by Elizabeth Nolan Brown
I am a member of the millennial generation, which means so are my same-age friends, obviously. Yet they routinely refuse to acknowledge this. Some genuinely don’t realize that they, born in the early 1980s, could possibly be considered part of the same generational cohort as those born in, say, 1997. Some seem to know they are millennials technically but refute the label on grounds of principle. So strong is this Millennial Denial Syndrome that appeals to logic – most generations span 15 to 20 years! not identifying with generational tropes doesn’t change your birth year! – only work about half the time.
Millennial journalist Lauren Alix Brown was recently forced to confront the terrible truth about herself:
No one likes the term “millennial,” with its connotations of narcissism, laziness, and self-delusion. And yet it wasn’t until I was editing a piece on millennials, and my office debated the merits of the term for a global audience, that I realized I was one.
But don’t worry, her pain was short-lived. Brown quickly decides that if she is considered a millennial, the term must be meaningless:
Millennial has become a catchall for everything right and wrong with the younger generation. In being used too broadly and frequently, it’s become meaningless for some of the nuances that differentiate us. It also covers a swath as wide, in some definitions, as those born from 1977 to the year 2000.+
The official millennial birth boundaries are blurry, but most place the start between 1979-1982 and the end between 1994-and the late 90s. Generational scholars William Strauss and Neil Howe, who coined the term “millennial”, defined the generation as those born between 1982 and 2000. Regardless of how you slice it, you’ll hear the same complaint from older millennials: they simply have nothing in common with those born 10, 12, 15 years behind.
“Everyone thinks they are distinct from the generation below them,” Brown acknowledges, but she thinks “among millennials, there truly is a divide”:
Most importantly, the Great Recession: A group of us entered the workforce in a distinctly different economy from today’s graduates. A recent survey conducted by Zogby Analytics looked at millennials in two cohorts—those born between 1979-1989 and those born 1990-1996. The older cohort was more apt to have a college degree, consider their current job a career, and less likely to have lost a job in the past 12 months. Older millennials were born to Baby Boomer parents and graduated college and entered the job market in a boom time.The younger set, which entered adulthood during the financial crisis, are products of Gen X-ers.
Yet millennials who entered the job market pre-recession were quickly greeted by it. Many of my friends had no sooner gotten their first professional, post-college jobs than they were losing them in 2008-2009 layoffs. I’m not convinced that entering the workforce pre- or post-recession is as great a marker of difference as some say it is. Perhaps older millennials are more likely to have college degrees and consider their current jobs a career because they are older? In the Zogby survey, we’re talking about the difference between people 25-35 versus those ages 18 to 24!
Putting economic influences aside, Brown quips that she doesn’t feel at all millennial as she encounters “new grads who drink coffee through a straw during an interview or respond with ‘k’ over Gchat.” Yet I remember hearing similar complaints from folks when my friends and I were just out of college and searching for jobs. Boomers and Gen X-ers assure me that their elders had similar complaints about them as interns and entry-level staffers.
I understand why it may seem weird, looking at a 16-year-old from the ripe old age of 30, and being told that you’re supposed to have something in common with them. But generations are, in theory, taxonomied more for historical shorthand purposes than major in-the-moment meaning. So you remember dial-up Internet and they don’t? So they got a Facebook profile at 12 and you were 20? Compared to the cultural gulf between any millennial and any member of our grandparents’ generation, or any member of the post- post- millennial generation, these differences are minuscule and virtually meaningless. And in 50 or 100 years, they will be undetectable to those looking back.
So anyway, here’s my plea to my fellow millenials: Accept the label, because you’re never going to shake it. But this doesn’t mean you have to accept what they say about us. Part of the reason millennials are so mocked and maligned is because nobody wants to admit to being one. The sooner you admit to your dreaded millennial-ness, the sooner you can start changing the conversation about us.