First, the New York Times ran an article full of helpful tips for employers dealing with Millennial employees. Then Slate took issue with the Times considering a 37-year-old a Millennial. Then the Wire, which is not a fansite for the TV show, stepped in to provide an “official” guide to the generations of the last half of the 20th century. Finally, I lost my goddamn mind.
Here’s how Philip Bump, whose name sounds only slightly less made-up than my own, pins the generations, according to a few reputable sources:
The fact that there isn’t one perennial authority on what makes up a generation is one problem. Another is that the Harvard Center, which Bump uses as definitive proof of the size and shape of Generation X, is then flatly dismissed for their second definition.
“NOTE: Generation Y is a fake, made-up thing. Do not worry about it.”
Well, yeah, but then so is every other generation, which is why noted demographer Tom Brokaw was able to name Depression babies “the Greatest Generation” without surveying every generation since the dawn of man. What about the generation that discovered fire? Invented the wheel? Started settling down and farming?
Here’s the thing: Generation Y isn’t fake, and it is very much worth worrying about. The idea of twenty-year eras that set off every generation is a tidy way of creating delineations within the population, but they’re functionally problematic. Take the godforsaken Baby Boomers, enjoyers of unprecedented economic prosperity and destroyers of the middle class: they are a vile sort, the heart and soul of the American ideal that everyone can and should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, the people in the driver’s seat when that Great American Car started drifting right because they forgot to get the alignment checked at 50,000 miles, and subsequently tanked both the American auto industry and the economy as a whole, globally.
There, I’ve had my say about Baby Boomers. But the thing is, I have a friend, a sexagenarian who still thinks “sexagenarian” is funny and was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany following World War II, who very much grew up in the economic Narnia of post-war America, benefiting from a United States where it was no big thing to hoist yourself up by your bootstraps because someone had, inexplicably, turned down the gravity for a decade or so. And then there’s my mother, born in 1957, who came of age and entered the workforce as CEO salaries and Reaganism started to rise in total, unrelated unison with each other. The wardrobe was very much closed by the time I came along in 1981, and while he raised his kids in suburban New York, she raised me across the Philadelphia area, sometimes at my grandparents’ house, sometimes at other relatives’ places, while putting herself through nursing school. Sure, eventually we made it to the suburbs where I did most of my growing up, but the gravity was very much back on by the time her high school class graduated.
He came of age as the Beatles became ascendant; she came of age as the Beatles were breaking up and disco was looming on the horizon. He spent his twenties enjoying the great sexual revolution; she spent her twenties raising a child by herself during the great conservative revolution.
How could these two people be painted with the same broad stroke of “Baby Boomers”? It’s a nearly useless tribal name that doesn’t speak to the actual experience of those who bear the label, any more than “Millennial” describes me. I’m not a fucking Millennial.
Millennials are the Baby Boomers in reverse: in the waning years of Generation X, the media tried to find a way to define and describe the latest batch of apathetic, lazy youngsters, and Generation Y seemed like the best idea, which is often the way of things when no one has an actual idea. The Harvard Center, who Bump goes to the hole for on the delineation of Generation X (but not Y), pegs the beginning of the generation at 1975, which is a little dubious, but I’ll accept it. Millennials, as defined by Neil Howe (demographer) and William Strauss (…playwright), start at 1982. In either case, Generation X terminates in 1984, which makes me and everyone born around me Generation X, Generation Y, and nearly a Millennial.
I have no problem with being Generation X or Y, although I grew up listening to music made by Gen Xers, so it feels a little like my parents experienced a second sexual awakening ten years after their first kid, and all the teachers know me because they taught my older siblings a decade earlier. According to Howe and Strauss, I’m not a Millennial, but tell that to the world at large and see how far it gets you. As one of the Reagan Babies, I’m guilty by association. Thanks, Reagan.
So: why Generation Y? Well, for those born between 1975 and 1990, let’s say, our formative years looked nothing like those of the Millennials. Our television came in largely via antenna, our movies were on VHS, our music was on cassettes. The internet wasn’t around, and by the time it was in any way that meant something, you could be disconnected by someone picking up a phone somewhere else in the house. We look like digital natives, but only because we grew up in tandem with the internet, as if technology was designed like the progressive grades in elementary and high school. Sure, some of us invented Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, but some of us invented Napster and more of us lost jobs during the Great Internet Massacre of 2001 and 2002. We started with GeoCities and Tripod, moved on to LiveJournal and .edu sites, and still only half of us can get by without resorting to SquareSpace today.
We collected CDs assiduously, only to replace them ten or fifteen years later with limitless discographies we could toss in our pockets. Our first cars had tape decks, for god’s sake, and you were a king if it was the kind that automatically switched to side B when side A was finished. Our mixtapes were on tape, even, and we adapted when it became possible to put them on CD, although we missed that extra song or two a cassette could squeeze in. A black binder of CDs had permanent shotgun in our cars, and sometimes the discs were so scratched that the player would spit it back out like a wrinkled dollar bill in a vending machine. Those of us with tape decks could only get by if our Discman had at least three seconds of G-Shock protection.
I will one day have to explain to my children that their father once ran a CD store, and then I’ll have to explain what in the hell a CD was, and I won’t be able to help bringing up MiniDiscs in the process. They will pat me patronizingly on the head, certain that I am showing the first signs of dementia, and ask if the robot maid is done doing their laundry yet.
I probably will not bother to explain film cameras and one-hour photo developing. It’s all hazy now anyway, like an old Polaroid where the chemicals are starting to break down.
