What Makes a Millennial?
By Sarah WassermanAugust 18, 2022
The research and popular media can’t really agree when millennials were born. The two most commonly cited ranges are from 1980 to 2000 and the narrower window of 1981 to 1996. But a Pew Research Center poll from 2015 found that, regardless of the parameters, only 40 percent of millennials say they identify with their generation’s label (compared with 58 percent of Gen Xers and 79 percent of baby boomers). Does a generational cohort really exist if only a minority feel they belong to it? One reason for this weak affinity is that popular discourse about millennials tends to paint them, whether sympathetically or not, with a broad and flattening brush. The most common traits attributed to millennials have to do with their digital habits: cell phone–addicted (as Ridley Scott complained), but also tech-savvy, social media–obsessed, and hooked on the continuous feedback and instant gratification they have found online. Of course, generational thinking always creates monoliths where there is in fact difference: each group rendered as a pleasing rectangle in an infographic, cohort names themselves a form of shorthand more suited for clickbait than nuance. But the way that millennial branding centers on internet habits papers over a fault line that runs through the cohort and, I think, explains the alienation many millennials feel from their own generation.
The pundits talking about generations and the authors writing books about the making and breaking of millennials fail to account for what I believe is a critical distinction: whether or not a given person came of sexual age with social media. This factor determines generational identity far more than birth year. If millennials were born between 1980 and 2000, then the oldest millennial is 42 and the youngest 21. As a 40-year-old professor who gets regularly lambasted by 22-year-old students for my “antiquated” social media references and habits, I don’t need a journalist or a Pew Research poll to tell me that my elder millennial habits are not the same as those at the younger end of the cohort. In fact, the social media of my early adulthood — LiveJournal, MySpace, and Friendster — look to my students like old-timey relics, while their fluency with TikTok and Snapchat often feels to me like an alien language. We accept that digital technology habits define millennials but are reluctant to acknowledge that those habits are wildly different if we are talking about the geriatric millennial or the juvenile.
In a smattering of recent books, writers emphasize the millennial’s intimate relationship with digital technology, but do little to parse and periodize its intimate effects. Jill Filipovic’s OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind (2020), Caitlin Fisher’s The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation: How to Succeed in a Society that Blames You for Everything Gone Wrong (2019), and Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials (2017) promise to tell “the truth” about millennials from the perspective of the native informant. They are also unabashed in their desire to defend millennials against the criticisms leveled against them, “firing back,” as Filipovic puts it, against the “stereotype of an indulged, immature hypersensitive narcissist,” which, she argues, is “a convenient mask for the ugly realities that make our lives emotionally and economically precarious — realities set in motion by Baby Boomers.” With even more bluntness, Fisher opens her book (based on her popular blog entries) by complaining, “It is total bullshit that our generation was raised being told we could do anything but then blamed for everything wrong with society.” This kind of rhetoric, even as it seeks to rationalize millennial anger, fuels the generational war, further entrenching cohorts behind the battle lines: gaslit millennials on one side, society-destroying boomers on the other.
Although it is logical and worthwhile to point out that an affinity for avocado toast or emoji might be less important to generational experience than the socioeconomic structures that undergird our society as a whole, it’s curious that Filipovic, Fisher, and Harris don’t question whether or not the category of millennial — and not just the stereotypes of that category — makes real sense. All three authors accept the millennial as a stock figure, wandering the world in a pair of skinny jeans, oat-milk latte in hand. Millennials have been maligned, but they are real and ready to decry the broken promises of the good life and the structural failures that have made them, apparently, insufferable.
Enter Bobby Duffy, whose book seems initially to offer an alternative taxonomy. Duffy uses a narrower timeframe for millennials — those born between 1980 and 1995 — and argues that “our primary way of understanding generations, through superficial and poor-quality punditry” manufactures what he calls “fake differences.” Duffy claims that “true generational thinking” involves three explanations for how “attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors change over time”: period effects, in which attitudes change across all age groups in a given time, often in response to a major event; life-cycle effects, which account for people changing as they age; and cohort effects, which describe the different attitudes members of a generation have because they were socialized distinctly from others. Only when taken together can we really understand why, say, “one in 10 millennials would rather lose a finger than give up their smartphone,” as a 2018 survey found.
