I have no business writing anything about Americans who are currently in their teens and early 20s. Nobody does, except maybe their parents. And yet... journalists, marketing consultants, and pop demographers alike have long been fascinated by the ethical, sweet-natured, hard-working, thrifty, and public-spirited Millennials. So here's my take on this admirable generation. Millennial readers, I hope to hear from you.
BRAINIAC'S GUIDE TO AMERICA'S RECENT GENERATIONS
Lost Generation The New Kids
Lost Generation Hardboiled Generation
The Greatest Generation Partisans
The Greatest Generation The New Gods
The Silent Generation Postmodernist Generation
The Silent Generation Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation
1944-53: Baby Boomers
Baby Boomers OGX (Original Generation X)
Generation X PC Generation
Generations X/Y Net Generation
Please credit Brainiac/Joshua Glenn whenever you use this guide. Got a beef with my periodization, or different generational name suggestions? Leave a comment on this post or email me. Born between 1954 and 1993 and still unsure about whether you're a Boomer, Xer, Yer, or Millennial? Here's a handy guide.
WHO ARE THE MILLENNIALS?
Accounts differ! Like the PCers, who were lumped in with younger OGXers and called "twentysomethings," then lumped in with older Netters and called "Generation X," Millennials are -- pop-demographically speaking -- an overdetermined generation.
According to the consumer research outfit Iconoculture, for example, Millennials are those Americans who were 29 and under in 2007; this suggests that the first Millennials were born in 1978. Newsweek, meanwhile, has described the Millennials as those Americans born between 1977 and 1994. And The New York Times, which prefers the term "Generation Y," when describing non-Xers, can't decide: Yers are "the young people between 10 and 24 who are the children of baby boomers," according to a 2000 story in that paper; this suggests that Yers were born from 1976-90. But a Times story published the previous year described Yers as having been born from 1978-98; while another 1999 Times story agreed that Yers were "born mostly in the 1980s and 1990s." All of these accounts mistakenly lump younger Netters (1974-83) in with older Millennials. So forget what you've heard about Generation Y; there's no such thing.
Do Millennials exist, then? Yes, and for once the influential pop demographers Neil Howe and William Strauss almost got something exactly right. In their 2000 bestseller "Millennials Rising," they claimed that Millennials were born in or after 1982. (They had to pick 1982, in order to have the first-born Millennials graduate in the year 2000; see how cheesy these guys are?) In fact, Millennials were born between 1984 and 1993; this year (2008), the oldest of them will turn 24, and the youngest 15. They're in middle school, high school, and college; their adult accomplishments are nil. And yet we've heard a lot about their collective character, already. But first, let's survey the data, shall we?
Millennials have come of age during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. The September 11, 2001 attacks preceded the war in Afghanistan and the Iraq War. The New Economy boomed and went bust. Broadband Internet, mobile phones, digital cameras, MP3 players, email, and the management of one's social life via networking software ceased to be luxuries and became necessities for younger Americans.
Millennial pop stars and rock bands include: Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Avril Lavigne, Ashlee Simpson, Chris Brown, T-Pain, Fall Out Boy, Panic at the Disco; from England, meanwhile, hail Arctic Monkeys, Lily Allen, and Kate Nash. Starting in 2006, tween pop acts like the Jonas Brothers started to enter the mainstream from Radio Disney; however, during the 2000s, hip hop surpassed rock as the most popular musical genre with American youth. Blockbuster movies have included: "The Lord of the Rings" series, the "Harry Potter" series, and computer-animated films such as "Shrek" and "The Incredibles." Videogames like "Guitar Hero," "Rockband," "Grand Theft Auto," "Halo," and "Madden" dominated. Downloading ringtones became a multibillion-dollar business.
I'm sure I'm leaving out one or two things, but let's move on. Who are the Millennials?
THEY'RE GOOD KIDS
Millennials aren't good kids. They're terrific kids. By all accounts, they're trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. If their elders are to be believed, Millennials are throwbacks to the idealized youth one saw in movies and on TV in the Fifties; they're a hipper (though not edgier) real-life version of the Mouseketeers, the Hardy Boys, or the children on "Father's Knows Best," "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet," and "Leave It To Beaver."
