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The Myth of the Millennial as Cultural Rebel

We have two popular historians to blame for our profound misunderstanding of young people’s lifestyle choices.

Monika Graff/Getty Images

If you have read anything about young people in recent years, you could be forgiven for believing that we are living through a cultural revolution, unprecedented in its destructiveness and self-regard. Millennials don’t just reject the music, art, or clothes of their parents; they also reject the older generation’s major sources of economic and spiritual well-being, like home ownership, cars, even sex. They’d rather pay to “access” music and movies than to buy them, and they don’t aspire to steady jobs (long live the gig economy!) or vacations. Their lifestyle choices are informed either by an admirable anti-consumerist streak or by a lazy reluctance to be weighed down by success and owning stuff. They’ve even killed the napkin industry.

None of this is true. The idea that these “trends” in consumption are driven primarily by cultural preferences, rather than a faltering economy and ever-rising costs of living, is difficult to believe, but that’s the prevailing narrative. Business Insider’s story blaming millennials for a slump in the sales of paper napkins is a perfect example of why that interpretation is absurd. The article contends that, like eating cereal, buying paper napkins is too much work for millennials. Similarly, The Washington Post has pointed out that young people have found ways to make the paper napkin’s rival, the paper towel, look chic on social media, the only thing they really care about. Neither article mentions that millennials are the first cohort in American history to enjoy lower living standards than their parents. Not buying napkins is a pretty painless way to save money.

Which explanation seems more likely? Do we use Zipcar because we are ideologically committed to sharing, or because car ownership is still out of reach for a lot of people and renting piecemeal is the next best thing? Does a married couple decide to live with roommates because of our generational “openness to communal living” or because people in New York face impossible rents? Do people stop using napkins because of unshakeable cultural convictions, or because they’re a waste of money? If the new generation were really waging war on their forebears’ way of life, I doubt they’d start with the disposable table settings.

Still, the list of such articles is infuriatingly long. Fusion’s Patrick Hogan counted 47 institutions and industries that millennials have been accused of destroying so far, including credit, car culture, the American Dream, relationships, and golf. Of course, in each of these cases, there is a real story to be told: Yes, young people are buying less on credit; yes, car sales are down; and, not surprisingly, 48 percent of economically squeezed under-30s don’t buy into the uplift of the American Dream, according to one poll.

But the language of these articles tells another story on top of those, one that isn’t backed up by any evidence at all: that millennials are “killing” those things, choosing to eliminate them from our shared life. That’s a deeply frustrating story to keep reading, when headlines of “Millennials are killing the X industry” could just as easily read “Millennials are locked out of the X industry.” There’s nothing like being told precarity is actually your cool lifestyle choice.

It’s likely, however, that we’re stuck with this narrative. The media decided what millennial culture and values would be decades ago, before some of us were even born. William Strauss and Neil Howe, a popular-historian duo, coined the term “millennial” in 1987, to refer to the children who would graduate high school in the year 2000. And in their book Millennials Rising, published in 2000, they saw fit to describe the character of this newborn generation.

Millennials Rising gave us the myth that millennials are hard-wired to share, describing this generation as optimistic “team players” who “gravitate towards collective power.” The authors also laid the groundwork for a thousand think-pieces attacking “coddled youth” and “trigger warnings,” cautioning that millennials in their upbringing would be “the most watched-over generation in memory.” One reviewer prophesied that the millennial college experience would “give a new meaning to the word ‘overprotective.’” The same reviewer also worried that millennials “could be led astray by a demagogue or use technology in Orwellian ways.” It’s as though the moral outrage of the 2010s had been written in advance, before there were any facts to get wrong.

Millennials Rising was just one part of a much bigger theory Strauss and Howe had developed about generational flux. As Howe put it in a C-SPAN interview, “Every generation belongs to one of four life-cycle types that seems to repeat in the same order over time.” There are generations of prophets, followed by nomads, heroes, then artists. The G.I. generation—whom they are fond of calling “the greatest generation”—are, obviously, heroes; a so-called Silent Generation are artists; the Boomers are prophets; Gen X they deem a lost cohort of nomads; and millennials are destined to be heroes like their war-era grandparents. In their 1991 book Generations: The History of America’s Future, they parceled the country’s history neatly into 18 generations, and went so far as to predict the American character up to the year 2069.