Even as Duffy advocates for a more nuanced version of generational thinking, he doesn’t suggest that his tighter timeline for millennials makes much of a difference in the way we characterize them, nor does he explain whether the millennial attachment to technology is really so strong as to prioritize phone over finger. Duffy, Filipovic, Fisher, and Harris all describe millennials’ relationship to digital technology as a distinct and defining characteristic. Duffy notes that “social media usage diverges more by generation than anything we’ll look at”; Filipovic makes the case that “millennials are the technological bridge generation, connecting the analog Boomers and Gen Xers to the digital Gen Z”; Fisher mentions that most successful social media and online apps were created by millennials and goes on to explore the perils of online dating; and Harris walks through the appeal of YouTube, SoundCloud, and Vine and makes the by-now-banal observation that “for this cohort of young Americans, social media is hard to separate from sociality in general.”
None of these books take on the fact that younger millennials came of age in a radically different digital ecosystem than elder millennials. Duffy writes that millennials “grew up just as our lives turned digital,” but the digital world — especially the digital world of sex and romance — changed rapidly after 1990. A key reason why someone born in 1980 seems “more Gen X” and someone born in 1995 “more Gen Z” has to do with which digital technologies were available as they came of age.
Older millennials were college graduates when the first dating apps came around; their first crushes were more likely to be mediated by Teen magazine than YouTube, their first sexual experiences coordinated through passed notes instead of text messages. A person born in the United States in 1980 would have likely grown up with a home computer, basic computing classes by the time they reached high school, and perhaps AOL Instant Messenger (released in 1997). But by the time social media came around — Friendster in 2002, MySpace in 2003, and Facebook in 2006, let alone Instagram in 2010 and Snapchat in 2011 — this supposed millennial was already in their twenties and early thirties. Compare that with someone born in 1996, who was just nine when YouTube started making a splash and 14 when Instagram was booming. And while dating sites have existed for quite some time, dating apps as we know them really only came into being around 2009, thanks to the launch of Grindr and the wide use of smartphones, especially those with front-facing cameras, which iPhones introduced in 2010. The point here is that digital technology, and more specifically, the experience of the internet — from online pornography to the culture of online “likes” — strongly shapes generational identity to a degree that is obscured if not overlooked by our current categories.
To come into being as a gendered and sexual subject with the transience of Snapchat; the ubiquity of the selfie; the seemingly infinite and instantaneous array of searchable bodies, preferences, and sex acts; and the opportunity to DM and swipe on a stranger has changed the contours of that subjecthood. In light of this list, the formative technologies of early millennials’ sex lives seem positively antiquated: the suspense of waiting for a pornographic site to load on a dial-up modem (and hoping no one would try to use the phone), the reliance on the family landline and answering machine, and the grainy sex tape filmed on a camcorder and existing only on VHS. These two lists, even just as snapshots, reveal some of the key differences in instantaneity, availability, and the possibilities of self-curation that have differently shaped older and younger millennials.
This is not to say that older people have not also been influenced by newer technologies and practices. It is rather to stress just how formative they have been for younger millennials and Gen Z. One clear instance can be seen in the residual privacy needs that millennials and Gen Xers often share; this frequently sets them apart from Gen Z, who claim that the public mediation of intimacy is body-positive and relation-building. The narrator of Patricia Lockwood’s critically acclaimed 2021 novel, No One Is Talking About This, wryly tracks this same distinction when she asserts:
The difference between her and her sister could be attributed to the fact that she came of age in the nineties, during the heyday of plaid and heroin, while her sister came of age in the 2000s, during the heyday of thongs and cocaine. That was when everything got a little chihuahua and started starring in its own show.
If my rough thesis is correct (or at least partially correct, in a site- and group-specific way that applies mostly to middle- and upper-middle-class white millennials in the United States), then it might be wise to imagine millennials as two shadow generations: something like X-2.0 and Z-prime. The term “Xennial” has been floated to name the former group in publications that break from the standard millennial mold.  In her 2021 novel I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness, Claire Vaye Watkins offers another name for early millennials: “The Oregon Trail Generation.” It’s a name that signals a particular relationship to technology, conjuring up schoolchildren in French-rolled jeans leaning toward the glowing screens of blocky, nonnetworked PCs to guide their covered wagons from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon’s Willamette Valley without dying from dysentery.
