Reluctant Millennials and the Generation Wars

‘You’re a millennial too, you know.’

When I was complaining, as many do, about the millennial generation and their flagrant use of technology, their vapid taste in music and general outlook on life, my sister – who is eight years older than me – informed me that I, too, was a millennial. Believing that my birth year of 1990 was well out of the millennial grasp, I discovered online that the millennial generation did indeed include me, spanning 1981–1996, a kind of macabre inscription on a headstone of history. This not only meant that my sister and I were, according to the generational by-lines, part of the same generational bracket, but that this bracket included my own students.

So after years of secretly bemoaning the millennial generation, I was taken aback by the knowledge that I was one of them! Needless to say, I did not in any way identify with the generational traits associated with the millennial tag, and neither did I agree with the assumption that my experience of life was exactly the same as my students, let alone my sister, who was raised in a completely different decade than me.

There were discernible differences between our pop culture tastes, our brand of nostalgia and the technologies we idolised as kids. My students grew up with Hannah Montana and Keeping up with the Kardashians. I grew up with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Simpsons, while my sister grew up with The X-Files. My students grew up with the internet and the iPod. I grew up with Super Nintendo and Gameboy while my sister grew up with the NES and the Walkman (while we both grew up with VHS).

There are evident crossovers between what my sister and I grew up with, and what my students and I grew up with, as popular culture and technology can overlap generations, forcing us to share despite our age differences. But these generational timelines serve to assume that everybody’s experiences within a given generation are universal and predicated on a common experience of life. Regardless of where a person was born or what they did in life, the year in which they were born is said to inform everything from what music they listen to, to what values they possess, known in sociology as the ‘cohort effect.’

Kim Parker from the Pew Research Centre claims that while the concept of generational cohorts is an arbitrary phenomenon, it is ‘a worthwhile tool for storytelling, taking a lot of data and trying to put it into an interesting prism that speaks to people.’ What this shows is that as far as Census Bureaus are concerned, we are nothing more than an assemblage of data. In 2015, Philip Bump of The Washington Post wrote that ‘we obsess over our generations the way we obsess over our horoscopes, recognising that it’s a dumb approximation of who we are but mining every description for the details that we think are correct.’

The way in which we use generational labels has also become distinctly ideological. Karl Marx famously discussed the ways in which society used ideology to influence people’s perceptions of themselves in relation to society. Ideology makes people feel united by a common identity, encouraging them to see the values of society as universal.

One’s generation has become a form of ideology, in that it is not only where we were born or to whom we were born that determines our conditions of existence, but when we were born. Without any choice in the matter, our year of birth suddenly brings with it an inventory of tastes and values that we are meant to internalise. We are therefore reduced to the constituent parts of our generation. But as Beverley Searle argued, such oversimplifications about each generation ‘can distort or mask the inequalities that exist within and across generations.’ In this way, the notion of ‘generation’ is used in a fundamentally ideological manner to join individuals together under a label that may not adequately express that individual’s experiences, further perpetuating not a class struggle, but generational tensions.

Over the last decade or so, the twentieth century has gained a reputation for ‘greatness’; there’s ‘The Greatest Generation’ (the generation formed in the early twentieth-century), the ‘Great War’, and ‘The Last Great Decade’ (the phrase that National Geographic used to describe the 1990s). Historical movements, music, film, art and literature were seen to reach peak significance in the twentieth century. In contrast, a distinctly hostile rhetoric has emerged where millennials are concerned: ‘Millennials are screwed’ (The Huffington Post), ‘I’m a millennial and my generation sucks’ (The New York Post), ‘Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation’ (Time).

Depictions of millennials have been almost uniformly negative, from avocado smash debates to the ‘failure to launch’ trope. Even APIA’s ‘wisdom’ brand campaign, launched in 2017, plays up to the differences between baby boomers and millennials, casting off the latter as ‘hipsters’. Several APIA ads show a band of 50-somethings singing ‘I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger…’ while they watch dismissively as some rev heads speed past. The implication is clear: baby boomers are cool and wise while millennials are foolish. What we’re seeing is how one’s generation is now being used as a hierarchical tool to designate certain values and attributes to certain individuals, many of whom internalise these values as a mode of self-identification.

