It seems weirdly appropriate that, for a long time, talking about anything “millennial” was a way of hinting at the apocalypse. Today, “Millennial,” usually refers to the generation of people born, depending on your definition, sometime between the early 1980s and the early 2000s.
But during most of that period, “millennial” referred to an attitude, a lens through which people viewed the near future.
“The year 2000 fast approaches,” James Atlas wrote in 1989, “and millennial doom is in the air. Global warming, nuclear proliferation, chaos in Eastern Europe. Even the notion of post is over. Post-modernism, post-history, post-culture ... we’re beyond that now.”
In 1994, The New York Times described “millennial thinking,” as an outsized appreciation for new technology, comparing a burgeoning culture in which “the pursuit of computer technology’s outer edge” mirrored the previous generation that had “staked out the frontiers of sex, drugs, and rock” in the 1960s.
“A Millennium is looming,” Richard Taruskin, the music critic, mock-warned in 1997, apparently fed up with all the prognosticating. Leading up to the year 2000, we were all millennials—bracing for a new century, living at a time of uncertainty. Which is funny because, in the post-9/11 world (turns out ‘post’ wasn’t over after all), that uncertainty would be recast as hype—silly fears from the ignorant bubble of the 1990s; misguided focus on crises, like Y2K, that didn’t destroy us after all.
But now, if you ask anyone who isn’t one and some of those who are, Millennials are what’s destroying us. They are accused of being lazy, entitled, coddled, and narcissistic. They’re ruining the workforce, the country, and, apparently, Thanksgiving.
It’s not like we didn’t see this coming. Every generation since the invention of the teenager has come of age to eye-rolling from the grown-ups who grew up before them. In 1964, when the toddlers of the post-war Baby Boom were fully-fledged teens, the writer Martha Weinman Lear, described the new generation thusly:
There they stand, on a big threshold and awesomely hip. They cut their baby teeth on television, sharpened their bite on space, grew up to marry sooner, pay later, become dropouts and juvenile delinquents, crowd the colleges and the Peace Corps, act distressingly complacent and painfully idealistic, head straight for hell and be the bright new hope of tomorrow. In short, to mess briefly with Dickens, they are the best of teens, they are the worst of teens, and they are surrounded by adults who know one view or the other to be absolutely true.
Boomers, the 75 million or so people born between 1946 and 1964, were derided for their obsession with instant communication (sound familiar?)—“the instant joke, the instant fad, the instant dance, the instant celebrity, instantly communicated by television and relays of disk jockeys from coast to coast,” as Lear put it. The girls dressed too casually and had (gasp!) pierced ears. Teenagers used slang like “gear” and “tuff” (when they meant “fabulous”) and “animal” and “skag” (when they meant “jerk”).
“The communication may be faster, but the herd instinct is no greater than it used to be,” Lear wrote. “Beatlemania has nothing on the raccoon coat, the Big Apple, or those ‘Three Little Fishes in an Itty‐Bitty Pool.’”
Those little fishies were the subject of a No. 1 song in 1939. A tune that, to a certain generation, still evokes, well, something. I suppose, like anything, you had to be there.
“We're also constantly reminded that decades define us,” John Allen Paulos wrote for The New York Times in 1995. “Is there anything more vapid? In the free-love, anti-war 60s, hippies felt so-and-so; the greed of the 80s led yuppies to do such and such; sullen and unread Generation X-ers (Roman numeral Ten-ers?) never do anything. We should brace ourselves for the millennial fatuities to come in the year 1999.”
Though Paulos seemed to have been referring to the time period, and not just the youths of the era, his use of “millennial” was at least semi-prescient. The term, as a name for a generation of young people, wouldn’t be fully established for more than a decade. Older Millennials—people who were in high school in the second half of the 1990s—used to be known as Generation Y, echoing Generation X that came before them. (The Times, in 2009, defined Generation Y as anyone born between roughly 1980 and 2003.) Some old Millennials and not-quite-Millennials disassociate themselves from the Millennial designation altogether.
“I’m not Gen X and I’m not a Millennial either,” the writer Doree Shafrir tweeted in 2011. “I’m some low-birthrate in-between thing. WHO WILL SPEAK FOR ME.”