Those older millennials who grew up playing Oregon Trail have felt the effects of social-media–age intimacy differently than their younger cohort-mates because selfies and likes and nudes weren’t native to their adolescence. This digital media ecology represents a version of sexual adulthood about which most older millennials feel ambivalent. Writers like Lockwood (born 1982) and Watkins (born 1984) can capture this ambivalence at social media’s effects because novels are good for exploring the intimacies of history where sociological and marketing-based studies focus on outward behaviors and brands. These X-2.0 fictions remind us that because they didn’t have to navigate nudes, collect likes, or compose sexts, older millennials experienced their early sexual desires as something that might be explored on, but not yet mediated by, the internet.
Put more simply, even as older millennials’ sexuality was formed in and through computational and digital technology, it happened privately, in the anemic glow of a PC monitor with a dial-up modem, only subsequently elaborated and shared by encounters with others and the mature display of the self. Younger millennials and members of Gen Z, on the other hand, have had their desirability and sexuality made public and collective from a tender age and so come into adulthood habituated to self-curation, exhibition, and interaction in front of everyone all at once. Various studies suggest that with this kind of sexual-technological formation, members of Gen Z demonstrate different and seemingly paradoxical behavior: they readily share nude photos and engage in sexting but are having less physical sex than previous generations have at any time since the sexual revolution.
Filipovic seems poised to investigate this difference: at the beginning of her chapter on technology, she notes that “Like Boomers and Gen Xers, and unlike the Gen Zers whose births might have been broadcast on Instagram, Millennials largely spent our childhoods without smartphones, tablets, or laptops.” Filipovic does not recognize that this observation only holds true for older millennials like herself, nor does she consider how it might change the way we periodize and taxonomize. But it is telling that she turns here to the notion of broadcast, obliquely linking social media habits to privacy preferences and intimacy. Because of their different relationship to the internet, the younger half of the millennial cohort seems less tethered to the idea that sexual life leads to some kind of adult social role, one tied up with rigid conceptions of property, professionalism, and family heteronorms. This is the dreadfully straight model of sexuality theorized by Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, who have pointed out how “a hegemonic public has founded itself by a privatization of sex and the sexualization of private personhood.” And indeed, those of us born before 1995, who came of age in a largely analog way, called our romantic and sexual lives our “private lives”; we understood them to be a refuge from the all-seeing eyes of commerce and technology. If intimacy is the constant, technology is the variable, and we would do well to refine our understanding of the relationship between the two.
It’s easy to criticize Gen Z for the gap between their outward-facing sexiness and their inward-facing sexlessness, but in fact it’s elder millennials, and those older than us, who are not equipped for intimacy’s newest life in a time of precarity and surveillance. Our lingering beliefs in the privacy of romance now belong to the previous century. Our expectations of sexual privacy and romantic life in general are rooted in an older socioeconomic world — but we find ourselves now entering middle age in the precarious post-worker, post-family world that is native to Gen Z and their intimacy styles. Although it may be quite painful, older millennials must recognize that the conditions for intimacy with which we came of age have eroded. Perhaps it’s time, then, to look to younger millennials and Gen Z for lessons in how to love outside the old infrastructures of intimacy, the last century’s mores that made us believe sex and romance could be our private business.
 The jacket copy for Mark Bauerlein’s 2008 The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) describes the book as a “dire report on the intellectual life of young adults and a timely warning of its impact on American democracy and culture.” Harold Bloom’s blurb calls it “an urgent and pragmatic book on the very dark topic of the virtual end of reading among the young.”
 One example is Michael Stahl’s February 2021 essay, “The Unique Discomfort of Dating as a Xennial,” about how older millennials are “caught somewhere between” generations when it comes to dating and technology.
Sarah Wasserman is associate professor of English at the University of Delaware, where she is also the director of the Center for Material Culture Studies. Her first book, The Death of Things: Ephemera and the American Novel, was published with the University of Minnesota Press in 2020. She is currently at work on Computer Love, a book that examines movies, television shows, commercials, and pop songs from the 1980s to chronicle the impact we imagined computers would have on love and romance.
Featured image: Game Streamer nvliu 66 in E3 2018, LA by Gsm107 licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped and color-adjusted.
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