Unsurprisingly, Bump argues that of all generations, millennials were the least likely to identify with their designated generation, a fact which spoke to my own generational woes. Indeed, according to his research, 8% aligned themselves more closely with the baby boomer generation, which could be influenced by children staying at home longer, suggesting that they may be developing stronger relationships with their parents, and all the pop culture that came from their generation in tow. As a person still living at home, I can attest to this, as I too have found my tastes often more in line with baby boomers’, from watching MASH reruns to listening to records of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Dire Straits and Pink Floyd.

This influence coincides neatly with the retro boom in society, and the rise in vinyl, typewriter and Polaroid purchases among millennials. The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and Bob Dylan are as popular as ever. A millennial can listen to bands of the 60s, 70s and 80s on their smartphones, and thanks to digital archiving, forgotten shows like Callan and F-Troop can be watched by both boomers and millennials.

But the boomers transgress chronological boundaries too. The internet has seen a huge number of baby boomers flocking to Facebook, while a large number of 18-34 year old millennials have chosen to abandon social media platforms altogether. This shows that despite coming of age in a social media-saturated world, millennials are not bound by the technology of their generation, while boomers are using these platforms for the convenience and connectivity they offer, but continue to sing the praises of older technologies.

While 40% of millennials identified themselves as millennials in Bump’s study, 43% of older millennials – those aged 27-34 – actually self-identified as Generation Xers (a year range that varies from 1961-1981 to 1965-1979). A similar study conducted by Abacus Data in 2018 found more instances of group disassociation amongst millennials. While a large majority of the Canadian participants self-identified as millennial and agreed that certain negative stereotypes were accurate, others also sought to disassociate themselves from the label ‘millennial’, particularly older millennials born from 1980-1983, of whom only one in ten identified as millennial. But as someone born in 1990 who played Nintendo, listened to Johnny Cash and didn’t understand computers until I entered adolescence, I, too, have had few reasons to identify as millennial, or any generation for that matter. But apparently millennials aren’t alone in this feeling.

Bump’s research similarly found that many people in the Silent Generation (roughly born from 1928-1945) identify as being part of the Greatest Generation (born between 1901-1924) who fought in World War II. This preference for the previous generation has led to ‘micro-generations’ forming, such as the Xennials, born between 1977 and 1985 who identify with neither Gen X nor millennial, and Zennials, who were born between 1993 and 1998 and don’t identify as millennial or Gen Z.

Out of all of the standard generations, baby boomers were the group that had the highest rate of self-identification (79%), followed by Gen Xers at 58%. Settled neatly in between significant wars (the Vietnam War and the Cold War), baby boomers benefited from an increasing sophistication of technology and a corresponding lifestyle, though they were not dependent on technology.

Interpreting the results found in the Abacus Data research, Devlyn Lalonde explains that while baby boomers have the highest levels of self-identification and are brought together most notably by generational events, the same cannot be said for millennials:

“[The term] generation isn’t the strongest bond for this generation as it may have been for the Boomers. If you ask most Boomers who grew up in Western countries, you’ll find that they had fairly similar experiences. Typically, each belonged to a nuclear family unit, learnt similar skills in school, and can remember the same historic events which defined their time: the Cuban missile crisis, the moon landing, the death of Princess Diana or Kennedy, etc. Millennials haven’t had those historically uniting moments. For instance, in the cases of 9/11, the London bombings, or the middle eastern wars, half of the Millennial generation was under the age of 11 when they occurred and for the majority, these events failed to directly impact their lives.

A lack of a cohesive, historically-defining moment has had unknown impacts on the development of the millennial personality. War is no longer confined to the trenches of Europe or the jungles of Vietnam, while the evils of the Third Reich have been replaced by the more ambiguous evils of terrorism. As Guy Raz elaborates: ‘The endless possibility means the war on terror is, in theory, an endless war.’

