Illustration by Nikki Muller
Recently, Molly Andolina’s piece on generational divides—and some of our internal market research, for that matter—has got me thinking about my place within my generation. I’ve been pondering this a lot, in particular because I’m coming up on the end of my 30s quite quickly, which means I’m officially old. It also means there’s a ton of other Millennials crossing over into their 40s, too—many have already done so, brave souls.
If there’s one thing I think we can all agree on, it’s that forty is not a young age. Unless you’re dead; it is an early age to die. But so is fifty. So yes: too young to die, but too old to be young.
On this: to boost my mood, a friend recently shared with me a “song” (or loosely adapted graduation speech to the Class of ‘99) that was immensely popular in my youth, Baz Luhrman’s Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen. Basically half of the advice was about how “when you’re forty you’ll look back and think…” whether it be about how hot you were as a teen or how nice it was to have functional knees. As an almost forty year old, I felt very attacked.
It’s also funny that the people in the Class of ‘99, who this song was addressing, are absolutely over 40 by now. While a lot of that song remains good advice, its sheer existence feels like a dated vestige of its time. First, let’s all appreciate the fact that there was a song of some middle-aged dude just giving out solid advice over a beat and that it actually played on Top 40 radio stations. Y2K era was a wild time.
Second, I just discovered through this YouTube video that Luhrman poached that advice from a piece written “in 1997 by Mary Schmich, a columnist with the Chicago Tribune.” How did I never know this? But you know how the saying goes: behind every great man’s late 90s music video lies an even greater woman, not getting credited properly for her writing.
To return to the main point: despite having been associated with youth for quite some time, Millennials are now “over the hill.” By which I mean we’re not kids anymore, which is pretty alarming for the generation that coined the dumbass term “adulting.” Sure, some of us are in our early thirties versus late, and the very youngest Millennial is a tender 27, but that’s still old enough to be off your parents’ health insurance for over a year in the U.S., and you don’t get more “adult” than that.
As Molly pointed out in her article, generational divides can be a useful heuristic for making sense of macro trends across demographics, but they are far from being a science. My generation absolutely captures this. According to the Pew Research center, Millennials start with folks born in 1981 and end with those born in 1996—but these cut off years are debatable, and often hotly contested. I know my older sister would protest missing the Millennial generational cut off by one year—given that she met her high school boyfriend in a chatroom, that feels pretty OG of the internet generation to me, and not very Gen X of her.
Given the massive shifts in technology and culture that happened over a decade and a half, many feel a discrete difference within our generational identity, so much so that folks have argued for a “microgeneration” for those born around the earlier 80s. They’ve called this “Xennials,” or “the Oregon Trail Generation,”and, before Millennial was coined, I remember referring to ourselves as “Generation Y2K,” since the switch into the new Millennium came during high school for us (or maybe college, depending on where you land in this microgeneration of aged Millennials.) Anyone born at the edge of two generations is likely to feel like they’re in a no man’s land, which is why they coined the term “cusper”—you are on the cusp of two eras, experiencing both, but possibly not belonging fully to either.
This whole microgeneration thing makes a bit more sense to me, because everyone I speak with who is between the ages of 38 to 45 or so still shares the same cultural references. Sure, the younger among us more comfortably in the Millennial age cut off might have more Pokémon or Power Rangers knowledge than our older Xennial brethren, but all of us remember life before the internet, floppy disc drives, and, as that other generation name suggests, playing the computer game The Oregon Trail. (I’ll write more on this next week… because I have a lot to say.)
Claiming that I’m in the same generation of someone who doesn’t remember a time before WiFi, doesn’t know the straight dopamine rush of hearing your dial up internet connect, never threw away about 75,000 AOL installation disc mailers or never developed resilience and patience by waiting for porn to load line by line just doesn’t seem right.
My personal test for whether or not you count as a “true” Millennial is the refrain to the classic Y2K tune “Bug A Boo” by Destiny’s Child. The lyrics are breathtakingly dated, so if you were not listening to and enjoying that banger in its prime—good old 1999—then you probably won’t understand half of these lyrics and are therefore a more traditional (younger) Millennial.
Let us perform a close reading and analysis, shall we?
“You make me wanna throw my pager out the window” Unless you’re a doctor, you probably haven’t seen a pager in your adult life.
”Tell MCI to cut the phone poles” MCI went out of business in 2006, so many Millennials have never even heard of them as a phone service… It’s like talking about flying with Pan Am.
(Next is ”Break my lease so I can move/’Cause you a bug a boo, a bug a boo (bug a boo)”—everyone still has leases, and “bug a boo” wasn’t really a common phrase, at least not to me, so I have nothing really to say about these lines. Moving on.)
“I wanna put your number on the call block” Is that even a thing you can do anymore? Does anyone even have landlines? Anyway. Call blocking was something you could do on a landline. Now you can just do that shit on your smartphone. (Which is not a flip phone. More points for Millennials who’ve never had one.)
And the final culture reference of the refrain: “Have AOL make my email stop” Do y’all even know what AOL is? Or the thrill of hearing “You’ve Got Mail”? Or the joy of the 1998 classic rom com, You’ve Got Mail starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan before she got afraid of being old? Then you might be a younger Millennial. (Or you’re Gen Z. In which case: enjoy all the clothes we wore in high school!!)
(Interestingly enough, Beyonce is 41. Which means that she, too, is a Millennial: even though she sang the anthem that I believe proves she’s of her own time.)
I know many folks my age who like leaning on their identity as a Millennial because it allows people to mistake them for younger. Hilariously, the “#1 Gen Z and Millennial speaker and researcher” I previously cited about “cuspers” self-identifies as a Millennial, but randomly asserts this generation starts in 1977, unlike the standard 1981. Guess when he was born? In the late 1970s. To which I say… like a true Millennial: “lol.” It kiiiiinda feels like he established his own completely different generational cut-off date from the standard out of sheer vanity.
Frankly, I still balk at self-identifying Millennially for all the previously mentioned reasons: but mostly because “Millennial” became synonymous with being entitled, overly sensitive, immature, and privileged. Again: this generation created the term “adulting.” How fucking stupid are we to think that we are the first people to have to learn to do adult shit? That’s literally called getting old. My God, Millennials are the actual worst.
Ultimately, the whole generation thing is arbitrary and imperfect, and as Molly pointed out, if you have the ability to empathize and listen, you’ll probably still find more common ground than differences between yourself and those older or younger than you. (Even if I mostly find scorn and annoyance with my own generation’s idiotic social media-driven culture.)
Millennials need someone to grow up and pave the way to perimenopause and beyond, so I guess it’s up to our microgeneration to show them how it’s done. This transitional crew has a little bit more of Gen-X’s gritty humor and world-weary style, blended with early internet adoption and a readiness to admit that smartphones are absolutely the worst invention of all time.
I felt a thrill of kinship when, in a recent episode of Poker Face, after being repeatedly misidentified as a Millennial by two badly-acting elderly women, Natasha Lyonne (age 43) retorted with pride, “I’m a cusper, you fucking psycho!” Perhaps this is a generational badge I could wear with pride.