THE DEATH OF THE MIL­LEN­NIAL

Avo­cado hand, zero al­co­hol, rain­bow cake and Insta sto­ries – the mil­len­nial star has shone brightly over ev­ery­thing from food trends to pol­i­tics. But what re­ally de­fines a gen­er­a­tion, and is there a point at which it starts to im­plode? Richard God­win navi

ELLE (UK) - - Contents -

Av­o­ca­dos. Uni­corns. Rain­bows. So over it

Are you a mil­len­nial? By which I mean, are you a per­son born be­tween 1980 and 1995 (though no one can agree on the pre­cise dates), with a lik­ing for avo­cado toast and mil­len­nial pink (though no one can agree on your pre­cise tastes)? Well, I’m afraid it’s time for you to board the cat­tle truck out of here. We’re go­ing to kill you.

Oh, I’m sorry! Should we have pro­vided you with a trig­ger warn­ing? I know it’s harsh to wish death upon an en­tire gen­er­a­tion (even I con­sider my­self one). I’m aware this might come as a shock, given how hy­per­sen­si­tive you guys no­to­ri­ously are. ‘Mil­len­ni­als can’t deal with that kind of cold-eye re­al­ity,’ hip au­thor Bret Eas­ton El­lis, 53, re­cently gen­er­a­tion-splained in Van­ity Fair. So, let me re­as­sure you: the ELLE team is here to hold your hand, a bit like your par­ents have ap­par­ently done at ev­ery stage of your de­vel­op­ment. Many of us are tech­ni­cally mil­len­ni­als, too. We’ve shared pic­tures of #avo­toast on In­sta­gram, pur­chased a T-shirt with a mean­ing­less slo­gan on it and strug­gled to af­ford the de­posit on a flat. We’re on this train with you.

It seems that de­stroy­ing our­selves is the best way to stop us from de­stroy­ing hu­man civil­i­sa­tion. Mil­len­nial queen Tay­lor Swift, 27, clearly thinks so. Her lat­est video, Look What You Made Me Do, fea­tures a snake eat­ing its own tail, as well as the lyric: ‘I’m sorry, the old Tay­lor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, ‘cause she’s dead!’ And, ac­cord­ing to some re­cent news­pa­per head­lines, ev­ery­thing from cap­i­tal­ism to condi­ments are cur­rently im­per­iled by the ex­is­tence of mil­len­ni­als, too: ‘Mil­len­ni­als are killing the nap­kin in­dus­try’ – Busi­ness In­sider; ‘Mil­len­ni­als have of­fi­cially ru­ined brunch’ – NY Post; ‘Now Mil­len­ni­als are killing mar­malade’ – Metro. What is it about us that seems to wind ev­ery­one up so much?

If you re­place ‘mil­len­nial’ with ‘whip­per­snap­per’ in those head­lines, you see that com­plain­ing about young peo­ple is noth­ing new. As with any par­ent-child dy­namic, there’s al­ways a lit­tle envy mixed with alarm. Men­tion Tin­der to a baby boomer and you’ll see what I mean. ‘It’s the same with ev­ery gen­er­a­tion,’ ex­plains Zing Ts­jeng, 28, UK ed­i­tor of Broadly, the fem­i­nist wing of youth me­dia em­pire Vice. ‘There’s al­ways a gen­er­a­tion above look­ing down, say­ing: “I don’t un­der­stand any­thing about these peo­ple. Trig­ger warn­ings? [sign­post­ing for po­ten­tially of­fen­sive on­line con­tent] This wasn’t a thing when I was young!”’

So, in­stead of wor­ry­ing about the in­flu­ence of, say, the Bea­tles’ hair cuts, par­ents are wor­ry­ing about Lena Dun­ham’s tat­toos. In­stead of won­der­ing what kids are get­ting up to these days, we can just check their In­sta­grams. Oh, look! Young peo­ple en­joy messing about with uni­corn in­flat­a­bles in pools and com­ment­ing on pol­i­tics us­ing Harry Pot­ter memes.

Still, the term ‘mil­len­nial’ seems to change its mean­ing de­pend­ing on who’s say­ing it. ‘It’s a term that’s been im­posed on peo­ple,’ says Zing. ‘You didn’t have peo­ple go­ing around Shored­itch in 2009 say­ing, “Look at me, I’m a hip­ster!” Like­wise, no one calls them­selves a mil­len­nial. That’s why it at­tracts hate. It’s not a word that any­one has claimed.’ And yet, at the same time, it is a term that ev­ery­one has claimed.

We can dis­tin­guish the de­mo­graphic mil­len­nial (also known as gen­er­a­tion Y) from the stereo­typ­i­cal mil­len­nial. His/her/zer world view is sup­pos­edly marked by key events (the dig­i­tal age, cli­mate change, the re­ces­sion) and con­cepts (ne­olib­er­al­ism, post­mod­ernism, fem­i­nism). As a re­sult, he/she/ze is ex­pected to have a set of char­ac­ter­is­tics (en­ti­tled, sen­si­tive, anx­ious) and predilec­tions (Tay­lor Swift, uni­corns, rain­bow food and so on).

