Most stories about "millennials" focus on middle-class, educated twentysomethings, while the ones who grew up poor or working-class are simply ignored. Welcome to Uncovered, a series that sheds light on this forgotten group of our generation.
I often tell the story about the moment I realized the term “millennial” was bullshit. I was in Milwaukee in 2013, interviewing a few twenty-something employees at a startup, the kind with kegs, murals, and branded longboards. They used the “m” word liberally, as well as terms like “our generation” and “people our age.” They told me they wrestled with issues well-covered in the mainstream media: grappling with downward mobility and a seemingly worthless college degree, searching for meaning in the workplace, harnessing technology for success. They talked about Milwaukee’s gorgeous lake and how empowered they felt by the business-friendly city. Even though they were currently cash-poor, I got the sense that these optimists were going to be fine.
Then I stepped out of their adorable downtown loft space into the street, where fast food workers happened to be rallying for $15 an hour. Most of those workers looked to be under 30, black or Hispanic, and not the least bit concerned with the issues of the white startup kids. Brief chats with them revealed that they were more worried about being able to feed their children, staying safe in their neighborhoods, or juggling community college with three crappy jobs. They were the young people whose families couldn’t afford to send them checks, whose parents didn’t have a basement for them to languish in.
I understood then just how much talk of “millennials” had been aggressively focused on college-educated, upper-middle-class young people, even though they were hardly in the majority. There was a swath of millennials out there who grew up with entirely different financial baselines and cultural values, and they were being ignored.
It’s not that we don’t hear about the youngest generation’s financial woes: One in five “millennials”— defined by the Pew Research Center as people born between 1981 and 1997—are poor. Almost 50 percent are either unemployed or overqualified for their jobs. Two-thirds have long-term debt. But these problems are often framed as “failure to launch” rather than being part-and-parcel of a deep-seated economic divide. These studies don’t parse out who grew up poor and who didn’t. But considering that half of Baby Boomers have not saved for retirement and only 35% of Gen Xers have a college education, statistically it’s safe to say that many of their twentysomething children grew up poor or economically struggling.
You’d never know this by reading most “millennials” media coverage.
Perhaps journalists are fascinated by millennials because media is run by older generations who resent us. Maybe it’s because we’re such a gargantuan, diverse cohort, or because we unleashed our political power in the 2008 election just as our economic prospects went down the toilet. Whatever the reason, the obsession has been palpable since the mid-aughts—and laser-focused. Writers lob insults aimed specifically at middle-class young people: they’re narcissistic, entitled, and whiny; they refuse to grow up; they’re glued to their phones. More sympathetic writers worry about the rude awakening these same overeducated kids have had after college.
Or else “thought leaders” and TED talkers praise the idealistic, entrepreneurial busy bees working at tech companies and voting for Democrats—also a highly educated, well-to-do population. Stories about campus life focus on the same fancy schools over and over: Ivies like Yale and Columbia, artsy havens like Bard and Wesleyan, prestigious state universities like University of Michigan and University of Virginia.
In this coverage, the millions who grew up poor and have stayed that way are brushed aside. Or even lambasted. Joel Stein’s 2013 TIME magazine cover story indicting the “Me Me Me Generation” dismissed this group in one racist sentence: “These aren’t just rich kid problems: poor millennials have even higher rates of narcissism, materialism and technology addiction in their ghetto-fabulous lives.”
Meanwhile, poverty reporting is usually divorced from the generational conversation. Many of the exploited nail salon workers in Sarah Maslin Nir’s viral expose are technically “millennials.” So is Dasani’s mother, prominently featured in Andrea Elliott’s 2013 blockbuster portrait of a homeless New York family. Stories about young black men in prison and homeless youth don’t have “millennial” in the headline, nevermind the text. The underlying message is that working class people live in a trendless vacuum. They don’t fit into navel-gazing generational narratives.
This appalling cognitive dissonance isn’t new. Media obsessions over Gen X and Baby Boomers were just as focused on the richer half of the generation. “I knew the phrase to make a living could have absolutely no meaning to these children of the affluent society,” sneered a Life magazine writer in 1968, erasing the nearly 10 percent of young people who were living in desperate poverty at the time. TIME magazine bemoaned the entitlement of “twentysomethings” in 1990: "They have trouble making decisions. They would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder.” As if every twentysomething had a choice between a thrilling adventure and a hedge fund job.
Since my “millennial reporting” days, I’ve been tempted to eschew the entire concept of a generational identity—particularly that of the largest, most diverse generation in history. “Generational thinking is seductive, and for some of us it confirms our preconceived prejudices, but it’s fatally flawed as a mode of understanding the world,” wrote Rebecca Onion in a recent piece in Aeon aptly titled “Against Generations.” She then quotes cultural historian Siva Vaidhyanathan putting it even more succinctly: “Generational thinking is just a benign form of bigotry.”
And yet, practically, generational designations do matter. Labels and affinities lead to unity and critical mass, which in turn yield political power; a presidential candidate isn’t going to address the concerns of a silent, invisible group that gets little media shine. Poor twentysomethings deserve their own nuanced stories without being sequestered into the category of poverty writing, which tends to have the same melancholy timbre no matter what era it’s written in. More than two decades after Neil Howe and William Strauss coined the term, the “millennial” designation has not gone away. So we should at least begin to acknowledge the ones that are missing from the same tired narrative.
Read about the struggling twentysomethings who’ve never even heard of the word “millennial.”