The endlessness of terror, coupled with inconsistent developments such as the rise in automation and artificial intelligence, the pressures of social media, the burden of climate change responsibility, and Trump, Brexit and the renewed acceptance of populism make for a generationally fragmented era, one with significant melancholic overtones. Utopian views of technology rival the dystopian views of that technology’s eventual consequences. Millions of people have been given a platform to emote in an unprecedented capacity but are pressured to be increasingly outlandish if they want to be heard at all.

Psychologist Marty Nemko argues that his clients are increasingly afflicted by ‘Sad Millennial Syndrome’, with millennials unable to own homes or be guaranteed the same job security as their parents, revealing a generation gap where quality of living is concerned, all the while social media enforces a curated and heavily performed life. The demands of curating a ‘personal brand’ for a job market that sees me as disposable while I’m living at home and dealing with unpaid HECS debt are especially disillusioning when I remember the inspirational talks from high school teachers of our ‘limitless futures’. A decade later, that future is tied up with permanent job seeking (permanent in the sense that the search for full-time work seems never-ending).

Fellow millennial Jenner Pratt put it succinctly: ‘It’s a full-time job trying to find gainful employment.’ This ‘new normal’ for millennials has turned us into part-time participants of our own lives, where we can’t complain about our jobs like baby boomers did simply because we don’t really have jobs. But good luck trying to convince boomers of this predicament; the lack of full-time work simply translates as ‘not trying hard enough’ and ‘being choosy’. It certainly does not help that the media thrives on driving a wedge between generations by exacerbating the potential differences between them. These differences certainly exist, but as sociologist Tom DiPrete argues, the media overemphasises generational labels and identities. He argues, in fact, that ‘history isn’t always so punctuated’. Distinct chronological barriers help to simplify our identities, and foster a sense of belonging that is artificial but nevertheless eagerly embraced by many people.

What is particularly ironic is that for all their criticisms of the millennial generation, baby boomers not only created the conditions which have led to millennial-disillusionment (climate change, the internet, the impenetrable housing market), but their collective disparagement might be the final impetus that drives millennials closer together.

The image of Greta Thunberg (a ‘post-millennial’) furiously chastising older generations for their role in climate change and the act of delegating responsibility to younger generations has certainly become emblematic of this generational war. Scott Morrison’s response to her speech, declaring it adds to the ‘needless anxiety’ of children, only exacerbates the gap. As the monumental ‘unlosable election’ of May 2019 (dubbed the generational election) revealed, older voters were keen to protect their investments over the environment, while younger voters struggle not only with the casualisation of the workforce, escalating student fees, the housing market and the burden of climate responsibility, but with the enduring attacks on their generation by those who ushered in these very issues. ‘Not only are we screwed,’ Michael Hobbes of Huffington Post writes, ‘but we have to listen to lectures about our laziness and our participation trophies from the people who screwed us.’

When a colleague of mine, also eight years older than me, recently prided himself on being a Gen X, it was my turn to inform him of his millennial status. Like me, he completely rejected the title, illustrating not only that many more ‘reluctant millennials’ exist out there, but that these terms, and their stereotypes, are arbitrary and insufficient. Millennials are called narcissistic, but then Tom Wolfe said the same thing about people in the 70s, calling it the ‘Me’ decade. Lazy and entitled? William F. Buckley accused baby boomers of being exactly that. In fact, Gertrude Stein – said to be the first person to actually use the generational term – disparagingly called people born in the turn of the twentieth century a ‘Lost Generation’, their lives and cultural contexts irrevocably altered after WWI.

But while it’s easy for me and others to reject the title ‘millennial’, unfortunately it’s not as easy to reject all the issues that come with it. Perhaps, then, millennials will indeed find themselves united, not by a war or a moon landing, but by collective disillusionment.

Picture by Ashutosh Sonwani from Pexels.

Siobhan Lyons is a (casual) media and cultural studies scholar who plays Nintendo, listens to Blue Oyster Cult and watches Blackadder when she’s not writing, teaching or marking papers. 

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