There are three dis­tinc­tive fea­tures of mil­len­ni­als of­ten cited when com­pared with their im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors, gen­er­a­tion X (born c1965-1980). They’ve re­jected the tra­di­tional mark­ers of re­bel­lion: al­co­hol, drugs, un­der­age sex (UK teenage preg­nancy rates are at their low­est since records be­gan*). They’ve grown up dur­ing the dig­i­tal revo­lu­tion, which has turned them into a bunch of selfie-crazed neu­rotics/so­phis­ti­cated so­cial me­dia en­trepreneurs. And they have chal­leng­ing eco­nomic cir­cum­stances, such as fall­ing wages, ris­ing hous­ing costs and crip­pling stu­dent debt**.

Still, not all de­mo­graphic mil­len­ni­als are stereo­typ­i­cal mil­len­ni­als. And even the most stereo­typ­i­cal mil­len­ni­als – an In­sta­gram in­flu­encer, say – find the term some­what lim­it­ing. Ella Catliff, 26, is a model and blog­ger who got her break on In­sta­gram as @LaPetiteAnglaise. She ex­hales mean­ing­fully when I men­tion the M-word. ‘I def­i­nitely con­form to a lot of the mock­able stereo­types,’ she con­cedes. ‘When you’re forc­ing your mid­dle-aged par­ents to kneel down and take 50 pho­tos of you for In­sta­gram, you can’t re­ally deny it. The worst thing is when I’m at some sort of event with other “in­flu­encers”, which has to be one of the worst words ever in­vented, by the way. Ev­ery­one pauses to ar­range their food on their plate, stand on the chairs and take pic­tures.’ Still, she’s keen to im­press on me all the ways she isn’t a mil­len­nial, in­sist­ing that she puts away the booze like a gen-Xer, that she doesn’t ‘get’ YouTube, and finds clean-eat­ing trends prob­lem­atic.

As soon as you poke your fin­ger at a mil­len­nial cliché, it col­lapses. A com­mon idea is that mil­len­ni­als lack ap­pli­ca­tion and job loy­alty.

In re­al­ity (and ac­cord­ing to re­cent stud­ies), num­bers on job ten­ure are ex­actly the same as they were in the Eight­ies*. Or they spend their in­come on avo­cado on toast – ac­tu­ally, a re­cent sur­vey found that only 6% of Amer­i­can mil­len­ni­als had ever pur­chased this food stuff**.

Another is that they’re over­pro­tected ba­bies who stay at home un­til their mid-thir­ties and ex­pect tro­phies sim­ply for show­ing up. When I put this to singer Dua Lipa, 22, she vi­brates with an­noy­ance: ‘We’re the fuck­ing fu­ture! Peo­ple need to be nice to us!’ Born in Lon­don, she moved to Kosovo with her fam­ily when she was 13. At 15, Dua re­turned to the UK to pur­sue her mu­sic ca­reer, alone – so the idea that her gen­er­a­tion ex­pect things to be handed to them on a plate is anath­ema to her. ‘That stereo­type isn’t even a thing. It’s crazy to me – now more than ever, there are so many young peo­ple us­ing so­cial me­dia as a plat­form to get their art out, whether it’s in fash­ion, mu­sic, what­ever. Peo­ple are ma­tur­ing much ear­lier.’

This wide­spread con­fu­sion as to what be­ing a mil­len­nial en­tails is one rea­son why brands and ad­ver­tis­ers are turn­ing away from the term. ‘Mil­len­nial has be­come a word that peo­ple use to en­com­pass a va­ri­ety of things,’ says Maks Fus Mick­iewicz, a se­nior jour­nal­ist at LS:N Global, a plat­form that ad­vises lux­ury brands on con­sumer trends. ‘Ad­ver­tis­ers have of­ten tried to bunch groups of peo­ple to­gether by gen­der, eth­nic­ity and age, but in to­day’s world, this doesn’t work well.’ Maks thinks ‘mil­len­nial’ is an easy term to pitch in mar­ket­ing and me­dia – it’s broad enough to snare peo­ple’s in­ter­est and sound ‘with it’, but use­less when it comes to tar­get­ing YouTube ad­verts or de­scrib­ing cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ences. ‘There’s a grow­ing move that we’ve iden­ti­fied to­wards a flat-age so­ci­ety. You’ll find peo­ple in their six­ties who have the same at­ti­tudes and ap­proaches to twen­tysome­things when it comes to en­trepreneur­ship, ex­pe­ri­ence and con­sump­tion choices.’

So if you’re hon­ing your al­go­rithms, there are much more use­ful cat­e­gories to con­sider. LS:N Global iden­ti­fies ‘tribes’, such as Ascetic Lux­u­ri­ans, Party-to­tallers and Fas­tro­nomic Food­ies – Maks prefers cat­e­gories that cut across age groups, lo­ca­tions and eth­nic­i­ties. ‘For ex­am­ple, ve­g­ans are likely to be more aligned de­spite these dif­fer­ences. Ve­gan­ism is pop­u­lar among mothers, men who work out, teenagers. And it not only af­fects what clothes you might wear, but what fur­ni­ture you buy and the at­ti­tude you might have to con­sump­tion in gen­eral.’

