The Millennial Label: Distinguishing Facts from Fiction
If you are reading this in the near future, perhaps sometime after 2035, you may not know who or what defined the millennial generation. Was it society? The science community? Politicians? Marketers?
Don’t worry, many of us living in 2018 have no idea either. While some of us are aware of the common definition of “millennials” as those born between 1981 and 1996, according to Pew Research Center, few can describe how the millennial and other generational labels entered mainstream American culture — and for what purpose.
After three decades of commercializing, sensationalizing, and white-washing the millennial generational narrative, modern society has little to show for it other than consultancy fees, sponsored think pieces, and viral videos about millennials’ work habits.
Some view generational labels as inventions of the marketing industry, so they approach the topic with understandable skepticism — sometimes going as far as re-categorizing themselves with alternative labels such as “old millennials,” “xennials,” and so on.
Others use such labels as blank checks to make proclamations about tens of millions of people. This way of thinking produces a good chunk of mainstream content about “the millennials” today and dominates public perception about generations as undifferentiated masses of people who happen to be born within a certain year range (that no one can ever remember).
Given this context, it is not terribly surprising that millennials themselves never fully internalized the millennial generational label. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, only 40% of those in the age cohort in the U.S. consider themselves “millennials.”
While the information business industry didn’t succeed in getting us to roll on command, it achieved something far worse: mass confusion about what generations actually are and how they can be studied.
Predictably, this has caused many of us to disassociate ourselves from any generational identity and thus the potential of utilizing and sharing generational knowledge outside of for-profit narratives.
So what can we do?
One way to address alternative stories about our lives is to deconstruct reductive data about generations and expose how those narratives enter our culture. The sources of most “bombshell” claims about generational differences expose the biased data behind top-down content on generations.
In an article published in Human Resource Planning, Frank Giancola states that “the emphasis on generational differences is not generally borne out by empirical research, despite its popularity.”
This observation is confirmed by the research of Thomas C. Reeves and Eunjung Oh at the University of Georgia, who reviewed dozens of studies on generational differences to conclude that “gross generalizations based on weak survey research and the speculations of profit-oriented consultants should be treated with extreme caution.”
In their research paper, Reeves and Oh argue that most conclusions on generational differences are based on popular books and “survey data collected from young people from middle and upper middle socioeconomic groups.”
They cite the lack of literature on “the generational differences among those who will not enter higher education or who are more likely to assume blue-collar jobs,” as well as the lack of “national surveys related to generational differences that cut across the full range of socioeconomic status,” as reasons why we should be wary of conclusions and theories based on generational differences.
In other words, a lot of what we see and read about generations is, quite literally, fake news.
“Every stereotype of our generation applies only to the tiniest, richest, whitest sliver of young people. And the circumstances we live in are more dire than most people realize,” argues Michael Hobbes in his insightfully depressing exposé on how millennials are actually living, titled “Millennials are Screwed.”
While Hobbes’s sentiments ring true, the fact that his piece was published proves that not all content on millennials and other generations is underwritten by the financial industry.
In fact, and I know this is hard to believe, content on generations doesn’t have to chop and screw our generational identity to the benefit of the ruling class. What millennials and our allies can do to usher in a more authentic and fact-based generational discourse is to support independent media and credible research on the topic.
For example, PEW Research Center, a nonpartisan American “fact tank,” analyzes generations by tracking people born over 15–20 years (such as the millennial generation) on a range of issues, behaviors, and characteristics.
This allows researchers to study changes in views over time across large segments of the population and understand how different formative experiences interact with the aging process that shapes people’s view of the world.
Instead of blaming us for what happened last year or why people aren’t buying as many napkins, researchers use generations to understand shifting public attitudes and extrapolate data about meaningful smaller cohorts within these generations. In short: this is where thinking in terms of generations can be useful for those behind the labels.
Pew Research Center analyzes generational differences according to life cycle, period, and cohort effects. Life cycle, or age affects, can be attributed to one’s position in life. As an example of a life cycle effect, Pew notes that young people are far less likely than older adults to vote and engage in politics.
