Millennials: A History (or, WTF is a Millennial?)
Type in “millennials are ” in Google and you will get some varied results. We’ve been known to kill industries (tuna, diamonds, doorbells). We are mental health conscious (“the therapy generation” and “depressed” are top completed searches). Millennials are also “losers” according to top searches as well (rude.).
All we really are is a generation of humans born between 1981 and 1996. Why those years?
The generations we identify with today (millennial, Gen Y, baby boomer, etc.) are where we land in socio-historical time. A simplified equation would be:
Important Historical Event + Young Age + Social Change = Generation
A German philosopher, Karl Mannheim, wrote an essay in 1928 called "Das Problem der Generationen” (The Problem of Generations). It’s brilliant but not a fun read. Basically, he’s the grandfather of the whole concept.
Thankfully, a woman named Dr. Jane Pilcher, who studies all kinds of cool stuff, including Mannheim and the sociology of generations, came along and broke it down for us. She explains that “the notion of generation is widely used in everyday world to make sense of differences between age groupings in society and to locate individual selves and other persons within historical time.”
She also explained that, according to Mannheim, people are significantly influenced by the socio-historical environment (in particular, notable events that involve them actively) of their youth; giving rise, on the basis of shared experience, to social cohorts that in their turn influence events that shape future generations.
This is why most people associate us with technology, as we were the first generation to grow up with colorful Macs, the interwebs, and this sound.
So, the time frame that generations are defined by is not decided by a boardroom of people somewhere like you imagined. Except the term used to describe our generation kind of was.
Historians Neil Howe and William Strauss were the ones who coined the term millennial in 1991 when they wrote their book, “Generations”. The pair chose “millennial” because their research made it clear this generation, just eight-years old at the time they were writing their book (1991), would be drastically different than the one before and therefore needed a distinct name. Plus, the oldest of them would graduate high school in 2000, a date that loomed large in the 90s. Millenium… Millennial… get it?
I hope this quick history lesson helps answer some questions about the who, what, when, where, and why of millennials. If you have any other questions or info to add, lmk!
Sources for my little history lesson:
Fry, Richard. “Generations and Age.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 24 July 2019
Pilcher, Jane. Mannheim's Sociology of Generations: an Undervalued Legacy. Sept. 1994.
“Karl Mannheim.” Wikipedia (yeah, I used Wikipedia. You do it. I do it. Don’t judge, ok?)
Mannheim, Karl. “VII.” The Problem of Generations, pp. 276–232.
Sharf, Samantha. “What Is A 'Millennial' Anyway? Meet The Man Who Coined The Phrase.” Forbes