Is all this just their parents' fantasy? If so, it's a fantasy that appeals to youth, too: You've seen Millennial actors portraying midcentury teens and children in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," while the "Harry Potter" and "Lemony Snicket" movies might as well have been filmed in the Fifties. Also: In the 2007 version of "Nancy Drew," Emma Roberts plays Nancy as a Fifties-type adolescent heroine who finds herself in the new millennium... and doesn't approve of what her elders have done with the place.
Why shouldn't Millennials be good kids? Their awesome Boomer and OGXer parents were and are obsessed with "parenting." Throughout their formative years, Millennials' moms tirelessly carpooled them to practices and games, not to mention the community service projects that became para-mandatory for American youth around that time. In the early 2000s, college administrators began to complain about "helicopter parents," who stay in close touch with Millennial undergrads via cellphone, visit campus every weekend, and run interference for them with the administration. ("Black Hawks" is what we call those those parents who cross the line -- for example, by writing their children's college application essays for them.) Last year, USA Today reported that the parents of older Millennials have even taken to calling businesses to negotiate internships and jobs on behalf of their children.
In addition to acting as their kids' HR department, the Millennials' parents never tire of doing PR on their progeny's behalf. "Meet the Millennials, and rejoice," wrote Anna Quindlen in the millennial (January 1, 2000) issue of Newsweek. "My three are simply better than I was at their age," she kvelled. "They are more interesting, more confident, less hidebound and uptight, better educated, more creative and, in some essential fashion, unafraid." Howe and Strauss went farther, claiming that the Millennials "are on track to become a powerhouse generation, full of technology planners, community shapers, instition builders, and world leaders... Indeed, Millennials have a solid chance to become America's next great generation." High praise indeed, coming from Boomers.
My favorite Millennial actor is Michael Cera, from "Arrested Development," "Superbad," and "Juno." He's perfected the art of pushing the good-kid stereotype to its limit (on "Arrested Development," he'd study math behind his father's back), thereby revealing it as an absurd ideal. Why should we want young Americans to be so damn good?
Isn't it weird that Millennials remain so close to their parents, throughout adolescence, teenagedom, and young adulthood? I certainly think so -- but then, my own (Anti-Anti-Utopian) parents, though exemplary as far as I'm concerned, were never this attentive. They seemed to have better things to do than drive me to soccer (or anywhere else), or do my laundry when I was in college. So what do I know? Maybe I'm just jealous.
THEY'RE LITTLE ADULTS
Speaking of the
Greatest Generation New Gods, one hears that Millennials subscribe to an ideology that has been dubbed the New Propriety; it emphasizes Fifties-style values like security, stability, and family. In 1999, the neoconservative author Wendy Shalit tried to sell this sort of thing to her Netter peers, but her book "A Return to Modesty" was only read by disapproving Boomer feminists. Shalit fell off the radar for a while, but now she's back, pitching the New Propriety to Millennials: In 2005, she founded Modesty Zone, an online community for "good girls in hiding"; and last year she published a new book, "Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect." Hey, one more try can't hurt, right?
Adolescents of the previous few generations were either prematurely grown-up (cynical OGXer Brat Packers, hyper-articulate Netters), or else they refused ever to stop being adolescents ("rejuvenile" PCers). Millennial adolescents were and are something new: "tweens." A portmanteau of "between" and "teen" adopted in the Nineties by marketers, the term refers to children between the ages of 8 and 14 who demand (and are granted) the privileges of teendom without its responsibilities or anxieties. They own cellphones, video games, and iPods; they have access to the Internet and email, and they shop online. Never has this age group exercised so much influence over a family's purchases.
