It has been said many times over, but millennials are truly the most fucked over generation. This isn’t an exaggeration by any stretch of the imagination, contrary to what the generations before us want to believe. But this is the thing that generations prior seem to forget: We, as a collective generation have seen the world change the most and the fastest. The millennial generation is categorized as those born between 1981 and 1996. Those of us born after 1985 are actually the most unique, as our childhoods and adolescence stood on the precipice of the 21st century and a whole new world of technology.
One of the many things millennials are derided for is our attachment to our smartphones. It’s true that as a collective generation, we use a lot of technology and use it for more than just for work. We were also the first adopters of those new forms of mobile tech. And that’s why our parents treat us as their tech support. But we can also remember living life before smartphones, tablets and WiFi. My family got our first home computer when I was 13. The screech of dial-up internet feels like going home. I only got my first cell phone because I was going to high school far away. It was a prepaid brick phone with a physical antenna that I was barely allowed to use.
We didn’t get a proper cell phone plan until I was 20, and even then it was just me and my dad. My mom didn’t get a real cell phone until maybe 2007; my parents had a landline (remember those?) and she was terrified of having a mobile. After college, I got a Blackberry because I was spending less time at home, but still needed to be connected to the world while I traveled. Now, my entire world is in my smartphone, and I would be in a bad way if I didn’t have it. How else would I stay connected to everyone all the time?
I always jokingly say that my longest relationship is with Facebook. It may sound absurd, but it’s totally true. My school got Facebook in the fall of 2004, only a few months into my freshman year. I remember when there was no timeline, no status updates, and you could only talk to people through DMs. Watching the way the landscape of Facebook (I even remember when it was The Facebook) has changed is really interesting. Because first it was for cool college kids. Then Zuck sold out, and once the Boomers got access to it, it was dead and no longer fun. Kind of parallels everything else in millennials’ lives.
Social media is such an important part of millennial culture. While we weren’t the ones creating social media, we were always the earliest adopters of whatever the next thing was. How many of us poured out our adolescent and young adult angst on livejournal? Remember MySpace? Many of us honed our coding skills on social media sites, making our pages perfectly reflect our identities. And we had the ability to keep up with our ever-changing moods, swapping backgrounds and color schemes on a whim.
AOL and the culture surrounding it really set us up for much of what our adulthood communication would be. Millennials hate talking on the phone, and that’s not shocking. AIM was the precursor to texting, because when we were first getting cell phones, it cost money to text. Our away messages prepared us for the concept of status updates. And creating our AOL member profile feels a lot like writing your dating app profile. We learned how to get our entire personalities across in a very concise way.
Millennials born in the latter ’80s and beyond are the ones who have turned social media and all of its offshoots into an art form. We’re the ones who have shaped and perfected how it plays into pop culture. My partner was born in 1980, right on the cusp of Gen X and Millennial, and it shows. I’m not saying that age group is clueless, because they’re obviously not. But I felt like I had to write a glossary for her when we first started dating so she could understand what I was saying. I had to teach her what “stan” meant, and explain the phrase “Netflix and chill.” Even though we were born in the same decade, our generational differences are really obvious.
While Gen X is the generation of apathy, millennials are the generation of empathy —especially those of us born after 1985. So much of our adolescence as a collective is steeped in trauma. I was 15 when the entire world changed on a sunny Tuesday morning in September 2001. That day is permanently carved into my brain as my friends and I navigated a changed Manhattan on our way home from school. I remember the next year, flying out of state. My parents could no longer walk me to my gate, and had to pick me up at the baggage claim. Gen Z kids don’t even know a life where that isn’t the norm.
The collective trauma we’ve lived through is the most definitive characteristic of our generation. We were born into the pre-9/11 world, but came of age in the post-9/11 world. For those of us born after ‘85, our first election was 2004, George W. Bush’s second term. Knowing what was going to happen if he won again was a weight on many of our shoulders. I was a freshman in college, having turned 18 that spring. We had a deep sense of duty when we tried to do what’s right. I remember holding my friends as we sunk under the weight of John Kerry’s loss. There was fear of what came next for us. Would we be drafted into the war? How many lives would be lost? What would we do?
Those of us millennials born after 1985 have never voted in an election where the stakes weren’t incredibly high. And even though not all of us are liberals, those of us who are have an incredibly strong sense of duty. We’re the ones who have borne the brunt of every election for the last 20 years. And that really has given us a sense of morals that forces us to confront things in a very different way than other generations. Anyone born in the latter ’80s graduated college into the 2008 recession, which literally changed our entire lives. Graduating right into the beginning of it, I couldn’t find meaningful employment for a year, and even then it was barely above minimum wage. Many of my friends were in the same boat. We did everything we were told, and we still got screwed.
Everything that happened in those first ten years of the 2000s is the direct cause for millennials and our culture. You know that meme with the dog in the burning room saying “This is fine?”
That has pretty much been our entire adolescence and early adulthood. We inherited a country on fire and then tried to put the fire out, only to have it grow bigger. So now, we’re just like, “fuck it, I’ll just scroll Twitter until the world ends around me.” We’ve tried to use our collective trauma to fight and make things better, only to be told we’re a bunch of babies who want everything handed to us. But has anyone ever wondered why?
It’s comforting for us to retreat to our ’90s childhoods. My ex collects ’90s video game systems to show our son. I make him sit with me and watch old cartoons like “Rugrats” and movies like “The Little Mermaid,” while I regale him of life before WiFi. Because I can still remember having to call Moviefone to find out the movie theater schedule. Switching to streaming music from carrying an iPod was hard for me. But I can fondly access my nostalgia in a Buzzfeed roundup on my Android phone. No other generation straddles that line quite like us late ’80s/early ’90s babies.
Don’t forget, our parents’ generation constantly infantilizes us. So we’ve been forced into adulthood in a time where no one sees us as adults. Even now, as the youngest millennials approach 30, people still treat us like we’re in college. Hello, many of us have hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, 401ks, kids, and mortgages now. Like, we’re not out here on TikTok, or dressing like Billie Eilish. We’re the people those kids are making fun of because we still wear skinny jeans and part our hair on the side.
But frankly, we’ve earned our stunted adulthood. So if we want to talk in text speak and express ourselves in nothing but memes, we have that right.