This brings us to the strange ori­gins of the term. It was coined by the Amer­i­can pop his­to­ri­ans William Strauss and Neil Howe in their 1991 book Gen­er­a­tions: The His­tory of Amer­ica’s Fu­ture, 1584 to 2069. They pre­sented the the­ory that Amer­i­can his­tory has un­folded in re­cur­ring cy­cles of four-gen­er­a­tion-long eras, with a ‘heroic’ gen­er­a­tion ev­ery 80 years. Ac­cord­ing to their book, the gen­er­a­tion who fought the Nazis was the last heroic gen­er­a­tion, and the mil­len­ni­als are next. Se­ri­ous aca­demics con­sider this to be pseu­do­science, like as­trol­ogy. Among the ad­mir­ers of this the­ory is Steve Ban­non, Pres­i­dent Trump’s for­mer spe­cial ad­vi­sor, whose 2010 film, Gen­er­a­tion Zero, de­tailed a sim­i­lar awak­en­ing. This is why, per­haps, Steve Ban­non has put a lot of ef­fort into turn­ing mal­adroit teenage gamers into alt-right key­board war­riors.

Mil­len­ni­als have be­come a po­lit­i­cal force to be reck­oned with, con­trary to the out­dated view that they’re ap­a­thetic ce­real munch­ers who’d pre­fer to be watch­ing Gil­more Girls in their silk py­ja­mas. It’s the mil­len­ni­als who are blamed/con­grat­u­lated for the rise of Jeremy Cor­byn, the ones who are most op­posed to Brexit, and who form the front­line of the re­sis­tance against Pres­i­dent Trump. Re­cently, we’ve been treated to a rash of ar­ti­cles on how stu­dents are turn­ing into free-speech-hat­ing, safe-spacelov­ing snowflakes, of­ten char­ac­terised as be­ing over­sen­si­tive be­cause of an over­pro­tec­tive up­bring­ing. But as Maks Fus Mick­iewicz points out, these aren’t nec­es­sar­ily mil­len­nial con­cerns. The gen­er­a­tion has to end some­where: ‘You say mil­len­ni­als are aged 18-35. Ac­tu­ally, most brands would recog­nise 18-to-23-year-olds as part of gen­er­a­tion Z.’ The prob­lem is that mil­len­nial has come to mean ‘young peo­ple’, and the peo­ple it orig­i­nally de­scribed aren’t so young any more.

Ac­cord­ingly, psy­chol­o­gists such as Dr Jean M. Twenge, au­thor of Gen­er­a­tion Me and The Nar­cis­sism Epi­demic, have now turned to ‘post-mil­len­ni­als’, born be­tween 1995 and 2012. In her new book, iGen, she iden­ti­fies the launch of the iPhone in 2007 as the mo­ment ev­ery­thing went side­ways. Mil­len­ni­als re­mem­ber how things were be­fore dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion; iGen have spent all their wak­ing mo­ments on­line and have the anx­i­ety dis­or­ders to prove it. They are phys­i­cally safer than they’ve ever been, but, ac­cord­ing to Dr Twenge, they are men­tally im­per­iled: ‘iGen are on the brink of the worst men­tal-health cri­sis in decades. Much of this de­te­ri­o­ra­tion can be traced to their phones.’

English stu­dent Tara Okeke, 19, iden­ti­fies as a mil­len­nial, de­spite be­ing born in 1997, just go­ing to show that ‘mil­len­nial’ means what­ever you want it to mean. I ask if she agrees with Dr Twenge; she ru­mi­nates on iden­tity and ex­is­ten­tial­ism, be­fore quot­ing the Nineties car­toon, Daria: ‘There’s an episode where a mag­a­zine ed­i­tor asks Daria what “edgy” means. Daria replies: “Edgy oc­curs when mid­dle­brow, mid­dle-aged prof­i­teers are look­ing to suck the en­ergy, not to men­tion the spend­ing money, out of the youth cul­ture. So they come up with this fake con­cept of seem­ing to be dan­ger­ous when ev­ery move they make is the re­sult of mar­ket re­search and a cor­po­rate mas­ter plan.”’ Tara laughs. ‘That’s just it. At its heart, the word “mil­len­nial” is a way of group­ing peo­ple to­gether in terms of age, but it’s ac­tu­ally a gen­er­a­tion of peo­ple who want to be seen as in­di­vid­u­als and cre­ate their own nar­ra­tives.’ When you en­gage with young peo­ple as hu­man be­ings rather than pieces of de­mo­graphic data, it’s pleas­antly sur­pris­ing how com­plex they are. The mil­len­nial is dead! Long live mil­len­ni­als!

‘Ac­cord­ing to re­cent head­lines, ev­ery­thing from cap­i­tal­ism to condi­ments are cur­rently im­per­iled by mil­len­ni­als’

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