Period effects are seen when “events and circumstances (for instance, wars, social movements, economic booms or busts, scientific or technological breakthroughs) as well as broader social forces simultaneously impact everyone, regardless of age.”
Cohort effects are the “byproduct of unique historical circumstances that members of an age cohort experience.” For millennials, those historical circumstances include the 2008 Great Recession, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Barack Obama’s presidency.
It is easy to see why context based on historical events and first-person narratives is often missing from content about millennials. How can one characterize an entire generation as entitled when the average American household with student debt owes about $49,000? How can politicians blame millennials and other generations for their losses, when trust in U.S. government is at mere 18 percent across all generations? How can “avocado toast” be the meme that defines millennials when one in five of us lives in poverty?
In many ways, today’s reductive content about millennials and other generations is about blurring the context of our experiences, rather than understanding them at face value. It’s about making us buy into decaying power structures and narratives that ultimately aim to divide us.
For example, commentators often blame young voters for not showing up to the polls, but research on the topic suggests this is a life cycle effect that is true for previous generations. Another psychological trick regularly used by the news industry is to gaslight millennials for not spending money in certain sectors, without mentioning that we graduated in the midst of the 2008 recession.
Shallow analysis often ignores the fact that generations are diverse within themselves. In fact, millennials are the most diverse generation in U.S. history — 44 percent of us are considered “minority.” According to the Brookings Institute, millennials are the “demographic bridge between the largely white older generations (pre-millennials) and much more racially diverse younger generations (post-millennials).”
Unfortunately, this demographic bridge hasn’t extended to the spectacles of U.S. media, economy, politics, and popular culture. This is because the Generation Industry is not interested in exploring generations, but in distilling them to talking points and “know-how” in order to produce a clear sales pitch — invest in the market, buy stocks, buy a house, get this credit card, hate this country, etc.
When millennials choose to question these narratives and organize through inter-generational protests like Occupy — the insight-producing industries fight back, dusting off stereotypes about the entitled, idealistic, and lazy millennials and their “pie in the sky” demands for universal healthcare and free college tuition in the richest country in the world.
Clearly, we can’t infuse truth and justice into industries that have bastardized generational knowledge by turning it into a profit-making scheme and a tool for public manipulation.
What we can do to challenge reductive generational narratives in the media and beyond is to deepen our understanding of generational theory, and demand news outlets to do the same.
There are many ways to inject authenticity and fact-based research into the public discourse about millennials. In the same way “Humans of New York” embraces the diversity of our experiences and podcasts bring depth to issues and personalities, we can strive to create and share content that doesn’t put 75 million people in a box.
My way of countering alternative stories about the millennial generation was to follow those stories to their unlikely source — the work of two middle-aged American men who, starting in the 1990’s, predefined future generations through theories that mix pop culture with so-called “historical prophecy.”
Coining of the Millennial Label, or How Two Men Promoted a Predefined Narrative about Generations
The coiners of the millennial generational label are William Strauss and Neil Howe, two amateur American historians who have published numerous books on generations. They first used the phrase “millennial generation” in their 1991 book Generations: History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. The writers chose “millennials” as the name of the cohort, because they figured the youngest cohort in their book would be graduating from high school around the year 2000.
At the time, Strauss, who passed away in 2007, was director of Capitol Steps, a satirical singing group, and previously worked as a policy director for the U.S. congress. Neil Howe worked as a senior adviser for the Concord Coalition — a group that is dedicated to addressing “long-term challenges facing America’s unsustainable entitlement programs,” and senior policy adviser for The Blackstone Group — a multinational firm that specializes in private equity, credit, and hedge fund investment strategies.
As their credentials illustrate, Strauss and Howe weren’t some sort of mystical gurus who had uncovered hidden knowledge about our past and future, nor were they researchers whose work has been seriously analyzed by the scientific community.
They simply used selective historical analysis, previous research on generations, and a pop sociology narrative to sell their interpretation of American history.
