Three years ago, TIME magazine published a cover story called “The Me Me Me Generation—Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.” It was the print version of clickbait, designed to be devoured by TIME’s Baby Boomer base, or perhaps flipped through angrily by millennials killing time at TIME’s most reliable subscriber, the doctor’s office. That is, if the millennials in question were lucky enough to have health insurance, which roughly 23% did not at the time.
Of course, these kinds of inconvenient statistics did not make it into the piece. When TIME’s cover story was published, millennials were in the fourth year of the “jobless recovery,” facing high unemployment, mounting debt, and an eroded social safety net. And yet, with breathtaking cluelessness, TIME framed the millennials’ desperate search for stable work as a privileged character flaw—look at the kids too flaky to handle “choosing from a huge array of career options.”
Fast forward to 2016, and millennials are now valued as an electoral prize and a revenue source. Media coverage has adjusted accordingly. But the idea that today’s young people are narcissistic and lazy lingers just beneath the surface. Browsing through news articles, two parallel worlds of millennials emerge. The first is inhabited by overtly political youth advocating for controversial initiatives like campus safe spaces. The second is filled with young consumers who are happy and prosperous yet prefer style over stuff–which, upon closer examination, is a euphemistic way of saying they cannot afford to buy much stuff anyway.
These narratives are more nuanced than TIME’s ridiculous 2013 attempt to capture millennials, but they still fail to accurately portray the reality of young people’s lives. For one thing, most depictions fail to define the age bracket of the cohort and relate it to historical context. In this way, critics often end up repackaging millennials’ economic desperation as lifestyle choices, leading to a sort of generational gaslighting over what life in the new economy is really like.
Meanwhile, the shared experience of Americans who struggled as young adults in the aftermath of the Great Recession is played down in favor of trend pieces on the affectations of privileged youth or the phenomenon of “side hustles.” Analysts puzzle over why young Americans forgo things like banks and marriage and houses, and come up with answers like “preference for urban locations with lots of entertainment and lifestyle choices.”
Indeed, terms like “preference” and “choice” still dominate media coverage of millennials. But if anything holds this tenuously defined generation together, it is a lack of options. Americans who have lived much of their adult lives in the aftermath of the Great Recession have lower incomes, less mobility, and greater financial dependence on older relatives than any other generation in modern history. Many millennials do not have a lot of choice. They are merely reacting to lost opportunity.
Part of the confusion lies in the way we define generations in the US, a series of labels that are as unclear as they are inconsistent. Let’s start with a bit of history. “Generation X,” the generation that predates millennials, is a term coined by Douglas Coupland (born in 1961) to define people born in the 1960s and early 1970s. Gen Xers were young adults in 1990 when Coupland’s book, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, was published. Bizarrely, Americans who were children at the time of Coupland’s publication have now been assimilated into his generational cohort. Generation X has been redefined as Americans born roughly between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s.
“Millennials” have writers William Strauss and Neil Howe to thank for the label. This generation has also been defined inconsistently, with dates ranging between the late 1970s and 2000. The overlap between Gen X and millennials is a source of frustration for the overlapping group of Americans born between the late 1970s and the early 1980s, who have named themselves, in honor of their neglected relevance, things like “The Oregon Trail Generation” and “Generation Catalano.” The influential Pew Research Center draws the line at 1981, however, a standard that is most often applied by media outlets.
Nevertheless, there’s a good case to be made that even Pew’s generational labels should be abandoned. In a brilliant piece posted on Medium, “Fuck You, I’m not a Millennial”, Patrick Hipp makes the case for the return of the term “Gen Y,” once used to define those born between 1976-1990 who grew up “in tandem with the internet” and experienced the birth of digital culture as the institutions they grew up with crumbled around them.
Hipp’s generational breakdown makes sense because it defines generations in fourteen-year increments shaped by the ages of its cohorts at times of sweeping change, such as the advent of the internet or the terror attacks of 9/11. This model emphasizes how historical circumstances shape behavior and expectations—a nuance not present in sloppy coverage by the media. In 2014, The New York Times published a piece on a 37-year-old “millennial,” prompting Slate writer Amanda Hess to posit that “millennial” was Times code for “a few rich white people in New York doing something.” This theory seemed born out in fact in 2016, when Andrew Boryga’s Fusion piece on low-income youth of color noted that many had never even heard the word “millennial,” much less related to its popular characterization.
With all the confusion over and misrepresentations of younger generations, is it worth trying to define them at all? If recent events are any indication, the answer is yes—if defined correctly.
In the UK, an elderly generation of Brits have voted against the wishes of a majority of the country’s young people—most of whom voted to remain in the European Union. The inability of older generations to see how the economy has been fundamentally restructured since the Great Recession leads to short-sighted policies that young people, not boomers, will have to live with in the long run.
In the US election, both presumptive presidential candidates fall solidly into the Baby Boomer category. The eventual winner will help determine policies for American workers far younger than the candidates. Let’s hope that these policies are shaped by what young Americans’ lives are actually like, not by what older elites see on stereotypically “millennial” shows like Lena Dunham’s HBO hit “Girls” or read in trend pieces focusing on the idiosyncrasies of affluent youth.
For most Americans under 40, life since 2008 has been a struggle to survive. But it is worth noting that plenty of older Americans share the same struggles as their younger peers. Many older people laid off in the recession were unable to regain good jobs. There are plenty of older people with few retirement savings, with their finances drained from paying for both elderly parents and jobless children. We need to acknowledge the way our struggles are intertwined, instead of allowing the media to stoke manufactured class and generational resentment.
“Millennials” have become both a media scapegoat for, and a distraction from, widespread economic suffering. Having experienced no economy other than the recession’s false recovery, young Americans have arguably suffered the most. The remedy lies not in judging their lifestyle choices—or worse yet, perpetuating the illusion that they have money to burn—but by acknowledging the new economy for what it is: a structural crisis, one that future generations will share. Millennials keep getting older, but their problems stay the same age.