''The message this group is receiving is that the country is in great shape,'' the director of syndicated research for Teen-Age Research Unlimited told the Times in 1998. "The economy is not an issue for their parents, so therefore it is not an issue for them. They are not being told no as much as Generation X was.'' That same year, Charles McGrath wrote an essay that accompanied a Times Magazine photo essay about America's 13-year-olds (born in 1984-85, and therefore the first Millennials). "These kids are still recognizably children, even as they are also premature grown-ups," according to McGrath. "Sometimes they're both at once -- children trying to act grown-up -- and sometimes you sense a younger self clinging forlornly to an older one."
This talk of premature sophistication raises a red flag. Are female Millennials a bunch of sexed-up Lolitas? Doesn't seem that way. Though casting agents may have forced some of the first-born Millennials -- Scarlett Johansson, Mischa Barton -- into the sexed-up mold of their immediate elders (e.g., Natalie Portman and Anna Paquin), for the most part teenage Millennial starlets seem no more sexed-up than, er, Annette Funicello was. Which is to say, their sexiness appears wholesome and... mild, as Wendy Shalit puts it. One thinks, for example, of wholesome yet incredibly successful gals like Hilary Duff, Amanda Bynes, Miley Cyrus, even (as far as I know) the Olsen Twins.
All this talk of Annette Funicello and Disney reminds me that "Disneyfied" is -- to those of us who grew up in the years between Walt's death and, say, Jeffrey Katzenberg's departure as studio head at Disney (i.e., 1967-94) -- an insult. Millennials have come of age in an era during which Disneyfication, the process of appropriating a fairy tale or national culture or real-world locale and repackaging it in a sanitized and commodified (I'm trying to say: lame) format, spread beyond the confines of Disney's studio and theme parks into what was once known as the real world. In the 1980s, Jean Baudrillard was fond of using Disneyland as an example of a simulation that had come to "precede" (trump) that which it simulated, i.e., America. And in 1992, a coalition of city government and local businesses started sanitizing that city's Times Square by driving out the peepshows and squeegee men, and installing a flagship Disney Store, among other wholesome attractions palatable to the fannypacker crowd, in their place.
Beginning in 1984, the very year that the first Millennial was born, Disney -- which had fallen out of favor with the Millennials' elders -- began to regain its Fifties-style grip on the imaginations of American children. The Disney Channel was launched in 1983, and the following year it debuted programs that have forever warped the minds of Millennials (and younger Netters). The sitcom-cum-music-video "Kids Incorporated" gave the world Fergie and Jennifer Love Hewitt; and "The All-New Mickey Mouse Club" gave us Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake. These Netters haven't turned out so squeaky clean, but who could possibly complain about the adorable stars of Disney Channel shows like "Even Stevens" (Christy Carlson Romano and Shia LaBeouf), "Lizzie McGuire" (Hilary Duff), "That's So Raven" (Raven-Symoné), "Hannah Montana" (Miley Cyrus), "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody" (Cole and Dylan Sprouse), not to mention the Disney Channel Original Movie "High School Musical" (Zac Efron,
Vanessa Anne Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale)? Nickelodeon also launched a few Millennial celebrities, thanks to "Drake & Josh" (Drake Bell and Josh Peck), "The Amanda Show" (Amanda Bynes), and "Zoey 101" ( Jamie Lynn Spears).
A note on "High School Musical": It's a remake of "Grease," which was set in the Fifties. But "Grease" (I can't believe I'm writing this) was edgy; at least, in comparison. Sure, "High School Musical" is multicultural in a no-big-deal way. But there are no greasers! The greaser worldview -- opposed to jocks and grinds alike -- is nowhere in evidence.
