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
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’