We love to label generations – I’m well aware that I do it when I use the term “Millennial”. It’s reductively tempting to caricature two decades’ or so’s worth of young people. No wonder these labels have such colourful, evocative names – Baby Boomers, Generation X, etc. They make good copy. But we ought to be aware of the risks in doing so.
1. Definition can feel like alienation
“Define me, define me!” Yep, that’s a good old-fashioned Friends reference – the one where Phoebe’s prospective boyfriend lampoons her social circle for what he says is their incessant craving for “definition” by others. But not everyone wants to be defined – get it wrong and you alienate people – is there anything more unnerving than being lumped in as part of a homogeous mass, your individual characteristics reduced to their lowest common denominators? We risk doing just that when we write or talk about “Millennials”, a group whose members might have been born any time between around 1982 and 2004.
2. Definition can lead to attack
Articles about Millennials are frequently attacks. We hear words like greedy, lazy, entitled, unrealistic. After the election of Trump, Kellyanne Conway mocked “snowflake” Millennials . Back in 2015, Breitbart ran with an infamous piece: 7 Reasons Millennials Are The Worst Generation.
The thing is, Millennials themselves are rarely moaning or woe-is-me. The articles that we write about them point out the various ways that Millennials are in a difficult position, or see the world differently – and these articles are picked up by the likes of Conway as evidence that Millennials are hard-done-by grumblers!
3. Definition should be done by the defined
When Millennials themselves write about their situation, chances are they don’t use the word Millennial at all. Their understanding of what it is to be young – or young-ish – and alive today is nuanced. They’re immersed in it. When they do talk about the term, as in a Vice article such as this one, the tone is of bewildered alienation, of confusion about the type of attacks I’ve mentioned.
4. Definition should not be dumb
There’s such an urge to define and examine Millennials, it’s easy for writers and commentators to get lost in that process rather than focus on the supposed goals of defining Millennial characteristics. I’ve frequently read about how Millennials use social media more than previous generations. Well, quite… They’re “digital natives”. Again, that’s kind of a given. But well done – your Millennial Frankenstein is coming on nicely.
We need to speak to Millennials, not unhelpfully distract ourselves by constantly seeking – sometimes inaccurately – to define them.