No one has worked harder than Disney to encourage American adolescent girls to fantasize about being princesses; this is old news. But has any generation of adolescent and teen actresses had so many opportunities to portray princesses? I'm thinking of Lindsay Lohan ("Lifesize," in which a princess doll comes to life), Kiera Knightley ("Princess of Thieves," "King Arthur," plus every other role), Mandy Moore (supporting role in "The Princess Diaries"), Hilary Duff ("A Cinderella Story," plus she's sort of a princess in "Material Girls" and "The Lizzie McGuire Movie"), Amanda Bynes ("What A Girl Wants," also sort of a princess), Scarlett Johansson ("The Other Boleyn Girl"), and Michelle Trachtenberg ("Ice Princess"). Plus India Oxenberg on the reality show "I Married a Princess." The princess thing is bigger than that, though. Globe film critic Ty Burr, father of 11- and 13-year-old daughters, recently pointed out that
the most successful TV shows aimed at young girls today push the personal-celebrity meme with a vengeance: Nickelodeon's "iCarly" is about a schoolgirl with a globally popular website, and in the omnipresent, omnipotent "Hannah Montana," Miley Cyrus plays an average kid by day who's a rock 'n' roll superstar by night. For millions of tweenage girls singing into their hairbrushes in front of mirrors, this isn't fantasy - it's their inner lives sold like shirts at Delia's.
Of course, Netters have also been called a Disneyfied generation. Comparing younger Netters to adolescents of the Fifties in a much-discussed 1997 New York Times trend piece about Generation Y, Linda Lee wrote that "idoldom itself has moved front and center in the culture, in a way not seen since the youthquake triggered by the baby boom in the '50s and '60s." "At the core of pop culture these days we find Mentos, 'Goosebumps,' and Hanson," Douglas Coupland told Lee -- which is to say, unlike OGXers and PCers, Gen Yers seemed like shiny, happy people.
But there's no such thing as Generation Y, as a 15-year-old reader explained to the Times in a follow-up letter. "The people you described remind me not of myself, but of my 10-year-old sister.... I have never eaten a Mento, nor have I ever read a Goosebumps book. And I would turn off a Hanson CD faster than you can say 'MMMbop.'" Never mind that he misunderstood the "Mentos" putdown (Coupland was surely referring to the hip-yet-edgeless Mentos commercials, not the candy itself), this kid was right on target. His sister, born in 1987, is a Millennial; he is a Netter. Although Netters are better adjusted than PCers or OGXers, they didn't have their rough edges smoothed out. Millennials, though... Well, we PCers and Netters long to rough them up, it seems. Isn't that the heart-warming premise of "The School of Rock"?
Let's leave it at that, for now. Meet the Millennials! Please note that late-born Millennials are still adolescents; there aren't very many celebrities among them, yet.
1984: Scarlett Johansson, Mandy Moore, Patrick Stump, America Ferrera, Eva Marcille, Katharine McPhee, Dana Davis, Chris Marquette, Anna Nalick, Nick Lazzarini, Ashlee Simpson, Omarion, Kelli Garner, Martha MacIsaac, Joe Trohman, Lucas Grabeel, Adam Lamberg, Fantasia Barrino, Matt Mullenweg, Taylor Cole, Naima Mora, Tyson Ritter, Benji Schwimmer, Jena Malone, Gabrielle Christian, Rob Brown, Christy Carlson Romano, Todd Bosley, Paul Dano, Amanda Hearst, Liesel Matthews, Noah Fleiss, Melody Thornton. Elsewhere: Avril Lavigne, Prince Harry, Karolina Kurkova, Lena Katina, Anneliese van der Pol, Kelly Osbourne, Adina Fohlin, Ai Tominaga, Chiaki Kuriyama, Dave Moffatt, Kyle Schmid, Delta Goodrem, Elizabeth Jagger, Laura Vandervoort, Michelle Ryan, Nikki Sanderson.
1985: Frankie Muniz, Dan Byrd, Raven-Symoné, Ashley Tisdale, Michelle Trachtenberg, Zac Hanson, Drew Sidora, David Gallagher, Amanda Seyfried, Raz B, Haylie Duff, Edwin Hodge, Elias McConnell, John Francis Daley, Jennifer Freeman, John Robinson, Porscha Coleman, Dani Evans, Jessica Szohr, CariDee English, Ally Hilfiger, Lauren C. Mayhew, Anna Kendrick, Julia Whelan, Chace Crawford. Elsewhere: Keira Knightley, Jack Osbourne, Lily Allen, Yulia Volkova, Douglas Smith, Isabel Lucas, Vanessa Lengies, Tom Fletcher, Charlie Simpson, Doutzen Kroes, Sasha Pivovarova.
