Millennials like me turned 40 this year. And everything you think you know about us is wrong
For years I believed a lot of what I heard about millennials – those avocado-toast eating, latte-guzzling, selfie-taking narcissists who still live in their parents’ basements and can’t get their lives together.
Then I realized something that surprised me: I’m a millennial, as are many of the people I know and love.
I’d long assumed my friends and classmates were older and wiser than this much-maligned group. But when I started covering demographics for CNN, I learned that 1981 is the birth year many researchers identify as the beginning of the millennial generation.
I was born in 1982. And this year, I turned 40. So did millions of other millennials in the United States.
That’s right: The generation long portrayed as young and naïve is entering middle age.
It’s a notable milestone, and a good opportunity to point out something important: the Myth of the Millennial is very different from the reality many of us are living.
Back in May, my husband went out of town on a trip, and I was solo parenting our infant daughter for the first time. “I can do this,” I thought, trying to reassure myself. “It won’t be that hard.” Then one night, my daughter’s first two teeth started to poke through her gums. After watching on the baby monitor as she thrashed in her crib for what probably was only a few minutes, but seemed like an eternity, I ended up holding her in my arms for the rest of the night to comfort her.
In the scheme of tough things new parents can go through, this was nothing major. But I was exhausted. And so was she.
As the sun rose, we sat bleary-eyed on the floor of her room together. Her pajamas were covered with the cherry-flavored Children’s Tylenol she’d spit out when I tried to give it to her the night before. But for a few minutes that morning, we were playing and she was smiling and it seemed like we’d made it through a marathon and finally could relax.
Then my phone rang with devastating, unexpected news.
My mom had died that morning.
I was shaken, stunned and sobbing. I looked at my daughter playing beside me. There were so many questions I wish I’d asked my mom about how to take care of her. Instead of calling my mom that day to ask for advice, I would race to Michigan to help plan her funeral.
Suddenly, the same year I became a mother had become the year when I lost a mother, too.
It was less than two months before my 40th birthday.
Millennials famously appeared on the cover of TIME magazine nearly a decade ago beneath the headline, “THE ME ME ME GENERATION,” cementing our self-obsessed image.
But for me and many others, what it really means to be a millennial these days is something quite different. We are the newest sandwich generation, feeling growing pressure between raising young children and caring for aging family members – or at least wanting to care for them, given all they’ve done to care for us, but struggling to know what to do.
Millennials like me are too busy juggling our responsibilities at work and caring for others at home to be as self-obsessed as we’ve been portrayed all these years.
Like every generation before us, we’re growing up. But the Myth of the Millennial has long been off the mark.
For years, for example, headlines have blared that millennials aren’t having kids. The reality, though, is more complicated, according to Kim Parker, director of social trends research at the Pew Research Center.
“Women are having children later. But when we look at completed fertility, we haven’t seen that they’re necessarily having fewer children, just starting later,” Parker says. “It represents a lag, not necessarily a completely different way in approaching family life.”
Jason Dorsey, who’s written several books about millennials and made a career out of helping Corporate America better understand them, says the memes about selfish millennials simply don’t match up with reality.
“The oldest millennials tell us they’re being pulled in three different directions,” says Dorsey, president of the Center for Generational Kinetics. “They’re often taking care of a child or children. They’re frequently taking care of a parent or parents. And they’re trying to navigate their jobs. And so that pull, there’s a lot going on there, and it’s a very stressful time.”
Past generations have entered this life stage, too, Dorsey says. But this time around, one thing is different.
“What’s new is to do it at 40 years old,” he says, “with so many people having very young children.”
Many middle-aged millennials like me are feeling this pressure even in our most joyous moments. And Dorsey says there’s plenty of research to be done still about how this shift is changing our society.
How will this shape the kind of parents we become, or the way we approach our jobs, or the choices we make in other parts of our lives?
It’s not necessarily surprising that for years I didn’t realize I was one of the more than 72 million millennials in the United States.
Some experts argue that analyzing our society using generation labels is just about as reliable and scientific as using your horoscope.
They contend that many more factors can shape someone’s life than the year they were born – race and socioeconomic status, for example. And when you label and analyze a whole group of people without digging much into those details, important nuances about social change end up getting lost.
“Drawing arbitrary lines between birth years and slapping names on them isn’t helping,” Philip N. Cohen wrote last year in a Washington Post opinion piece. The professor of sociology at the University of Maryland has been leading a group of academics pushing for the Pew Research Center and others to stop promoting generational labels altogether.
I can see their point.
Some of my younger millennial friends, who are in their late 20s, have looked at me wide-eyed when I talk about the videotapes I watched growing up, or what it was like hearing that delightful, high-pitched, staticky tone that meant your home computer was oh-so-slowly connecting to the internet via dial-up. Major events that shaped our world happened at very different points in our lives. I was in college on 9/11; they were in elementary school. I was in grad school and looking for work during the Great Recession; they were still living with their parents.
Some argue that the split between us is so big that older millennials like me should actually get our own category (sometimes combined with younger members of Generation X). Our so-called micro-generation has been dubbed the Xennials, the Oregon Trail Generation, and – most recently, and controversially – Geriatric Millennials.
