piece (by Elizabeth Kulze, Matthew Conlen, and Matan Gilat) compiled data from the Economic Policy Institute, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Centers for Disease Control to compare millennials to members of Generation X. What they found was somewhat surprising.
According to the numbers, millennials do have a harder time finding employment than Generation Xers. But overall, millennials have done a better job of staying in school and finishing their education. Moreover, with the exception of marijuana, millennials appear to use significantly less drugs and alcohol than their generational predecessors.
It’s interesting that Vocativ would begin these findings by contrasting a picture from Clerks with a picture from Spring Breakers. Clerks presents a story about loveable, ultimately harmless slackers. Whereas Spring Breakers depicts millennials as crazed, wild, and dangerous (the same could be said of The Social Network, even if the danger there is different). But what Clerks and Spring Breakers have in common is that they don’t tell the full story on Gen Xers or millennials.
With the newly shifting perception of millennials, it’s only appropriate to start thinking about how we decided what our idea of millennials was going to be in the first place. Or to put it another way—to understand where millennials are going, you have to understand where they began.
In case you’re not sure whether you’re a millennial or not, there are handy little Internet quizzes like the esteemed Pew Research Center’s “How Millennial Are You?” test, which will answer the question for you. And if the Pew quiz doesn’t sound fun to you, BuzzFeed (of course) offers one, too.
However, if you’re looking for a somewhat more specific definition, youre best bet would be to explore the works of authors William Strauss and Neil Howe. Strauss and and Howe worked together on the book Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, which is largely cited as where the term “millennials” was first coined. They later collaborated again on another book, devoted to millennials in its entirety, called Millennials Rising: The Next Generation. According to Strauss and Howe, you qualify as a millennial if you were born somewhere between the years 1982 and 2004.
The other fairly common, albeit a bit less used term for those born between 1982 and 2004 is “Generation Y,” a moniker that’s believed to have first popped up in Ad Age (not only does this title have the whole “X before Y” thing going for it, but Generation Y sounds a lot like “Generation Why,” which reflects the apathy so many seem to associate with millennials.)
Newsweek also invented a term to describe millennials, in a story about “9/11’s children” (an accurate, if not slightly tasteless description.)
One of the most notable (and also most damning) characterizations of millennials in the last several years comes from Dr. Jean M. Twenge, who published the 2007 text Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled,—And More Miserable Than Ever Before. Twenge’s concerns have been echoed, although less severely, by author Ron Alsop, who came up with the phrase “trophy kids” (as in you ruined your childrens’ lives by giving them too many trophies and making them think too highly of themselves) and sociologist Kathleen Shaputis, who has called millennials the “Peter Pan generation.”
Alsop and Shaputis’ positions on millennials may not be as harsh of critiques as Twenge’s, but the defining message is coherent: millennials are spoiled brats, with an inflated sense of self and an unwillingness to grow up—and who aren’t very well-adjusted for that.
But the understanding of what makes a millennial a millennial is changing. In 2013, TIME devoted a cover story to millennials, playing with Twenge’s terminology to talk about “The Me Me Me Generation.” While TIME reductively declared in the headline that millennials are “lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents,” they also prophesied that “they’ll save us all.”
That any generation can “save us all” is obviously going a bit overboard, but the TIME story does set an interesting precedent. Certain evidence suggests that millennials are surprisingly civic-minded, despite being rather jaded about politics. Just this week, Forbes’ John Zogby said that the 2014 elections will basically matter because of millennials.
Others claim that it was previous generations who screwed things up for millennials. In a piece from this June called, “Dear Millennials, We’re Sorry,” the New York Times’ Frank Bruni essentially tells millennials that it was those in his age group who wrecked the planet. Bruni concludes by saying:
We quibble with the college majors that millennials choose. We question their willingness to hunt for work outside their comfort zones. We conveniently overlook how much more they’ve had to pay for college than we did, the loans they’ve racked up and the fact that nothing explains their employment difficulties better than a generally crummy economy, which certainly isn’t their fault. They get our derision when they deserve our compassion and a political selflessness we’ve been unable to muster. While we’re at it, we might even want to murmur an apology.
In some ways, Bruni might actually be too contrite to agree with wholeheartedly here. That said, he has a point. Millennials do indeed have trouble finding jobs, but so do many other Americans. Moreover, the reason these Americans are unemployed is largely to do with a financial crisis, which millennials played no part in (other than being alive when it happened.)
As far as education goes, it’s reasonable to say that millennials have often fared poorly out of college, but millennials have also been straddled with more student loans than any group in history. And if millennials are skeptical of the government, can you blame them after growing up in the Bush era?
All this escapes the most important fact about millennials though, which is that at the end of the day, they’re not that different from any other generation in recent history.
In analyzing the similarities between the TIME story and other instances where a younger demographic was referred to as self-obsessed and narcissistic, Wired’s Elspeth Reeve determined that, “Basically, it’s not that people born after 1980 are narcissists, it’s that young people are narcissists, and they get over themselves as they get older. It’s like doing a study of toddlers and declaring those born since 2010 are Generation Sociopath: Kids These Days Will Pull Your Hair, Pee On Walls, Throw Full Bowls of Cereal Without Even Thinking of the Consequences.”
On top of that, it’s imperative to note that the stunted, privileged millennial narrative that has almost exclusively dominated the mainstream overtime is also a fundamentally white, middle-class one. That’s not to say there isn’t some truth to this narrative, but it doesn’t fully account for people of different races, class levels, or sexual orientations.
To state the painfully obvious, the worst part for millennials in all this is that the term and the condescension around it has gotten woefully annoying. No one wants to be told they’re part of the “selfie generation,” no matter how much they love or don’t love taking selfies.
I’m sometimes asked why I have such a ‘negative’ view of young people. I don’t. The longest chapter in Generation Me was on the increase in equality and tolerance, clearly a positive development. In addition, these findings have nothing to do with my views. The survey data we analyzed captured what Millennials said about themselves, not what I or any other GenXer or Boomer says about them. If we’re going to understand our culture and how it’s changed, we need to listen to what young people say.
So who are millennials really? They’re not as sarcastic as Generation X. They’re not as partisan as baby boomers. And they’re probably not a lot of other things too. But instead of trying to define what they aren’t, or what they are, now seems like a good time to stop trying to figure millennials out altogether, and let them determine their collective (and more importantly, their individual) identities for themselves. After all, there’ll always be a new generation to define just around the corner.
In the meantime, we should all stop calling millennials lazy and narcissistic, and leave them to prove whether that’s true on their own. Because to keep talking about them with such a narrow viewpoint would ultimately be the laziest move of all.
Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University’s Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture.
Photo via Spring Breakers/YouTube