We live in an age of ceaseless generational analysis. Among certain classes, especially business elites, it is considered a sign of profound insight to speak only in terms of youth and its consumer preferences. The jargon once endemic to Ad Age (which coined the term “Generation Y”) now peppers style sections and business books, earnest organizing meetings and talk shows, such that no one of any age can open a newspaper or a website without reading about the “millennials” — people born between 1982 and 2004 — and their doings, interests, and needs.
It seems not to matter to the proliferation of writing about millennials that so much of it has been internally contradictory. In the year 2000, the sinister David Brooks said that stats suggested the boomers were raising friendly, sociable, and altruistic kids. In 2012, Jean Twenge at the Atlantic retaliated with fresh stats that revealed them to be inveterate narcissists profoundly uninterested in social problems. “Politicians: Millennials Won’t Vote Because They Hate You” declaimed Bloomberg, prompting an older Huffington Post correspondent to wonder ruefully, “Millennials: Why Do They Hate Us?” All this despite evidence that millennials vote in the same numbers as young people of previous generations. Millennials, according to Business Insider, are disaffected with workplace authority and value flexibility, but an IBM study written up in the Washington Post suggests that in this respect, too, millennials are indistinguishable from other generations. Reading around, you can form a picture of millennials either as great disrupters, creating massive discontinuities in civilization, or as essentially the same as everyone else. In this way generational analysis resembles astrology: ascribe any quality to a certain sign and your claims are guaranteed to be neither true nor false.
It’s easy, of course, to make fun of generational analysis. For many years generations have been the favored category of social pseudoscientists, not to mention marketing gurus and breathless lifestyle journalists. But much of the oxymoronic character of millennial-speak derives from its pairing claims to statistical rigor with an utterly unscientific fondness for making wild predictions. Behind this is a confusion of logic, according to which the present desires of humans create the future: once you know what young people want, you know what tomorrow will be like (and how to make a buck off it). Institutions, classes, and environments play hardly any role in this view. One influential example is Richard Florida’s theory of the “creative class,” which imagined the salvation of postindustrial cities resulting from young people choosing to live in them. If millennials like cities, the thinking went, then cities will be rejuvenated. In 2012, Florida sheepishly qualified some points of this theory in a new introduction to 2002’s The Rise of the Creative Class, but his original thesis was so persuasive that it’s still regarded as common knowledge. Meanwhile, the cities that banked on this kind of thinking, like St. Louis or Baltimore, have foundered spectacularly.
The abundance of such lazy analysis may seem reason enough to dismiss “generations” as a meaningful tool for understanding history. What are generations, one might say, but an ingenious marketing rubric we have come to treat as natural? But the fact remains that generations capture everyday divides that everyone recognizes intuitively. People are born into spans of time, into worlds that precede them and survive them. If it makes sense to segment history into periods, it follows that those periods have something to do with the people growing up and dying within them. Edmund Wilson plausibly referred to the “generation” that made the Russian Revolution in To the Finland Station, and it was broadly true, in 1961, that a “new generation of Americans” — “tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace” — were more vocal than the “silent” group that preceded them. The Chinese born into the waning years of the disastrous Cultural Revolution shared an urge to question their government, and today’s millennials, innocent of cold war–era hysterics, find fewer toxic clouds trailing the word socialism. Though one can’t predict the future from these data, it does make sense to consider generations when thinking of how social change takes place. Generations seem to do something, but it’s not clear what or how.
How useful is generational analysis, then? Traces of its utility were first identified in 1927 by the sociologist Karl Mannheim, whose essay “The Problem of Generations” remains the best account of its virtues. For Mannheim, a generation was something like a social class: an objective, structuring social fact. If the objective aspects of class were economic, those of generations were biological. But it would be a mistake, Mannheim argued, to attempt to deduce from the cyclical facts of birth and death the very “secret of history,” as many positivist thinkers of his time did (and as business types do today). The subjective experience of a generation would also be important, as well as variable and unpredictable. Instead of thinking in terms of generational cycles as naturally important, Mannheim imagined how a particular generation could come to be important.
Much of Mannheim’s focus fell on the importance of “youth” in the analysis of generations. In stable communities (such as the European peasantry of the Middle Ages), youth is a simple biological distinction — the quality of being not yet old. But in times of social instability, youth becomes a source of difficulty, a problem. Mannheim was thinking of revolutionary eras, such as the early 19th century, when the movement from countryside to city was accelerating, and the status society of the restored monarchies was buffeted by a nascent bourgeoisie. It was a classic moment when the young people of a certain period became (in Mannheim’s terminology) an “actual generation”: “We shall therefore speak of a generation as an actuality only when a concrete bond is created between members of a generation by their being exposed to the social and intellectual symptoms of a process of dynamic de-stabilization.” Generations tend to get made by the people in them and by the times they live in when a span of time is felt by a biological cohort as one of crisis.
