Technically, I’m a Millennial. According to the Pew Research Center, anyone born between 1981 and 1996 is a Millennial, and I was born during those years …but on the early side. So close to the early side, in fact, that in some descriptions of Millennial birth years, my year isn’t included, which would make me part of Gen X.
I prefer to think of myself, and the millions of others born in the very late 1970s and very early 1980s, as an Elder Millennial, a term I first heard on a Netflix special by comedian Iliza Shlesinger aptly titled, Elder Millennial. Because yes, I love a good slice of avocado toast, but I know the pure frustration of being kicked off AOL Instant Messenger because someone in my house picked up the landline (yes, a landline!). I stream music and have no patience if something takes more than four seconds to load, but somewhere in a box I have tapes with songs painstakingly recorded from the radio and burned CDs titled “Best Road Trip Mix Ever 12.”
Every generation is shaped by a significant event and then defined by that shaping event, whether fairly or not. The Baby Boomers grew up in the era of Post World War II optimism, while the Gen X-ers became adults alongside the rise of personal computing and Millenials came of age with a phone in their hands.
But the Elder Millennials, the young Gen X-ers, I can’t pinpoint how we were shaped. It seems as if a world-changing event loomed on the horizon at every one of our major life milestones. And maybe that means we’re the generation of resilience.
Starting from our most formative years, Elder Millennials caught the tail end of the “latchkey kid” phenomenon and the “deadbeat dad” syndrome. The divorce rate peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s, which means we Elder Millennials, those of us born in the early 1980s, were more likely to come from single parent households than our Young Millennial counterparts. And while most people think of Gen X-ers as the ones coming home to an empty house, Elder Millennials also learned how to make their way home, and unlock their doors with their special key chains (mine was a purple heart), and call their moms to tell them they were home safe before finishing homework and zoning out to television shows that couldn’t be watched on demand. From early on, we learned resilience and self-reliance in a way our younger counterparts never had to.
Then we went to high school. And in the years we were finding ourselves and carving out our identities, figuring out if we were a jock, prep, nerd, or princess…or acting out scenes from Clueless…Columbine happened (1999) and we learned our youth didn’t make us invincible. We saw our peers—kids just like us—walking out of their high school—which looked just like ours—with their hands behind their heads. We saw and read and were captivated by the horrors and heartbreak. We finished high school with a new awareness, a new nightmare that our older counterparts, who’d already graduated, didn’t have to fear.
In 2000, Elder Millennials faced our first end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it crisis with Y2K as we planned our futures. Along with the rest of the world, we held our breath as 1999 ticked into 2000 and hoped the lights would stay on and we wouldn’t be plunged back into the 1900s. We weren’t. But just a year later, we witnessed what felt like the end of the world when two planes crashed into the Twin Towers, and two iconic buildings collapsed in a ball of dust and flame. Our older and younger counterparts of course witnessed the same events and were overcome by the same terrors and grief, but Elder Millennials were the ones taking those first tenuous steps from childhood to adulthood, from high school to college.
Barely out of college, finding our footing in new careers in new cities, Elder Millennials were once again thrown off balance as the Great Recession swept in and threatened the financial ground beneath our feet. Whether a few years into a career or just peeking out from the stress of graduate school, we entered a financial landscape where banks were failing and jobs were disappearing. Our younger counterparts were still safely settled in their educational bubbles and our older counterparts had a few extra years of experience and savings to weather the storm.
The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 shocked us all and broke all our hearts. Everyone grieved that horror. Elder Millennials grieved it as we held our first babies in our arms, the memory of Columbine too close to the surface as we wondered how we would ever feel safe sending our kids to school.
Now, along with the rest of the world, we’re living through a pandemic, yet another end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it crisis. But we’re preparing for it with the lessons learned from a lifetime of being shaped by a world that continues to throw us curve balls. Curve balls that sometimes knock us down, though we’ve learned to stand right back up, or that we sometimes knock out of the park, because after a lifetime of challenges, we’ve learned how to swing.
And, it’s important to note that just because I’m saying one generation, or in this case one subset of a generation, is resilient, I’m not in effect saying the other generations are less than, or somehow not resilient. Giving credit to one is not equivalent to removing credit from another, and every generation has faced the same events, been knocked down by the same struggles, and is still standing tall against this latest end-of-the-world like catastrophe.
But Elder Millennials, the young Gen X-ers, we’re defined by it all. And that makes us pretty resilient. (And ready for a few years of a little peace.)