So, millennial, huh? Is that the term we're running with? That's how we're branding an entire generation? I guess it's better than Gen Y, which is just a lazy continuation of the Gen X delegation without any of its poignancy or charm.
On second thought — based on how the millennial generation has been stereotyped by baby boomers, Gen Y might just be a better fit.
But let’s be honest, no one really knows how to define “millennial.”
Soren Kierkegaard said, “If you label me, you negate me.” But a quick look at the names of former generations will provide at least general insight into the broad nature of their unique experience. They can operate objectively to a certain degree, in as much as you could objectify millions of people at once, or should objectify anyone at all (see: Kierkegaard).
Here’s a brief, chronological run-down of the generations since we’ve felt a sociological need to label them.
The lost generation came of age during World War I, the first major industrial war that shocked the world. Technological advancements in weaponry had made these battles more deadly than anyone could have imagined and left an entire continent in a five-year deadlock where land acquisitions were measured in hundreds of yards.
No wonder this generation grew disaffected and spent the 1920s fox-trotting, writing existentialist literature and drinking bathtub highballs.
The greatest generation fought Hitler in World War II and was obviously tough as nails. Writer Kurt Vonnegut, a veteran of the war who survived the bombing of Dresden by taking shelter in a slaughterhouse, once quipped that he smoked Pall Mall cigarettes because they were a “classy way to commit suicide.”
Pad your playgrounds with that sentiment, baby boomers.
The silent generation: Omitted for their avid support of the status quo.
Baby boomers were appropriately named for the spike in the birthing rate post-World War II. The first generational enigma, they were active in progressive social change during the late 1960s and ‘70s before shifting to more conservative values during Ronald Reagan's tenure as president.
A baby boomer family member once recounted to me a Winston Churchill quote: “If you're not a liberal at 20, you have no heart; if you're not a conservative at 40, you have no brain.”
The phrase Generation X originated in the 1950s, but was applied to the generation born between The Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and Star Wars: A New Hope’s theatrical release. The name might be more abstract than the previous generation’s, but might be the most apt.
The title conjures up thoughts of Malcolm X, who applied an X in place of a last name, as he felt he had no identity. That’s not to say Generation X has a cultural identity as violently marginalized as Malcolm X’s, but as the generation to witness the advent of true, disposable mass media and mass production, it was the first generation to hang its identity on the televised pop-culture as we know it today.
What resulted was cultural ennui cemented into the collective conscious by figures like Kurt Cobain and Ben Stiller’s 1994 film Reality Bites. Stiller’s 1996 follow-up, the misunderstood and underappreciated Cable Guy, focuses on the titular, nameless character raised on television and the effect it has on his adult life.
Which brings us to millennials and why that title just doesn’t work for me. There’s too much subjectivity for the title to really have any weight. All “millennial” asserts is that the generation just happened to be born at a certain time — it’s light-years away from having the cultural significance of being born as a result of economic prosperity, for instance.
So, I propose something else entirely.
In 2004, American Sociologist Kathleen Shaputis labeled millennials as “The Peter Pan generation”to signify the generation’s perceived tendency to delay certain aspects of adulthood. The economy and housing market have in fact led to millennials living with their parents longer than previous generations.
So I, for one, am all for this delegation. Call me a “lost boy” — at least it’s something I can identify with. Millennial is just too subjective. You ask a baby boomer about millennials and he’ll probably offer some perspective on how we’re lazy, don’t want to work and how we should get together and pull ourselves up by our collective boot straps.
And a millennial might evoke The Big Lebowski’s The Dude and suggest, “That’s just, like, your opinion, man.”
Still, the Peter Pan generation is much more apt and far more meaningful. Sure, we as a generation are still clinging to our childhood, but is that such a bad thing? For one, it’s spurred a nostalgia economy, generating click-bait articles like “31 Things That Will Make You Feel Old” and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboots.
But most of all, our connection to our childhood has kept us empathetic. In 1986, right in the middle of the millennial boom, Robert Fulghum released his book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. More socially conscious than boomers give us credit for, these childhood lessons still linger in our political thought: Share everything; don’t hit people; play fair.
These ideas are echoed in the emerging startup culture that the millennial minds continue to shape.
Millennials are still realistic about the requirements of adulthood, but we’ve grown to acknowledge that growing up doesn’t necessarily mean rejecting the excitement and wonder of childhood.
Like Robin Williams’ Peter Pan in Hook — eloquently portrayed by the most idolized quintessential adult-child — we’re finding our various life stages just might even complement one another.