By Charlie Pearson
Millennial: a person reaching young adulthood in the early 21st century. But is that all the word means? Obviously not, I just thought a rhetorical question would be a nice way to start this piece. I would argue that that definition is just the beginning, the crack of light as you open the door to unpack this simultaneously arbitrary and polarising term. I myself am a millennial (and yet, I would never self-identify as one) as is every single other person in my generation – but then, that’s exactly the point. That’s like saying, I’m white, just like every other white person. I’m getting side tracked. There are probably numerous reasons why I, and many others like me, don’t label ourselves as millennials (maybe I’ll start calling myself a Gen-Yer – on second thoughts, nope) but I would argue that the biggest put-off comes from the fact that more often than not, when someone uses the word millennial they do so with demeaning intentions, reducing the word to a negative stereotype as a way to belittle or reduce our value. These people in question, for the most part, are those who don’t fall into the Generation Y bracket, but came before it.
Cross generational conflict this isn’t a new thing, either. Its current regurgitation, ‘baby boomers vs millennials’ (I imagine that very line has been used in more than enough news stories at this point) rings almost hollow, because there was a time when the baby boomers were in our very position. Ironic, right? That quote about not learning from history never loses its value. Baby boomers (if you think about the term for too long it starts to sound like a club who blow up babies) get their name from the ‘boom’ in births that occurred post-World War II. Previous to this time, the very notion of youth culture didn’t even exist; young people were viewed by society as imitations of the older generations, and treated as such. By the 1960s, as the baby boomers were coming of age, their share size made people pay attention, their large population pushed them out from the shadows of their parents. Companies began advertising towards the youth and made music for them (rock’n’roll, specifically). The word ‘teenager’ spilled into everyday language. Youth became a thing in its own right, and as that happened, backlash about their behaviour and morals followed. We know today that ‘rebelling’ is a common part of the growing up process, but in the 60s, parents and the older generation were outraged when the boomers stopped doing what they were told. The hippie movement, standing up for civil rights, protesting the Vietnam War. The baby boomers symbolised peace, anti-war sentiments and tolerance in a traditional world, a world run by the very people they opposed. The older generations chided baby boomers for their resistance, where they were happy to conform to governmental and societal expectations. The polar views created a rift between the baby boomers and those who had lived through the World War, not unlike the divide we see today. Then, if we go back further, to the 1920s, when jazz was ultra-modern, young people loved it and the older generations thought it was the sound that would signal Armageddon. Jazz celebrated the African American experience in a time of segregation and extreme racism. A figure from the time wrote, “when my grandmother found out I was playing jazz music . . . she told me that I had disgraced the family and forbade me to live at the house [anymore].” Many truly believed that it was the ‘devil’s music’, but for young people it meant liberation.
What’s happening now, in many ways feels like a photocopy. The young people of the 20s became the traditionalists shaking their fingers at the young baby boomers, and now the baby boomers are shaking their fingers at us. No longer rebellious and progressive, they’ve taken the seats of their parents, and we have picked up the baton that they dropped. That fighting attitude that fueled anti-Vietnam War protests has now been appropriated by millennials as we tackle modern issues: immigration, the war against ISIS, the LGBTQI+ community, gender equality, racial diversity, the environment . . . and more often than not, the opinion that each generation holds toward these issues is in direct opposition. But we already know this, because it’s the world we’re living in right now.
Technology plays a role here in a way that it didn’t in the 60s; young people tend to be much more tech oriented and adopt new innovations in a way that the oldies simply can’t keep up with. In a way, the domains of social media and large parts of the internet feel like they’ve been monopolised by the young simply because of our engagement with them. We get our news and entertainment online, while the older generations still predominantly get theirs from the television and print media. What this means is that the generations experience the world in fundamentally different ways. More importantly, cross-over isn’t high and that creates division because baby boomers have less opportunity to see from millennials’ perspective and vice versa. Perspective is important, but we’ll come back to this later.
Back to my original point, the generational conflict has not been kind to the word ‘millennial’ (and maybe ‘baby boomer’, to a lesser degree). It’s been caught in the crossfire. Two crossfires really– Let me explain: what I’ve been mostly focused on up to this point is millennial as another word for liberal, where the word is a stand-in for an entire political agenda. A generalisation, granted, but one that is at least founded in some truth (had only 18-29 year old’s been eligible to vote in the 2016 USA election, Clinton would’ve easily won the presidency, for example). This umbrella term, unsurprisingly, has been sharpened into a knife by conservatives, a knife that they’ll happily use as a weapon to stab the young people, whose progressive ideals contradict the traditional values they are trying so hard to uphold. In their battle, they’ve also fashioned a new meaning for the word ‘snowflake’, but that’s another rabbit hole I won’t go into. The second perspective is that we are lazy and entitled. Millennials are caricatured as the ‘Me Generation’. We don’t know what “a real day’s work” is, our faces are always glued to our phones and the only thing we’re concerned with is our Instagram aesthetic. I will have you know, I don’t even know how to take a good selfie, that’s how… un-narcissistic I am. And because one example speaks for an entire generation, I have just debunked that myth. Though, I do love to be entitled so I guess the old folks got something right about us.
Whether or not any of these things is true, millennial no longer means quite the same thing it did when it was first coined. Words have a way of doing that though. ‘Queer’ used to be an insult for gay people (it also meant ‘to feel sick’) but it’s since been re-appropriated and many people in the LGBTQI+ community now label themselves as queer. African Americans were once called ‘negroes’, and that was the politically correct term, but that word has since come to symbolise oppression and slavery. ‘Daddy’ used to be what little kids said when they wanted their fathers’ attention, recently that word has slipped into modern lingo with a far more sexually charged meaning. Just as the way we talk and the words we use changes through history and across contexts (think, the way you talk to a close friend compared to a work colleague), the very definitions of those words also comes under scrutiny, at the whim of the social climate.
What’s happening here is the same old tussle. The old butting heads with the new, tradition in combat with modernity, the young verses the not-young-anymore. We’ve been here before, it’s nothing new, we’re just using different words this time around. It’s like we’ve been handed a cake, but on top of the cake there’s one of those little name-tag-flag-thingys poked in it that says: ‘roast chicken’ so now it’s not a cake anymore, it’s a roast chicken. What we’re looking at is an age-old conflict, but we’re being told that it’s never happened before.
As both generations become more and more separated, by technology and politics and unfair stereotypes, what we have to keep in mind is: perspective. That ability to see the world through the eyes of people who aren’t like us. Empathy. When we take the time to engage with those who are different to us, it becomes hard to hate them; the negative stereotypes we once painted those people with – stereotypes that we readily used to explain and rationalise our ‘opinions’ – they fall away, and from behind it all, there is a person.