We were fully formed adults by the time we got our first cellphones. That, by itself, is enough to separate us from the Millennial tribe. Plans were made by landline phones, and parties happened by word of mouth rather than Facebook. We had to talk to our boyfriends and girlfriends on the phone, which is probably why we, as a group, can’t stand talking to anyone on the phone and think voicemail is more a type of punishment than a form of communication. There was no sexting, no dick pics, no Snapping Chats.
Patton Oswalt wrote a piece about how non-Millennials seem far more obsessed with their phones, and my theory is that it’s because we remember when there weren’t phones that could connect to the great itch-scratching internet and fear that, one day, they might be taken away from us, so we’re constantly proving to ourselves that they’re still there, that they still work. All over TV and in the movies, my generation is continuously expressing our greatest fear: that all this shiny technology could disappear some day. For actual Millennials, that idea is as unimaginable as there being no air one day, which is the more likely scenario anyway.
Whether you want to blame Prince or Heaven’s Gate or media hysteria over Y2K, there was a sense, growing up in the 90s, that we were living in end times. We all believed, at least a little bit, that two missing spaces in computer code would bring it all crashing down. Hell, the yearbook from my senior year—in 1999—had a silver stamp on it that read, and I’m not kidding, “LIFE ON THE EDGE OF TIME,” like we were Old World ships sailing towards the place where the map dropped off into nothingness. The future? January 1st, 2000? There be dragons there. We look like we take all this technology for granted because we still so deeply do not believe it’s real, that it won’t just evaporate one day in a single EMP blast.
Story continues after a brief Saved By The Bell: The College Years interlude…
Generation Y slept and snotted our way through the Reagan years, woke up during the new American heyday of the Clinton presidency, and struck out on our own as the Empire struck back with the reign of Bush the Second. We watched the OJ trial and the LA riots, Waco and Columbine, the first truly televised war in Iraq, all live, and then some of us went to fight there, probably because it looked so goddamn familiar to us. We’ve lived through the 80s twice, and now we’re living through the 90s again. Some of us have children who are Millennials. If we’re not Generation X or Millennial, what are we? Are we simply transgenerational? Demographic flotsam in the currents of human history?
There are three myths that I remember pervading the Dewey Decimal System-reliant world of middle and high school in the 1990s. First was that hoverboards had in fact been invented, but a group of parents in Florida had successfully had their manufacture and sale banned in the entire country. Actual, wheel-less skateboard hoverboards, not the goofy wheeled shit masquerading as hoverboards these days (STOP HOVERING OVER MY LAWN). Second was that the real human son in Small Wonder was played by a young Billy Corgan, and just adjacent to that was the rumor that Paul Pfeiffer, best friend of Kevin Arnold in The Wonder Years, was, in fact, a pre-growth spurt Marilyn Manson.
It turned out recently that Back To The Future auteur Robert Zemeckis had planted that hoverboard rumor, and, as anyone with access to IMDb can attest, neither the Smashing Pumpkins frontman nor Marilyn Manson had dabbled in nostalgia rock television in their freewheeling youths. At the time, there was no way to prove or disprove these myths without becoming cub reporters, calling production companies and agents to verify that these names in the credits were not pseudonyms for now-famous rock stars. That’s if we could find a channel rerunning Small Wonder at the time and if we believed conspiratorial agents who would have every reason to suppress the mascara-wearing musicians’ twee origins.
By contrast, most Millennials can easily verify or disprove any myth about a celebrity, right down to the size of their nipples, in many cases. I won’t say that it was a better, more magical world when it was up for debate whether or not Jerry Supiran was also Billy Corgan, and vice versa, but it was certainly easier to be wistfully, joyfully credulous—not out of ignorance, but from an unavailability of information.
I asked where she was when Kennedy was shot. She said, “Ted Kennedy was shot?” —When Harry Met Sally
The abbreviated Millennial generation slept and snotted their way through the Clinton era, woke up during 9/11, and struck out into the world of Obama’s America. They posted videos from Occupy Wall Street on YouTube, made their mixtapes on Spotify, and saw their first skin flick on PornHub without the squiggly lines of scrambled cable. They don’t remember a time when comic book movies meant Dolph Lundgren and David fucking Hasselhoff. Scott Pilgrim is a movie they watched; Scott Pilgrim is a series of books Generation Y lived.
It took fifteen minutes of looking at Millennials of New York before I could tell if it was a joke or not—it is, right?—so how could we be Millennials? As long as the children of the 80s are considered part of that generation, it’s as useless a designation as “Baby Boomer,” a marketing trick, a way for other people to define us, not for the first time but the second time. Sure, I can slide by as a Gen Xer, but at 1,600 words, I’m not disaffected enough to really qualify. So Generation Y it is,then: a transgenerational codicil to the era of X, the pre-cursor precursor to the Millennials, and the probable parents of the Latest Generation.
Patrick Hipp was the editor-in-chief of French Morning when this was published and is now unemployed, which is unrelated. He is the author of All The World Is Lost and runs Constant Readers with Andrea Hallowell*. He tweets as @thehipp.
* Andrea’s daughter once asked, “YOU DIDN’T HAVE IPADS? HOW DID YOU PLAY GAMES ON THE IPAD WITHOUT AN IPAD? DID YOU HAVE TOILET PAPER?” We did, Avery, but the ply technology was primitive as hell.
** Go ahead, make your own generational timeline. This shit is all made up anyway!
*** It’s worth mentioning that I have a manuscript about two crazy kids trying to date across this generational divide that’s READY TO GO.
**** Here are some articles people have been tweeting at me over the last week:
Generation Catalano by Doree Shafrir
The Oregon Trail Generation by Anna Garvey
This Generational Chart by a person or people