Millennials: who gets to define and design this generation?

Millennials cover The other day, I found myself thinking that everytime I hear Millennials described:

1.  the tone is that of a smug outsider.

2.  the speaker is not a Millennial.

Millennials don't seem to talk about themselves. They have allowed other generations to define (and design?) who they are. 

This departs from the youth culture handbook. Normally, each generation assumes the right of self authorship.  Thus did Richard Linklater and Douglas Coupland help define the alternative (or "indie") moment.  It is for other, older generations to defer.  In our culture, youth always knows better, especially one it comes to naming and claiming itself.  

Now, there may be a number of Millennials who are widely seen to be authors and architects of their generation.  (And I just know the comments field will fill with smug correction.) But let us observe that "Millennial" was created (I believe) by William Strauss and Neil Howe.  When one generation allows itself to be named by another generation, the game is up.  Even the alternatives were provided by another generation.  I believe The Net Generation was proposed by Don Tapscott.  "Generation Y" was proposed for awhile, but this was patently relation and honored that "Generation X" that had come before. 

Now, it may be that this is the Millennial difference.  They are, some of them, quite happy to embrace a status quo.  If someone wants to name them, well, this is just one of the many things they are prepared to live with.  

But we could work it the other way round.  Generations are famously and properly touchy about what they are called.  Much of the 1990s was taken up with people protesting attempts to create a name.  The point was I think that the 1990s was to be extra-categorical and anti-categorical.  The last thing Generation X wanted was a name.

Perhaps another strategy is to take anything given you without complaint, the better to escape this issue.  Perhaps Millennials are living under the deep cover of the term called Millenial.  

There are lots of other possible explanation: that this generation is too various for generalizations or labels too apply, that the digital options available to this generation are so interesting and engaging that no one really had time to notice or care what others said of it.  

But I have to say, there is something odd here.

References

Wikipedia has a guite good review of the topic here.

10 thoughts on “Millennials: who gets to define and design this generation?”

  1. “…that the digital options available to this generation are so interesting and engaging that no one really had time to notice or care what others said of it.”

    Mostly this, only it’s more complex than simply “digital options”. A better, more complete description is that we have such fine control over our own identities that we don’t need to resort to big, poorly-defined memes like generational labels. Most of the people my age that I spend time with are too busy pursuing their own American Dream to worry about what our parents call us. For my peer group, identity is constructed around personal taste (art+music+film/use of recreational time), professional (or non-professional) employment, kinds of education, and what each of us wants to accomplish in our short time here.

    It’s a pretty extreme hypothesis to put in a comment, but I think that we’re interested in authoring our own stories and destinies. I put responsibility for this at the feet of our educational system: it tests and tests and teaches us to work for test scores, with the message that once in college, we’ll figure out what we want to do with our lives. Well, the kids that went through that system are starting to go through college, and we’re saying to each other that, “this system is broken, and we need to fix it”.

    We can’t claim any responsibility for our new president’s victory, but it rippled across my entire social life, reigniting a fever for self-determination among me and my friends. Our new president exemplifies the principle that here in America, if you set your mind to it, you can do anything and be anything. That’s an insanely powerful image to send to a generation of youth (not to mention the whole school-debt forgiveness promise. We haven’t forgotten that, and won’t).

    So in answer to your question, “who gets to define and design this generation?”, let me establish a framework. Social networking tools let us define ourselves in a much more complex and nuanced language than English. Not to mention that we have a lot of “designing” to do to replace the broken ideals and morals of the Boomer generation.

  2. First off, I like Ben’s answer.

    Second, I offer another hypothesis: Generations are dead. Thanks mainly to technology, the people I know and converse with today on a regular basis range in age from 18 – 60, but they all feel like my generation inasmuch as we share similar beliefs, interests and ideas. The idea of being associated with a group of people because we happen to be the same age seems more ridiculous than ever in the face of this truth.

    It’s not that I don’t recognize that being born around the same time means you share a certain set of experiences that shape you, I just don’t care about them that much.

    At the end of the day, it’s me (as a marketer) that needs a name for my generation, not me as a person/member of said generation.

  3. Case in point is the book you linked to. It opens with a quote from S Club Seven. Not that the people writing from within the generation are any better (see: Brazencareerist.com) I’ve always got the sense that the people who spend a lot of time comparing generations or making a big deal out of them are precisely the people who wouldn’t be able to understand an era’s ethos even if it was spelled out and placed right in front of them.

  4. One of those times when it was so incredibly worthwhile reading the comments to the post. Nicely put Ben & Noah. Nutshelled.
    =) Marc

  5. Interesting to read this considering what is going on in Athens at the moment. Shortly after I had read your blog I came across this on the BBC.

    “Our society is in tatters. Five years of conservative government in Greece and what is left? The country is bankrupt and burned down, people are struggling to make ends meet. Justice has been raped in this country for decades. We deserve the leaders we choose, but we the generation Y of Greece are here to say that enough is enough. We have brains, we think and have feelings, yes we want change.”
    Dimitri Panagiotou, Serres, Greece

  6. The millennials have been taught from childhood that labels are used to oppress and discriminate. When a group is named, it is easy to ignore its diversity and compress them all together as one, and not learn the nuances that make each individual special. , all with their labels.

    In short, we know the negative power of labels, (through the race turmoil of the 90’s, the gay rights movement, women entering the workforce) and we don’t like them. We don’t even particularly like wearing them on our clothing.

    We can’t label ourselves, that would be opening ourselves up for generalizations, when each one of us wants nothing more than to be seen as unique and special. We accept everyone into our groups, so to call ourselves something that inherently would exclude others is against our values.

    How do you encompass all the diversity around the globe into one word? I think Prince had it right, we need a symbol to represent us. The generation formerly known as Millenials.

  7. The millennials have been taught from childhood that labels are used to oppress and discriminate. When a group is named, it is easy to ignore its diversity and compress them all together as one, and not learn the nuances that make each individual special. , all with their labels.

    In short, we know the negative power of labels, (through the race turmoil of the 90’s, the gay rights movement, women entering the workforce) and we don’t like them. We don’t even particularly like wearing them on our clothing.

    We can’t label ourselves, that would be opening ourselves up for generalizations, when each one of us wants nothing more than to be seen as unique and special. We accept everyone into our groups, so to call ourselves something that inherently would exclude others is against our values.

    How do you encompass all the diversity around the globe into one word? I think Prince had it right, we need a symbol to represent us. The generation formerly known as Millenials.

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