I remember the first time I ever heard the term “millennial.” I was 25 years old, the youngest member of my organization’s 30-person management team. I sat through a presentation where I heard about how everyone my age had helicopter parents (while my brother and I helped our mother and father recover from drug addictions), that I and my fellow millennials were generally unambitious (while I attended grad school at night while working full-time) and that I wasn’t likely to marry or have children anytime soon (while my wife and I raised our two children).
Over the past 12 years, the discussion about millennials has barely changed. What was once a term for a defined cohort of people became a derogatory label describing hypothetical 23-year-olds earlier generations neither understand nor like–and in the meantime became a cliché that made most people (myself included) hate the term.
Hopefully that will change after the Pew Research Center, one of the most respected research organizations in the world, settled on defined birth years for America’s largest and most maligned generation. According to Pew’s announcement, the organization will use the years 1981-1996 when conducting millennial-related research.
What do those years mean?
If you were born anytime between 1981-1988, you will be at least 30 years old in 2018. The average age for first-time fathers in the United States is 30. The average age for first-time mothers is 26. In other words, when we are talking about millennials, we aren’t just talking about 25-year-olds returning to their parents’ house after graduating college. Instead, we are often talking about married parents with very adult responsibilities.
Being born in 1981, I am a millennial. I have three kids, including an 18-year-old. That is rare, but rare or not, I am a millennial with an adult child. The age of my oldest child might make me demographically abnormal, but in my office there are 15 employees. Five of those are employees are millennials. Combined we have 13 children.
Why hasn’t the discussion around millennials evolved?
Partly because denigrating participation trophies is easy. You can do it in 140 characters. You can make a meme out of it. Hurling insults is easy and doesn’t require a lot of critical thinking. On the other hand, having a nuanced discussion of the challenges facing 35-year-old parents doesn’t lend itself to soundbites, clichés, or lazy insults.
You just can’t make a witty meme about stagnating wages and a crumbling healthcare system.
The more-than-decade-old focus on millennials also gave rise to a literal army of “generational consultants” peddling little more than snake oil and outright nonsense. If we were to treat millennials as actual people with complicated adult concerns, the need for these consultants would plummet.
Unfortunately, now we hear this same group of consultants talking about Generation Z as the really different generation. According to these consultants, this new generation will be even more outside of the box than millennials are. Of course, they say this without the slightest bit of shame, perfectly fine with the knowledge that it’s the same thing they said about previous generations.
Millennials are shaped by the world they live in, just like every other generation. The majority entered adulthood between 9/11 and the Great Recession. If we want to truly understand how those events helped shape millions of people–just the way the Great Depression and the Vietnam War shaped prior generations–then we must move beyond clichés, stereotypes, and mindless consultant drivel to a real discussion based on data, nuance, and reality.
Hopefully Pew’s decision will help us move toward that real discussion.