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I am a 33-year-old millennial. That lumps me in the same generation as people born in the mid- to late 1990s — when I was engrossed in the Clinton/Dole election, in the Atlanta Olympic Games and hanging out with my friends at the mall.
Many of my fellow old millennials really do not like being grouped in with those younger millennials, perhaps because so much — often negative — media attention is bestowed upon our generation. Early-1980s babies aren’t the only ones rejecting the label — most millennials don’t even consider themselves millennials. Just 4 in 10 identify as such, according to the Pew Research Center. And the Internet is saturated with pieces by cranky millennials decrying the label.
Older millennials appear so desperate to shed the label that we keep coining new names for ourselves. The term “xennials” — conceived by writer Sarah Stankorb, born in 1980 — went viral this summer, defining “a micro-generation that serves as a bridge between the disaffection of Gen X and the blithe optimism of Millennials.” And it seems to have caught on even more than Anna Garvey’s (similarly defined) “Oregon Trail Generation” in 2015 and Doree Shafrir’s “Generation Catalano” in 2011.
But there’s an overlooked truth beneath all those screeds and fabricated micro-generations seeking to rid themselves of the despised “millennial” label: Generational identities are inventions. What demographers use as a research tool, popular culture has embraced as a personality.
Baby boomers are the exception, defined by a spike in birthrates in the years after World War II. The rest of us are just grouped into subjectively defined delineations to help marketers sell us things and allow pollsters and researchers like me to analyze people by birth period. Unifying more than 75 million Americans as millennials — or even just a subset of xennials — into a shared identity is not the goal.
As my colleague Philip Bump astutely pointed out in 2015, generations are “nonsense.”
For one, there is no hard and fast rule about where generations start and end. While the U.S. census says millennials were born between 1982 and 2000, Gallup says we were born from 1980 through 1996, and Nielsen Media Research says 1977 through 1995. Therefore, conclusions about group sizes or even whether you’re in that group can depend on who’s doing the measuring. So don’t fret that someone is trying to sell you something in millennial pink because you happened to be born in 1987. It’s okay if it’s not your color.
The Pew Research Center, my former employer, has a bevy of research about millennials, whom it defines as those born starting in 1981 but with no set end year, “and the first generation to come of age in the new millennium.”
There are more millennials than boomers. That makes sense. The biggest explosion in birthrate in the United States (the baby boom) would naturally produce an even larger population boom. And just as 1980s babies think they have nothing in common with 1990s babies, ask someone who was born in 1946 whether they have much in common with someone born in 1964 and they’ll laugh at you.
But researchers aren’t seeking to craft some kind of generational identity. Instead, generations simply provide a defined cohort that researchers can use to analyze shifts in societal behaviors.
Still, we’re more likely than other generations to attribute negative traits to our own cohort: About 6 in 10 people in the millennial age range said our generation is “self-absorbed,” while about half called our age group “wasteful” and more than 4 in 10 said we are greedy.
But fellow millennials, don’t feel so bad about all the trend pieces decrying your generation as The Worst. Similar trend pieces lamenting the young members of previous generations are a national tradition. In 1990, Time magazine published a story complaining that 20-somethings “have trouble making decisions. They would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder. They have few heroes, no anthems, no style to call their own.” And 200 years before that, in 1790, the Rev. Enos Hitchcock complained that “the free access which many young people have to romances, novels, and plays has poisoned the mind and corrupted the morals of many a promising youth; and prevented others from improving their minds in useful knowledge.” Being exasperated by young people is an age-old pastime.
And while this particular millennial has always felt a kinship with older folks, I also think people in their early 20s have a ton to offer. Yes, I have always been a “Jeopardy!”-watching, “60 Minutes”-recording, real-print-newspaper-reading, prompt-thank-you-note-writing gal. But I also think that millennial pink is pretty, that avocado toast is delicious and that the dancing hot dog on Snapchat is the best.
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