Despite skepticism about this fatalistic view of history, Strauss and Howe’s thinking about generations—and particularly about millennials—had outsize influence. While promoting Generations, Strauss boasted that “Al Gore is sending this book to every member of Congress, he believes in it so much.” The Washington Post’s review marveled at the word-of-mouth publicity the book had garnered. The authors expounded their theory in an 18-page feature in The Atlantic, and saw their ideas recycled in endless turn-of-the-millennium columns about the future of the country’s youth.

Perhaps their most influential champion was David Brooks. He drew on Strauss and Howe’s work in his own disquisition on the country’s youth, his 2001 essay “The Organization Kid.” Brooks’s review in The New York Times of Millennials Rising sums up how a lot of powerful journalists have taken the book. He dismissed its theory of cycles as junk history, but he liked that it articulated misgivings about young people that he had vaguely intuited himself: “If you get away from the generational mumbo jumbo,” Brooks reasoned, the book “illuminates changes that really do seem to be taking place.” The myth of the sharing-obsessed, optimistic but oversensitive millennial had taken hold, well before she had taken her turn on the generational stage.

Strauss and Howe spread their ideas not just through the media but also through the world of big business. In 1999, they founded LifeCourse Associates, a company that advises corporations on how they can understand the character of different generations and tailor their pitches to them. As Strauss explained on Book Notes, they always intended their theory to work as a marketing tool. He hoped salesmen would read “the section of our book that will certainly be the most controversial with historians”—the part that claimed to foretell the tastes of an emerging generation of consumers.

After Strauss died in 2007, Howe continued to run LifeCourse Associates with three employees, giving about 60 speeches per year, The Chronicle for Higher Education reported in 2009. Clients include big media companies (CNN, Hearst), universities, the U.S. Army, and companies like Ford and PepsiCo. In April 2015, LifeCourse Associates prepared a report for the Congressional Institute on how the GOP could best connect with millennials voters, whom they were still calling “special,” “sheltered,” “teamworking,” and “confident.” In business as well as government, we’re deeply invested in a view of today’s young adults that was formulated before they even grew up.

There’s a final part of Strauss and Howe’s prophesy that explains why we’re so wedded to the idea that millennials are actively “killing” off industries. The authors of Millennials Rising were what you might call self-hating Boomers. They hoped for a new generation that would rescue society from the excesses of their own. Strauss felt out of step with his peers, dismayed by their attitude. At Harvard in the 1960s, he saw riots and strikes: “Although I didn’t participate in that I saw it and it saddened me,” he recalled, “I was well aware of what my peers were doing to attack the institutions of their elders.” Howe shared his co-author’s disappointment:

During the 1970s when everyone expected the boomers to become a great new political force in American politics, they instead entered a political remission. By 1980 they had become the yuppie, and they concentrated on a certain cultural perfectionism. Rather than involving themselves with politics, they detached themselves from institutional life, from having families, from having steady jobs.

Both authors put their hope in the future. “Today’s cute Millennial tots,” they wrote somewhat sentimentally in a 1991 issue of American Demographics, “could become the next great cadre of civic doers and builders.” In a 1992 USA Today article, titled “Who Will Save the World?”, Howe stated: “Boomers can’t make things work. They have to get their Millennials to do it.”

Strauss and Howe even chose the name “millennials” over alternatives like “” and “Echo Boomers” to emphasize unprecedented newness. If we don’t participate in the housing market or indulge the Boomer urge to measure success by a brand-new car, bought on lavish credit, it must be because we are forging a previously untraveled path away from the world of our parents.

And what do less self-critical boomers think of us? They can’t bear the idea that we’re not tearing up the script just like they did. They can’t understand that sometimes change happens for reasons other than cultural rebellion. Brooks lamented in “The Organization Kid” that “the most sophisticated people in preceding generations”—by which I assume he means his generation—“were formed by their struggle to break free from something. The most sophisticated people in this one aren’t.”

Of course, young people have broken free from a lot of things in the 15 years since Brooks wrote that, not least in their willingness to look beyond the establishment wing of the Democratic Party for a politics that matches their own experience more closely. As the support for Bernie Sanders this election cycle has shown, young people want to see a reckoning with precarity and inequality. The myth that underemployed, poorly housed young people are joyfully engaged in a project of creative destruction misrepresents our economic reality. But only if we can finally be said to have liberated ourselves from napkins, houses, and sex, will we have given the Boomers something to be proud of.