In 1997, Strauss and Howe published one of their most popular books, The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy. The book expanded Strauss and Howe’s ambitious theory about how modern history can be viewed in cycles, each one lasting about the length of a human life and composed of four eras — or “turnings.”
If we were to believe Strauss and Howe’s prophecy, then millennials are a “hero” generation currently living in “the crisis” turning. So, there’s that.
Notably, The Fourth Turning inspired Trump’s chief propagandist and notorious white nationalist Steven Bannon to use the concept of “turnings” as the foundation of his 2010 documentary “Generation Zero.” The documentary, which has 3.8 out of 10 on IMDB, presents “the little told story of how the mindset of the baby boomers sowed the seeds of economic disaster that will be reaped by coming generations.”
Generation Zero was produced by Citizens United, the conservative nonprofit organization which brought the infamous Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case that ultimately made it easier for corporations to unfairly influence the U.S. electoral process with vast sums of money.
When asked about working with Trump’s ex-Chief Strategist in 2017, Howe said that he doesn’t know him well, but has worked with Bannon on several film products, ahem, projects:
By challenging the legitimacy of our experiences and turning them into a tool for psychological manipulation, and combining that with the power of 24/7 BREAKING news, non-falsifiable generational theories have become a useful weapon for political operatives.
Yet, most articles about generations simply list Strauss and Howe as the coiners of the label and leave it at that. In doing so, media companies and commentators on both sides of the political spectrum ignore the top-down context of the millennial label, which is what allows them to run “fake news” about generations in the first place.
The popularity of Strauss and Howe’s books made the two amateur historians prominent figures in the lucrative Generation Industry. Although they failed to woo the academic world with their ambitious combination of history and prophecy, their theories and services were well received in U.S. politics, corporate media, the financial sector, advertising, and wherever else speculation and “exclusive” generational insights can be sold to the highest bidder.
Former Vice President Al Gore — who graduated from Harvard University with Mr. Strauss — liked the book so much he allegedly sent a copy of Generations to each member of Congress.
Establishment support, combined with an onslaught of top-down generational narratives projected on corporate media, made it acceptable for anyone to make sweeping generalizations about tens of millions of people — often, solely on the basis of their age.
How did Howe and Strauss get away with not only defining, but characterizing generations decades into the future? As pioneers in the field they helped create, the amateur historians have no trouble addressing the more obvious weaknesses of their generational theory. They readily admit that their analysis does not mean generations are “monochromatic.”
Their counter argument is that, when considered as “social units,” generations are “far more powerful than other social groupings such as economic class, race, sex, religion and political parties.”
In Millennials Rising, published in 2000, Strauss and Howe defend the selectivity in their work by arguing that generations are not about the “bits and pieces,” but about the “social and cultural center of gravity” of a generation.
“For any new generation, like for any young and thriving and mortal organism, its direction of change can be more important than its current location,” they write, “It is a generation’s direction that best reveals its collective self-image and sense of destiny.”
You can guess who gets to define where that “social and cultural center of gravity” falls and what that “direction of change” may be.
In the same book, the Strauss and Howe attribute the growing gap in average incomes to the “rise of knowledge-intensive innovation and quickening of immigration and global trade,” which has “widened the market-determined spread between high and low wages.”
Later in the book, Strauss and Howe claim that the millennial black-white disparity is “mostly due to the lower share of black kids growing up in two-parent families than white kids.”
They see a contrast largely between two sets of kids — those with “two-income Boomer parents — highly educated soccer moms, bursting stock portfolios, and gift-giving grandparents” and those with “one-income Gen-X parents, many of them never-married black moms or recent Latino immigrants.”
Notably, Strauss and Howe fail to mention how government policies can mitigate the effects of inequality to the poor and the middle class. Their narrative mixes generational lingo with the kind of trickle down economic analysis millennials, in particular, have heard for decades with little results.