But millennials grew up not self-making but defined and redefined by people several decades older. When the term was coined in 1991 by demographers William Strauss and Neil Howe, a great deal of hope was placed in millennials (the oldest of whom were around 8, and not especially responsive to polls). Nurtured by caring parents, Strauss and Howe argued, this new generation would be civic-minded and ethical. Not only would they be less interested in TV than their parents, but “what programs Millennials do watch will be sanitized and laden with moral lessons.” This hopeful portrait was a reaction to its time. It was the close of the Reagan era, when the once socially minded boomers were seen (even by themselves) as having become irremediable narcissists, and twentysomethings were portrayed as Patrick Bateman–type sociopaths. A crazy messianism attached itself to the youth: millennials were going to save this involutionary, belligerent, and vacuous country from itself. And in the years that followed, proliferating urban farms and community-supported agriculture and bike-shares — all faithfully chronicled in GOOD, the echt-millennial, nonprofit-loving magazine of the larger, for-profit Good Worldwide Inc. — began, if you squinted and cherry-picked, to prove the point. The religious fervor peaked with the election of Obama in 2008 — proof, it seemed, that millennials would change the world (66 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds who voted voted for Obama, though nearly half that group declined to vote at all).
Subsequently, the narrative changed. As the economy went into free fall, the fascination with millennials reached a new intensity, and the think pieces proliferated. And, increasingly, the think pieces disagreed. Who are the millennials, and how do we explain their behavior? What do they stand for? (As if 100 million people ever stood for a uniform thing.) The answers differed greatly depending on the writer and the poll, but the pitch of anxiety was constant. Much of the obsession came from the business world — from the older, wealthy, mostly white decision makers who longed for a master key to understanding the needs and attitudes of the young people who would make and consume their products. For their analysis, these businessfolk looked to the major media institutions — which, racked by the recession, in a panic to figure out the internet, and acutely aware that no one under 90 read the newspaper, were themselves obsessed with what young people wanted. So the papers and magazines catered to their loyal readership — wealthy older people — by feeding them piece after piece about millennials, who seemed less promising than they once had.
In 2010, parents across America emailed the New York Times Magazine article “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” to the adult children living in their basements. “The question pops up everywhere,” the article went, “underlying concerns about ‘failure to launch’ and ‘boomerang kids.’ . . . It’s happening all over, in all sorts of families, not just young people moving back home but also young people taking longer to reach adulthood overall. It’s a development that predates the current economic doldrums, and” — here things get serious — “no one knows yet what the impact will be — on the prospects of the young men and women; on the parents on whom so many of them depend; on society, built on the expectation of an orderly progression in which kids finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and eventually retire to live on pensions supported by the next crop of kids.” Meanwhile, millennials were looking up pension in the dictionary. In 2012, a record 21.6 million adults between 18 and 31 lived with their parents, prompting almost that many essays about the millennial crisis. (“It’s Official: The Boomerang Kids Won’t Leave,” the Times Magazine confirmed in 2014.)
Of course the kids stay home because they can’t get jobs that pay rent. But the function of millennial-speak is to disguise structural causes (the lack of jobs) as human desires (the kids want to stay home), and to justify further measures (make hiring and firing easier) in terms of those desires. This is why millennials are constantly figured as happily zigzagging from job to job, fleeing long-term employment, luxuriating in the intense anxiety of a precariousness said to be uniquely theirs. If they (we?) don’t like a job, what use is there in organizing or demanding more from it? Just quit and move on, we’re told, and so we tell ourselves the same. (Another paradoxical statistic: a majority of millennials look fondly on unions, but are also less likely than previous generations to join or form one.) Having been told for decades that they are creative snowflakes, “knowledge workers” laboring in a new kind of capitalism, younger cohorts have been encouraged to recognize themselves as operating in a wholly different, less fair economy than that of their parents — which is one way of ensuring that such an economy actually comes into being. In this way articles that worry over the socialization of millennials function as a way of socializing them into an unequal society.
This self-fulfilling prophecy has turned out to be tremendously useful to ruling classes who find the remaining institutions of the welfare state frustrating. Because, after all, it’s not just executives who dislike the strictures of seniority and job security, they can explain—it’s also the millennials, who crave freedom and flexibility. An incomplete and accordingly corrosive image of society has developed out of this analysis, in which a class conflict gets portrayed as a war between the generations: everywhere the image of the autonomous, free-spirited millennial is being deployed against the geriatric, self-protective boomer. If teachers’ unions’ work protects seniority, this is said to hamper the desire of young teachers to flit in and out of jobs; meanwhile, it licenses charter school expansion. If older Greek or Italian workers protect job security, this is said to hamper the ability of the young to find work—and therefore justifies the expansion of contract and part-time work. Across Europe and the US today, the benefits fought for by older workers — especially in the public sector — have been represented as “unfair” to the youth, and the young are being mobilized against labor protections that they themselves have been taught not to hope for. What is taking place is a great expropriation of the futures of young and old, the roots of which are deeper and older than we are permitted to believe. Calling it a generation gap only swells the chasm opening up beneath our feet.