“It’s important not to label those within a 20-year span as being the same,” says Erica Dhawan, a researcher, author and consultant who coined the “Geriatric Millennial” term in a piece for Medium last year. Like me, she says she just never felt like the millennial label suited her.
To make things even more confusing, there’s no concrete definition of when the millennial generation begins and ends. The 1991 book credited with introducing the term states that millennials were born in 1982. Widely cited definitions on the Pew Research Center’s website describe millennials as those born between 1981 and 1996. Other researchers have floated theories that millennials were born in the late 1970s and even up to the early 2000s.
The way we talk about groups of people born in any given period – and the names we use to describe them – can change over time. “Gen Y” used to be a more common way to label our generation, before “millennials” gained momentum.
No matter what name or definition you use, there’s a sizable age gap between the older and younger members of our generation, and a wide range of life experiences we’ve all had.
Can there still be value in looking at things this way?
“It’s a useful lens, but it’s not the only one,” says Parker of the Pew Research Center, “and it’s important to take into account all the other factors that are causing these differences rather than just being part of a generation.”
Now that I know I’m a millennial, I’m not ready to give up the label just yet. But I do want to help set the record straight and shed these persistent stereotypes about our generation (full disclosure: I do love avocado toast).
The question haunts my husband and I – popping up in conversations with friends, loved ones and even strangers.
“Are you thinking of buying a house?”
For years that milestone didn’t matter much to either of us. We’ve house-sat, and rented, and focused our energy and finances on doing things we enjoy together in our free time.
But now that we have a daughter, buying a house feels like something we should have done already. It also feels like something that’s increasingly out of reach, as housing costs remain high and mortgage rates skyrocket.
We’re not alone in feeling like we’re behind in taking this big step, according to Kevin Mahoney, a financial advisor in Washington who specializes in helping millennials.
“People are really stressed about not being homeowners,” he says. “One thing I try to communicate to them is, it’s OK to rent. You’re buying yourself flexibility. You’re buying yourself time to figure out what you want your next 20 years or next 10 years to look like.”
Despite frequent handwringing over millennials not buying homes, Mahoney also points out that plenty are. One reason for America’s housing crunch, he says, is that more millennials are now entering the housing market.
Older millennials aged 32-41 made up a quarter of homebuyers this year, according to a National Association of Realtors report, and millennials have been the largest share of homebuyers since 2014.
But as CNN has reported, many millennials are worse off than their parents.
And millennials are less likely to own homes at this point in their lives than previous generations. There’s a good reason for that, says Gray Kimbrough, an economist and adjunct professor at American University who’s repeatedly taken to Twitter to dispel myths about millennials.
“It’s gotten harder to buy a house if you don’t already own one,” he says, “which makes it really hard to buy a house if you’re in your 20s or 30s and have rented for years.”
Not to mention that millennials have faced a far bleaker financial picture than older generations, Kimbrough says.
“It’s really hard to think about getting married, having kids, moving out with roommates, and making any of these transitions with the housing market like we have now,” Kimbrough says.
My husband and I are trying not to be too overwhelmed by this daunting reality.
We’re visiting open houses on most weekends and planning to meet with mortgage brokers soon.
By this time next year, we hope we’ll be living in a home that we own.
Jason Dorsey tells me he often asks a question when he’s invited to visit companies and speak with their employees: “How many of you are millennials?”
Generally, he says, just a few hands timidly go up.
“They’re expecting it to be negative, because that’s unfortunately what we’ve been framed as for the last 15 years,” Dorsey says.
That’s around when Dorsey says he saw anti-millennial hype intensifying. Back in 2007, he appeared on a “60 Minutes” segment ominously titled, “The Millennials Are Coming.”
Reporter Morley Safer didn’t pull any punches in the piece’s introduction: “A new breed of American worker is about to attack everything you hold sacred: from giving orders, to your starched white shirt and tie.”
He went on to warn that “the workplace has become a psychological battlefield and the millennials have the upper hand,” describing a generation that can “multitask, talk, walk, listen and type, and text.”
“They talked about us like we were space aliens,” Dorsey recalls.
I missed that segment when it came out; I was a newspaper reporter at the time, likely scrambling to cover breaking news on the weekend night shift that started my much-longer-than-40-hour work week.
I think I would have found the premise problematic even then, but now, with the clarity of hindsight, the “60 Minutes” story seems almost cartoonish – another chapter in a tale as old as time. “Anxious Older Generation Worries Naïve Younger Generation Is Destroying Everything” could have been an equally fitting title.
Consultant and author Lindsey Pollak, who advises companies on how to navigate multigenerational workplaces, thinks the rise of social media is partly to blame for millennials’ longstanding bad rap. Pollak says our generation came of age under a microscope unlike any generation before us.
“All the criticism of the millennials – we said it about every generation, but it was just amplified by the internet and social media,” she told me.
Dorsey says that during his presentations, details about millennials often surface that surprise many people in the room.
“It turns out they’re the largest generation in that company’s workforce,” he says.