1986: Lindsay Lohan, Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Fuller Olsen, Shia LaBeouf, Amanda Bynes, Shaun White, Kellie Pickler, Megan Fox, Emmy Rossum, Drake Bell, Josh Peck, Ashley Alexandra Dupre ("Kristen"), Solange Knowles, Nicole Linkletter, Saleisha Stowers, Emily VanCamp, Leighton Meester, Mandy Musgrave, Penn Badgley, Brittany Snow, Camilla Belle, Ryan Ross. Elsewhere: Mischa Barton, Jaslene Gonzalez, Alexz Johnson, Charlotte Church, Abigail Clancy, Danny Jones, Jessica Stam, Raviv Ullman.
1987: Zac Efron, Hilary Duff, Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood, Jessica Lee Rose (lonelygirl15), Kristin Cavallari, Lalaine, Hilary Rhoda, Aaron Carter, Jesse McCartney, Bow Wow, Blake Lively, Danielle Panabaker, Sabra Johnson, Alex Frost, Orlando Brown, Brendan Urie, Hunter Parrish, Kemp Muhl, Lyndsy Fonseca, Spencer Treat Clark, Tyler Hoechlin. Elsewhere: Maria Sharapova, Joss Stone, Anne Suzuki, Daniel Logan, Dougie Poynter, Gemma Ward, Hannah Taylor-Gordon, Imanol Landeta, Jake Epstein, Nikki Webster, Zuleyka Rivera, William Moseley, Katie Leung, Caroline Trentini, Lily Donaldson.
1988: Vanessa Anne Hudgens, Michael Cera, Brenda Song, Haley Joel Osment, Emma Stone, Alexa Vega, Nikki Reed, Kevin Alexander Clark, Billy Gilman, Alexandra Kyle, Brenda Song, Andrew Lawrence, Darla Baker, Brady Corbet, Evan Ellingson, Brooke Hogan, Caleigh Peters, Danielle Savre, Lacey Turner, Leah Pipes, Lily Cole, Mae Whitman, Reece Thompson, Sara Paxton. Elsewhere: Rupert Grint, Rihanna, Anna Popplewell, Whitney Sloan, Coco Rocha, Skye Sweetnam, Emily Browning.
1989: Chris Brown, Hayden Panettiere, Jake Lloyd, Alia Shawkat, Chanel Iman, Mackenzie Rosman, Corbin Bleu, Lil Romeo, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Michelle Wie, Alyson Michalka, Cody Linley, Alex Black, Brie Larson, Alex D. Linz, Jascha Washington, Jeremy Sumpter, Kimmie Meissner. Elsewhere: Daniel Radcliffe, Charlotte Arnold, Bette Franke, Cassie Steele, Charlotte Arnold, Irene Gorovaia, Matthew Lewis, Max Pirkis, Nicholas Hoult.
1990: Joanna "JoJo" Levesque, Jake Thomas, Jacob Smith, Connor Paolo, Gina Mantegna, Reiley McClendon, Bethany Hamilton, Camille Winbush, Kristen Stewart, Cheyenne Kimball, Daveigh Chase, Jonathan Lipnicki, Kay Panabaker, Liam Aiken. Elsewhere: Emma Watson, Alex Pettyfer, Q'Orianka Kilcher.
1991: Jamie-Lynn Spears, Erik Per Sullivan, Kyle Orlando Massey, Owen Kline, India Oxenberg, Jonah Meyerson, Tyler Posey, Dyllan Christopher, Joey Gaydos, Skandar Keynes, Jordan Hinson, Emma Roberts, Carter Jenkins, Madylin Sweeten, Malese Jow. Elsewhere: Bonnie Wright, Camila Finn, Sarah Bolger.
1992: Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana, Tyler James Williams, Dylan and Cole Sprouse, Tequan Richmond, Jennette McCurdy, Nathan Kress, Hallie Kate Eisenberg. Elsewhere: Freddie Highmore.
1993: Miranda Cosgrove, Vivien Cardone, Taylor Momsen, Imani Hakim
The author is solely responsible for the content.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.