Wilfredo Lee/AP
Wilfredo Lee/AP

In defense of ‘millennial’

The clunky generational label is more useful than it appears

April 14, 2014 5:00AM ET

Late last year, web developer Zeke Weeks created a browser application that promised to block all references to “millennials” and replace them with “pesky whipper-snappers.” It hit enough of a nerve that Salon’s Prachi Gupta reported on it and wrote, “Regardless of what you think about millennials … we can probably all agree that the term ‘millennial’ is an annoying and overused buzzword that needs to go away forever.”

We can all agree? Demographers Neil Howe and William Strauss coined the term “millennial” in 1991 as part of a larger study on generational cycles. But in the last few years, its academic origins have been obscured by thinkpieces, meta-thinkpieces and asinine marketing advice. I recently watched a conversation on “millennial” unfold on a friend’s Facebook page; the term encountered significant resistance from people who saw it as cloying and insincere. If you twitch uncontrollably when you hear buzzwords like “innovative,” “disruptive” and “results-oriented,” there’s a good chance you’ve sworn off “millennial” too.

But to use a quintessentially millennial phrase, this strategy is an epic fail. Rather than scorn the term, it’s time to take back “millennial” and use it to our political advantage — as an organizing tool, not just a descriptive one. Doing this will require young people to make their peace with a term that many feel has been thrust upon them from above. (It’s easy to be skeptical when your elders’ attempts to sell you on their political agenda are so clumsy and condescending.) I’ve heard many of my peers question the usefulness of a generational frame in the first place. We’re the largest, most diverse generation in American history, and 20 years passed between the birth of the oldest and youngest among us; what could we all have in common with one another? The answer, it turns out, is quite a lot.  

The Fail Decade

Generational voting history. Source: Pew Research Center

Millennials, defined by Strauss and Howe as the generation born roughly from 1981 to 2000, came of age during what MSNBC’s Chris Hayes called “the Fail Decade” — a 10-year span filled with disasters in almost every major facet of American life. Two in particular shaped our generation’s consciousness. The first was a horrific terrorist attack, followed by a decade of poorly planned, nakedly deceitful wars. The second was the Great Recession, which has caused young people to enter the worst job market in decades and will almost certainly lead to depressed wages and personal financial instability for our entire adult lives. Wars and recessions certainly took place before, but they didn’t last as long as the ones unfolding as millennials came of age.  In other words, millenials grew up surrounded by failing institutions on all sides.

This shared trauma resulted in a clear political realignment. A new report from the Pew Research Center, “Millennials in Adulthood,” bears this out. Nineteen percent of millennials say that most people can be trusted, a full 12 percentage points below Generation X, the next-least-trusting generation. Millennials are isolated from institutions, with 29 percent religiously unaffiliated and 50 percent identifying as political independents — higher numbers than for any other generation. Mike Hais and Morley Winograd, demographers who study millennials and their voting behavior, pointed out that “once people have voted for one or the other of the parties a couple of times during their politically formative years, they usually vote for that party for the rest of their lives.”

Political independents. Source: Pew Research Center

If this pattern holds, on the basis of their voting data from 2008, 2010, and 2012, millennials are likely to remain relatively liberal throughout their adult lives. But kinship with an ideology is not the same as membership in a party, and it seems fair to predict that millennials’ widespread distrust of political institutions will lead many of them to refrain from registering with either major party.

Now that nearly every form of institutional authority — religion, government, the financial sector, higher education — has been discredited along with the two major political parties, millennials are left with few resources to form ties of identity and solidarity. What remains, in short, is our fellow millennials. Former Sen. Alan Simpson once suggested that nothing would change until someone could walk into his office and say, “I’m from the American Association of Young People. We have 30 million members, and we’re watching you, Simpson.” But “youth” is a slippery thing to organize around, because at a certain point everybody stops being young. It doesn’t help that the average age is 57 in the House of Representatives and 63 in the Senate. We have the uniqueness of our historical and economic experience, and we’d be crazy not to use it.

Starting point

One starting point for organization — an issue that’s conducive to both raising awareness and demanding real policy changes — is debt. Millennials are the best-educated generation in U.S. history, partially because getting a bachelor’s degree has become a requirement for many jobs that don’t actually require college-level skills. Having to pay for all this has reduced millennials to a state of permanent indebtedness, totaling over $1 trillion as of late 2011. Imaginative solutions to this problem include Strike Debt’s Rolling Jubilee, a project that buys debt for pennies on the dollar and then eliminates it. Those on the right, who often express concern about the national debt, have started organizations such as The Can Kicks Back, which is linked to the pro-austerity Fix the Debt campaign and treats the debt and deficit as explicitly millennial issues — in their own words, as instruments of generational warfare.

In addition to organizations focused on debt, we are seeing the beginning of concerted efforts to improve young people’s job security and wage situations. Groups like Intern Labor Rights devote their energy to fighting the intern economy, which many millennials are expected to spend years in before they can get paid to work. (This is to say nothing of those who suffer the most from unpaid internships: people who are never interns because they can’t afford to work for free.) Writers such as Sarah Jaffe have done persuasive work on the so-called end of jobs, in which stable, long-term work has given way to an economy driven by cheap, precarious and often contracted labor. This trend has affected Americans of all age groups, and in fact there’s a good case to be made that the sudden loss of wages and pensions makes it even more acute for older Americans. But millennials are the first generation since the Depression that has entered the adult world only to be immediately greeted with the prospect of depressed wages and limited opportunity for as far as the eye can see.

With all that’s stacked against us, it seems petty to take issue with the word “millennial” just because it’s become the New York Times’ go-to topic for thinkpieces. It’s a useful moniker because of what it references: the new millennium, specifically the first 10 years of it. Sure, we could call ourselves “Generation Y,” as if we were the natural progression from Generation X. The Youngist, an online magazine that recently relaunched, has adopted the term “Generation Screwed.” I’ve heard “the Digital Generation” thrown around. But really, every generation from now on will be a digital generation. There won’t be another decade like the Fail Decade.

I can understand why young people might be hesitant to embrace “millennial” fully. It’s not one of our choosing. It’s been used in a few too many hackneyed PR campaigns and clueless lifestyle articles. Those writers who have tried to deploy it seriously have often done so in an attempt to portray millions of young people as narcissistic, selfie-snapping dilettantes. But if Joel Stein and Jennifer Graham choose to use “millennial” in this way, that is their problem, not ours. The word, for better worse, is here, and it’s not going anywhere. If we don’t use it, the people who do will almost certainly end up using us.

Jordan Fraade is pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. His writing on urban policy issues has been featured by Next City, Gothamist, The Baffler and CityLab.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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