What’s the matter with ‘Millennials’? Let’s start with the definition

© Thomas Pajot - Fotolia.comBy now, you’ve probably read a whole lot about the Millennials. As a generation, they’ve been called spoiled, entitled, needy, narcissistic, and most recently, well, totally screwed.

For a while, I’d read these articles that ragged on ‘trophy kids’  and nod my head in agreement: “Darn whippersnappers don’t know the value of a hard-earned dollar!” That is, until I had a horrifying realization akin to Bruce Willis at the end of The Sixth Sense: I AM a Millennial… !!

Furious Web research ensued. How could this be?! I learned how to type on a typewriter. I made mix tapes and read newspapers. Two of my favorite movies were Singles and Reality Bites. And I still think the Dewey Decimal System is a superior method of classifying information! But there it was, staring me in the face: “Generation Y, also known as the Millennials,” born between the late 70s and early 2000s.

I had always thought of myself as Gen Y — born just after Gen X (aka the MTV generation) but before the Millennials, the generation raised online. Other writers talked about this conundrum of feeling like the in-between generation, too. Doree Shafrir wrote a piece for Slate suggesting that we call ourselves “Generation Catalano” (if you don’t get the reference, you’re not Generation Catalano). But somehow, that didn’t seem satisfactory.

After I got through the denial, I started to wonder — why do we lump people together, who are born 20-30 years apart, for the sake of categorization? Do people born in the late 70s who first learned about Facebook well after college really have that much in common with babies born into a world where it’s ubiquitous? But it seems defining generations has long been a messy science with lots of overlap. The Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. Gen X is still sometimes defined as people born between the early 60s and early 80s, and there’s already a struggle to define Gen Z.

The idea of defining cultural generations first rose to prominence in the late 1800s. In 1863, Emile Littre defined a generation as “all men living more or less in the same time” (from The Generation of 1914 by Robert Wohl). Soon after, the naming of generations followed — The Lost Generation, who lived through World War I; the Silent Generation, who lived through the Depression; the Greatest Generation, who fought in World War II; and of course, the Baby Boomers, born after World War II.

Baby Boomers, interestingly, have a lot in common with Millennials. They came of age in a time of turmoil. They were youth-obsessed (you know, “hope I die before I get old”). They even ushered in the “Me Decade,” a term coined by Tom Wolfe to describe the ’70s. And recently, the criticism has shifted away from younger Millennials (who can’t find jobs no matter how desperately they want to) and onto the Boomers as the self-absorbed ones. As Joel Kotkin’s piece for The Daily Beast states: “Boomer America never had it so good. As a result, today’s young Americans’ never had it so bad.”

My intention here isn’t to place blame, though — there are a lot of complicated reasons we’re in a huge mess right now. Rather, it’s to rethink how we define generations. On some level, it feels like we’re creating sports teams and pitting them against each other.  Which generation will emerge the greatest of all time?

So first, let’s openly acknowledge that the boundaries are fuzzy — there’s inherently a lot of overlap. Second, let’s be okay with generations being shorter, as massive changes (you know, like the Internet) create wider cultural gaps much more quickly. When you look at it culturally, Gen Y and the Millennials really should be separate generations, and I’m not saying that because I have a problem with being a Millennial (on the contrary). After all, we are living at the start of a new millennium.

That brings me to my last point. Generations are huge swaths of time — even if you’re only talking about 15 years. Even though the purpose of these categories is to generalize about ideas and trends that define a certain time period, let’s stop with the nasty ones directed at young people who haven’t even had a fair chance to self-actualize. After a while, as Erika Andersen notes in Forbes, it just makes you sound like a bad parody of that song from Bye Bye Birdie: “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way? What’s the matter with kids today?”

4 thoughts on “What’s the matter with ‘Millennials’? Let’s start with the definition

  1. I think this is a really interesting topic Shiwani–partly because of the impulse to name *generations* immediately as they are unfolding, rather than retroactively. It seems like this naming happens at a speed that doesn’t really match with the actual idea of a generation: the time span it takes for a species to reproduce itself. Demographers often use the 20-30 year range to demarcate a generation, so the idea that we have such different generations within either side of a decade raises the question of whether cultural commentators are actually identifying *generations* at all, or if there is a different phenomenon at play that we are seeking to name? Something linked to identity and social change, a social dynamism that unfolds at a far faster pace than the reproduction of a new generation?

  2. This is fascinating, a great comment. I don’t think I realized that demographers officially used 20-30 years as the classification of generations, although that makes sense when you look at how Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y have been defined. Maybe generations and the characters they take on are dynamic… for example, Millennials may have gotten off to a rocky start, but maybe that will make them especially creative and motivated as they get older. Only time will tell…

  3. I’m believe gen Y and millennials are the same thing. Gen y was the name originally given to the generation but we have most commonly settled on millennials. Echo boomers is another term used for this generation. They are all the same generation though. The thing i find interesting is that no one can decide on where to draw the line dividing gen x from gen y/millennials/echo boomers. When the generation was first identified in the 90″s, I think the cutoff birth year was something like 1970 or 1971 and since then i’ve seen ’77, ’79, ’80, ’83, ’84 and then recently The New York Times pushed it back to 1975. I’m not sure any of those cut offs make sense. It’s ridiculous to say that someone who got their first email account in high school on a dial up connection is a millennial (and the 1975 cut off – are the first millennials really turning 40 next year?) but it also doesn’t make sense to lump someone who was born in 1984 in with gen x simply because they don’t fit with the millennials. I really think there is a transition generation in there. Like Generation Jones – the generation separating baby boomers from gen x. It overlaps the end of the baby boom and the beginning of gen x and spans 11 years.

    By most definitions, I was born at the end of gen x. I am definitely too old to be a millennial, but I always felt like the dorky little sister tagging along with gen x. Now that I’m grown, I have a hard time relating to older gen xers (I never realized how conservative the first wave of gen xers were). Even my husband, who is only 4 years older than me, has a much more cynical world view than I do. And I don’t share older gen xers disdain for millennials. The people I feel most connected to culturally are other cuspers – those born at the end of gen x and beginning of the millennial generation. I think there is a shared experience in feeling out of place within your own generation or in some cases, without a generation at all.

    It will be interesting to see the development of generation catalano (i think the 4 year range is too narrow) and where the lines fall.

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