Shafrir, who wrote an insightful essay for Slate about the suggestions she received—Generation Jem, for example—settled on Generation Catalano, a reference to the short-lived but beloved television show My So-Called Life, which first aired in 1994. “This urge to define generations is also about a yearning for a collective memory in an increasingly atomized world, at least where my generation is concerned,” Shafrir wrote. “Indeed, where the Millennials tend to define themselves in terms of the way they live now, people in my cohort find fellowship more in what happened in the past, clinging to cultural totems as though our shared experiences will somehow lead us to better figure out who we are.”
Shafrir was right, but not entirely. Millennials, even before 2011 when she wrote that essay, were and are obsessed with nostalgia as a way of establishing an identity. That’s a human trait, not a generational one. (See also: this hat and this 1970 Life magazine cover.) Longing for the past obviously isn’t always a good thing. (See also: this smart Rebecca Onion essay, for Aeon, about how generational thinking confirms preconceived prejudices.) It is, at the very least, an unwieldy framework for making sense of one’s place in time and culture. And that because the way people define generations shifts. Generations themselves change, which is to say, people change.
In 1992, The Atlantic tried coining “Thirteeners” as an alternate term for Generation X. Here’s how the writers Neil Howe and William Strauss described how they came up with the it:
America’s thirteenth generation, born from 1961 to 1981, ranging in age from eleven to thirty-one. Demographers call them Baby Busters, a name that deserves a prompt and final burial. First, it's incorrect: The early-sixties birth cohorts are among the biggest in U.S. history—and, at 80 million, this generation has numerically outgrown the Boom. By the late 1990s it will even outvote the Boom. Second, the name is insulting—"Boom" followed by "Bust," as though wonder were followed by disappointment. The novelist Doug Coupland, himself a 1961 baby, dubs his age-mates "Generation X" or "Xers," a name first used by and about British Boomer-punkers. Shann Nix, a journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle, suggests "posties" (as in "post yuppies"), another name that, like Coupland's, leaves the generation in the shadow of the great Boom.
We give these young people a nonlabel label that has nothing to do with Boomers. If we count back to the peers of Benjamin Franklin, "Thirteeners" are, in point of fact, the thirteenth generation to know the U.S. flag and the Constitution. More than a name, the number thirteen is a gauntlet, an obstacle to be overcome. Maybe it's the floor where elevators don't stop, or the doughnut that bakers don't count. Then again, maybe it's a suit's thirteenth card—the ace—that wins, face-down, in a game of high-stakes blackjack. It's an understated number for an underestimated generation.
“Thirteeners” never caught on. “Generation X” became the accepted term for a loosely defined generation the way “Millennials” has. Similarly, back when Millennials were still being called Generation Y, there were other suggestions for post-1980 babies, like “echo boomers” and the “baby boomlet,” a reference to the parents of these babies. “Why not just call them the Tamagotchi Generation?” Linda Lee wrote for The New York Times in 1997, referring to a fad electronic toy of the time. “They like things technological and cute (like the 1995 movie “Babe”); they are open to the global marketplace and insist on their right to irony.”
Perhaps it’s worth underscoring here that, at the time when cultural critics were first deriding this new generation’s values, tens of millions of Millennials hadn’t even been born yet.
Back in 1994, Rich Cohen, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, playfully described babies of the era as the Small Generation, “a group born after the Rodney King affair but before Rwanda ... a generation that has known no President other than Bill Clinton and seems likely to call Hillary Clinton mother.”
“The Small Generation shows real discomfort when presented with the American way of life,” Cohen wrote. “Not only have they shunned traditional careers (almost none of them work), they have a sailor’s disregard for hygiene. They pick their noses and soil their briefs and cry about it, expecting someone else to clean up the mess.”
The joke was: They’re babies. The thing Cohen was actually lampooning, though, was the widespread obsession with generational boundaries, and the predictable narratives that this preoccupation fosters.
“If being a resented older generation is a novel experience for Boomers, and if life on the short end feels ruinous to Thirteeners, each group can take a measure of solace in the repeating generational rhythms of American history,” Howe and Strauss wrote for The Atlantic in 1992. “About every eighty or ninety years America has experienced this kind of generation gap between self-righteous neopuritans entering midlife and nomadic survivalists just coming of age.”
And given that the post-Millennial generation is only a few years away from heading off to college, and just a few more removed from entering the workforce, the cycle is poised to repeat itself.
What should we call them, anyway?