Strauss and Howe’s creative freedom to not only define millennials, a generation they are not a part of, but to also define the economic conditions in which we grew up, is at the heart of everything that is wrong with clickbait content on generations. Instead of understanding the nuances within generational cohorts, such efforts encapsulate our identity into a predetermined economic and ideological framework.
It should be mentioned that before publishing his generational sagas with Strauss, Neil Howe co-wrote a book with Peter Peterson, ex-Chairman and CEO of Lehman Brothers and co-founder of The Blackstone Group. The book, On Borrowed Time: How the Growth in Entitlement Spending Threatens America’s Future, argues that “by sacrificing the future in order to pay ever-larger federal benefits through programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and federal pensions, entitlement spending has become a crushing burden to American workers.”
Peterson (who died in 2018), was a former Nixon man and one of America’s most influential billionaires. He invested millions of dollars into the idea that tax reforms should “grow the economy” or else future generations will be “stuck with the bill” of our growing deficit.
By presenting debt as an issue that can only be solved through fiscal responsibility, Peterson used the sentiment that “America is broke” to push for “entitlement reforms,” which is doublespeak for cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, or at the very least a framing of economic issues that is favorable to corporations.
Similarly to most top-down, reductive content on generations, Strauss and Howe’s alternative theories have little to offer when it comes to understanding millennials, or engaging us in a dialogue that broadens public perception of what it means to be a millennial. That was never in the cards.
The millennial label owes its birth not to an inclusive, democratic dialogue, but to the books of two white, male American authors who not only took it upon themselves to define generations in the U.S., but to also predict the historic, economic, political, and cultural context affecting those generations for decades to come.
“What we think that politicians or marketers, in particular product salesmen who are concerned about how to reach generations, should think about as they read our book and try to decide how to get elected or launch a new product line,” says co-author William Strauss in a 1991 CSPAN interview, “…is look real hard at the section of our book that will certainly be most controversial with historians. That is, we have a 50 page chapter on what the future of the cycle will be…we call it “Completing the Millennial Cycle.”
Strauss and Howe’s work culminated into “Lifecourse Associates,” a “publishing, speaking, and consulting company” that interprets the “qualitative nature of a generation’s collective persona to help managers and marketers leverage quantitative data in new and remarkable ways — and to lend order, meaning, and predictability to national trends.”
Looking up derivatives of the writers’ work shows where their ideas found a home. The first result on YouTube is an interview on Hedgeye — ”a bold, trusted, no-excuses provider of actionable investment research and a premier online financial media company,” where Howe is currently Sector Head; the second result is an interview on TRUNEWS — the “world’s leading news source that reports, analyzes, and comments on global events and trends with a conservative, Christian worldview.”
The profitization and co-option of the millennial and other generational narratives joins a long list of suppressed and subverted narratives in modern society.
Just like the pro-union voice, the anti-war voice, the climate change voice, and other perspectives censored in the corporate media, the actual millennial voice is replaced by a reductive version of itself — it is either that of the millennial entrepreneur, the finally-warming-up-to-the-stock-market millennial, the entitled millennial, the psychologically scarred millennial killing industries left and right, the idealistic millennial, the recently popular self-hating millennial, or whatever other non-system threatening template of behavior can be attached to the millennial handle.
What does this mean for those who fit the label, but are not interested in the reductive image of millennials? We can either 1) continue to believe in the generational narratives perpetuated by corporate media, 2) ignore or negate what is said about millennials or 3) define what it means to be a millennial through individuals and organizations that portray the complexity of the millennial population and identity.
If our story is not being told by either Party or the corporate media, let’s create independent media which will provide millennials and their allies with opportunities for authentic dialogue and free expression.
If our narrative is being co-opted and manipulated by corporate and government propaganda, let’s expose those who create and finance it — from those who sensationalize millennials for ad revenue, to organizations which institutionalize the millennial experience only to engineer consent on behalf of all of us.
Most importantly, let’s show up in our own story — not as predefined people who sit on the sidelines of our narratives, but as human beings who can creatively and intelligently use the opportunities of the new millennium to find a common purpose that values humanity more than profit.