He finds that many employees had bought into the stereotype and assumed millennials were slackers or flakes. But actually, he says, millennials are often among a company’s most successful workers and managers. And by the end of his presentation, all of them are raising their hands.
Kimbrough tells me millennials have been staying in jobs for just as long as previous generations.
“Obviously people earlier in their careers shift jobs at a higher rate than people later in their careers,” he says. “Millennials have not been uniquely more likely to job-hop earlier in their careers. Actually, they’re switching jobs less. There’s actually been a big decline in job-switching since about 2000.”
It’s been more than 12 years since I’ve switched jobs. And I’m hoping to stay in this one for many more.
Like me, many of my friends have been working for their employers for more than a decade. Others would have stayed, but found themselves the victims of corporate restructuring.
Repeatedly weathering economic crises is an important piece of millennials’ story, too.
“So many times, millennials tell me they finally feel like they’re on the right track,” Dorsey says, “and then something happens that’s beyond their control.”
I remember when my dad turned 40. The mere idea of it seemed ANCIENT to me. His coworkers taped black crepe paper around his photo and hung it around the office. I was 9, and gave him a framed poem I’d written about how he shouldn’t feel bad about getting old.
“The gears in your head are still turning around,” I wrote, “and your brain still works, as far as I’ve found.”
So, yes, the idea that now somehow I’m 40 is something I’m still trying to wrap my head around. On most days, I still see myself as a young adult finding my way in this crazy, confusing world.
But when I commiserate with my husband about our ever-growing list of weird aches and pains, about how we don’t really like going to loud restaurants anymore, and about The Way Things Used To Be, I realize I’m not quite ancient, but I’m definitely more middle-aged than I’d care to admit.
Still, when I first read last year that the oldest millennials were starting to turn 40, that detail jumped out at me. The concept seemed so surprising. For so long, we’ve seen the same picture painted of millennials over and over.
“People talk about millennials as though it’s this universal term for young people…which it’s not,” Pollak says.
Sometimes, when I look at my daughter, this idea really sharpens into focus as I feel my age hurtling toward me like a ton of bricks.
She’s so much younger than I was at this point in my parents’ lives. Or, put another way, I’m already so much older than my parents were when they were raising me. I was nearly 39 years old when my daughter was born. My husband had just turned 41. When she graduates from high school and heads to college, we’ll both be nearly 60. And if she waits as long as we did to have kids – if she decides that’s right for her – we could be 80 when we become grandparents.
Thinking about things this way fills me with anxiety and a tinge of sadness.
Writer Amil Niazi, who turned 40 this year and has two young children, describes it perfectly – talking about how she finds herself constantly doing this kind of math and “getting hung up on the numbers.”
“Now that I have these tiny, sweet, loving kids, all I want is more time with them, to hit pause, not on their growing and changing, but on me and the version of myself as a parent that I am right now,” she wrote in a recent piece for The Cut, where she’s also explored how hard and confusing it is to be middle-aged. “To pause the back and knee pain that grows a little more sharply every year, to halt the gray hairs and the high cholesterol, skip over the inevitable medical scares and exhaustion that seem to envelop more and more of my days.”
Niazi, like me and so many other middle-aged millennials, has been coming to terms with what it means not to be young anymore.
“My entire life … the cultural story has always been about our youth. And it’s always been about us as this sort of young disruptive generation that was too spoiled, that had arrested development, that was upending family life, retirement, housing, employment,” Niazi told me. “We’ve grown up seeing ourselves that way, as the young upstarts, as the disruptors, as the people around whom culture, and especially youth culture, are shaped. Of course we’re going to feel fed up about the fact that we’re now middle aged.”
Recently, I stopped by a bookstore with my daughter to pick up a few gifts.
She’s almost 18 months old and walking now, and as soon as I put her down she bounded over to the magazine section, where there were plenty of things to explore right at her eye level.
“Mommy!” she exclaimed as she gleefully pointed at the cover of a magazine and plucked it off the rack.
A beaming brunette looked out at me from beneath the title, “Look Great Over 50.”
“She does look pretty great,” I thought to myself, “but OVER 50?!”
Maybe my daughter was just sharing her joy at browsing in the bookstore? Surely, she couldn’t think I was more than a decade older than I am already.
But as she wandered around the magazine section for the next 20 minutes, she kept coming back to that one, saying “Mommy” every time.
I almost corrected her. “Oh, that isn’t Mommy,” was on the tip of my tongue when I realized it doesn’t matter if somehow she does see me on that magazine cover.
There is so much I’m still trying to figure out, so much all of us – millennials and non-millennials alike – are struggling with as we make our way through life.
As Niazi notes, the math is truly daunting. And as this year so painfully reminded me, we never know how much time we’ll have with the ones we love.
With all this uncertainty, there is one thing I know: My daughter and I are so lucky to be together right now, sharing an evening in a bookstore – something I did with my parents, and something I’d always dreamed of doing if I ever had a child of my own.
As I watch her toddle down the aisles of the store, I feel so proud of how happy and curious she seems to be.
Her generation doesn’t even have a name yet – or at least not one we know will stick. No matter what we call them someday, I can’t wait to see what they do.