On discovering she is in the most talked about social group of the 21st century, Jessica O’Sullivan explores why she, at 34, is lumped in with teenagers and what they could possibly have in common.
Lately I’ve caught myself using the word millennial as a synonym for ‘young people these days’– usually accompanied by an eye roll. The sting in the tail though is that, technically, I too am a millennial. Yes, at the ripe old age of 34, I can be bunched in with today’s teens for the purposes of social science and marketing, which to be honest, feels like a bit of a stretch. Maybe even lazy.
The word was first coined in 1991 by historians Neil Howe and William Strauss to describe someone who would graduate school in 2000, a year they considered of particular significance. I just about make the millennial club, at the very lower end of the scale, and, like many other people my age, I couldn’t feel more separate from a word which has moved from being neutral to being associated with unflattering stereotypes; entitled, social-media obsessed, lazy and narcissistic.
These words feel even more alien if you attach them to some of the most iconic first generation millennials. Take Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (32), the most equitable guy in tech, or Serena Williams (35) the hardest-working woman in sport, or professionally modest Kate Middleton or even Beyoncé, because, well, nobody talks smack about Beyoncé.
And while I’m sure I display one or all of these traits on a bad day (who doesn’t?), I live in hope that they aren’t inherent character flaws, just because I fit the millennial bill.
Howe says that a generational name is more about the peer personality of your generation. You may share many of these attributes, some of them, or none of them. “Every generation includes all kinds of people. Yet, you and your peers share the same ‘age location’ in history, and your generation’s collective mindset will influence you, whether you agree with it or spend a lifetime battling against it.”
So in other words, while I mightn’t have the same obsessive compulsion to post pictures of my derrière on Instagram, as, say Kylie Jenner, or live every day like a page out of Cara Delevingne’s Insouciant Guide to Life, we have a shared psychology that springs from everything from the economy to the proliferation of the smart phone.
The Pew Research Centre surveyed over 3,000 adults in the US who fall into the millennial bracket and discovered that 60 per cent would rather not be referred to as millennials as they see themselves as unique. That may sound like narcissism but, hey, one person’s narcissism is another person’s high self- steem. And in many ways millennials do vary. The 20-year period that spans the millennial bracket was punctuated with a worldwide economic recession, so those who graduated before, during and after that have very different life experiences. Most of my millennial generation had the benefits of a frugal, no- onsense eighties childhood where having ‘notions’ about yourself was actively discouraged. When I started college in 2001, in the middle of the Celtic Tiger, I had a solid foundation in reality and was lucky enough to get a job on graduating which I then clung to when the recession hit.
Skip to the middle millennial generation, those now in their late twenties. Anyone who left college in 2009, when Ireland hit rock bottom, would have found entering adult life terrifying. The boom had infused these middle millennials with an anything-is-possible attitude, but then didn’t deliver on its promise.
Writer, 28-year-old Stefanie Preissner, examined this with her sixpart RTÉ comedy-drama series Can’t Cope/Won’t Cope which took an unflinching look at what growing up as a millennial is like for Irish women. The show followed fund manager Aisling who works for the weekend and Danielle, a graphic design student pursuing her passion for art. “I feel like a lot of young people, especially during the recession, had to grow up very fast – get proper jobs like Aisling,” says Preissner, explaining that their excessive partying is a way to escape what it’s like to be part of a generation for whom emigration or moving away from home is an inevitability, and friends becomefamily through necessity.
Either that or you become part of the over-dependent boomerang gang, who move back in with longsuffering parents in order to save money, but actually end up spending all this newly-disposable cash on bottomless Prosecco brunches, kale smoothies and last-minute trips to Reykjavik.
Thankfully, despite the tricky terrain we millennials have found ourselves navigating over the last 20 years, we’re not on a doomed downward spiral. Although all millennials experienced the economic downturn differently – the newest ones probably remember parents losing jobs – it has shaped our attitudes towards work and to life in a similar way.
Coach Mary Curran (Marycurran.ie) explains that, unlike older generations, millennials have a higher mistrust of job security which results in a free-agent approach to work. This means we aren’t afraid to try multiple careers and we place a higher value on happiness.
“The millennial generation had to respond to a rapidly changing economic landscape,” says Curran. “This means that they had to adopt an open mindset to accept and overcome whatever new challenge presented itself.” Curran feels that if there’s anything that defines a millennial, it’s maintaining optimism about the future despite being asked to do more with less.
“Millennials have actually faced a lot of adversity because of the recession, so young people had to learn to think outside the box,” says Curran. This gives millennials an opportunist’s eye for entrepreneurship, which is why so many are at the forefront of innovation in every industry, especially tech.
Elva Carri, 31, is the co-founder of GirlCrew and is a superb example of how millennials are open- mindset thinkers. Her app, which allows women to meet up and make new friends, is a combination of entrepreneurship, disruption, openmindedness and altruism. It came about as a direct result of her needing to solve the problem that she had nobody to go out with despite having hundreds of friends on Facebook. “I changed my Tinder profile to male but said, ‘I’m female, I’m straight and I just really want to go out dancing,’ and by the morning I had over 100 matches. I believe that online should translate into offline, because experiences that mean the most to you come from real life.”
Today, 23,000 women take part in GirlCrews around the world and Carri has one ‘guideline’ that must be followed. “You don’t have to be friends with everyone but you have to respect diversity.”
It’s easy to fixate on the negative connotations of the word millennial, it certainly makes for better headlines, but on reflection the positives of being part of this demographic, varied as it is, opens up so many possibilities in every area of life.
We are, all of us and to different degrees, a generation of pioneers – whether that’s disrupting an industry like Carri or challenging our elders to be more open-minded like the many young people who championed the Yes vote in the recent same-sex marriage referendum.
Having an open mindset means that you are open to growth and change. Unfortunately, today the world seems to be in danger of taking two steps backwards in terms of tolerance; perhaps millennials are just who we need in the driving seat in the future.
Okay, maybe not a Kylie Jenner, but an inspiring young millennial like Malala Yousafzai would certainly get my vote and there are many more like her out there.