How Millennials Outgrew These Tired Tropes

Millennials in the real world are full-fledged adults now, so why does millennial representation on screen often feel like a caricature rather than the real thing? Millennials in TV and movies often seem to be in a state of arrested development, taking longer to settle down into a career or a relationship. Our onscreen millennials also struggle to find purpose, in part because they believe they should be doing something big and important. Here’s our take on the onscreen millennial: what it gets right, what it gets wrong, and whether it holds a mirror up to real life or is more of a hall of mirrors.


Millennials in the real world are full-fledged adults now – many of them are parents, homeowners, and leaders in the workforce, running our companies and even making our films and television. So why does millennial representation on screen often feel like a caricature rather than the real thing?

Millennials in TV and movies often seem to be in a state of arrested development, taking longer to settle down into a career or a relationship. And while this isn’t so far from the truth – as millennials are getting married at older ages than their previous generations – 44% of them are married and the millennial divorce rate is the lowest it’s been in years.

Thanks to their careful partner selection process – which onscreen representations may present as “unlucky in love” is actually helping millennials find the right one in reality. Our onscreen millennials also struggle to find purpose, in part because they believe they should be doing something big and important – they believe their generation is going to be the one that changes the world.

Birdy: “You think people can still get jobs by being precocious to some bigwig who says ‘I’m taking a chance on you kid.’” – Everything I Know About Love

And of course, on screen and in real life, millennials and technology are never far apart. They were the first generation of digital natives and the first generation on social media – it’s no wonder it sometimes feels like millennials own the internet. But now that a new generation of digital natives has emerged, how well does that depiction of millennials hold up? Here’s our take on the onscreen millennial: what it gets right, what it gets wrong, and whether it holds a mirror up to real life or is more of a hall of mirrors.

One of the most iconic millennial tropes is the quarter life crisis. The concept of a quarter life crisis goes back generations, but while gen-x slackers were depicted as happy to do nothing, the millennial quarter-life crisis is often spurred by a great anxiety that they should be doing something

Search Party satirizes this millennial quarter-life crisis when its main character, Dory Sief, decides to lead the search for Chantal, her former college classmate who has gone missing. Despite the fact that Dory and Chantal weren’t really that close, she uses the disappearance as a way to give her life meaning and direction. When she finds out that Chantal was actually fine and not really in any danger at all, her world comes crumbling down.

Dory was never actually trying to find Chantal; she was just trying to do something worthwhile. And Search Party offers another perspective on the millennial quarter-life crisis through Dory’s friend Elliott. Elliott’s life story is built around the lie that he’s a cancer survivor. Elliott is thrown into crisis when Dory’s friend Julian reveals the truth in an article. Much like Dory’s – Elliot’s quarter-life crisis represents the millennial desire to be extraordinary – or maybe more accurately – the fear of being just plain ordinary.

Elliot: “I’m gonna be an author. My agent’s selling a memoir about my life as a liar.” — Search Party

Similarly, in While We’re Young, Jamie lies about his connection to the subject of his documentary. He admires the older filmmaker Josh, played by Ben Stiller, and wants to be an important artist like him, but when his lie comes to light it’s clear that there’s a hollowness and an entitlement at the center of his desire.

This same ungrounded quest for purpose is represented in Fleabag’s guinea pig cafe, Hannah Horvath’s dream of being a great writer, Lady Bird’s youthful activism, and Mabel’s murder mystery podcast she makes with two people she just met. In all these representations of millennials, their big unachieved dreams and their unfulfilled desire for purpose leave them seeming aimless. They have so much potential, but their own indecision about what avenue to go down leaves them stuck treading water in place.

Aksel: “You seem to be waiting for something. I don’t know what.” — The Worst Person In The World

And this aimlessness does reflect a real truth about the millennial generation. Writing for Bustle, Iris Kamenev theorizes why Millennials are perceived as a “lost generation.” She attributes it in part to the decision fatigue that comes from having more options than any generation before – “with all of the impossible choices that we have to make, isn’t it only natural that we want to put them off for as long as possible?”

Cal Newport also points out in the Harvard Business Review that Millennials have experienced a unique pressure to “follow their passion,” which has created unrealistic expectations about what a fulfilling career looks like. With all of these options and so much pressure to find the best one, is it any wonder Millennials are struggling for direction?

Millennials are often depicted as going through it together. Many of our movies and TV shows feature groups of millennial friends – navigating their lives and coming of age together – and supporting each other while they try to overcome the same obstacles.

One of the most common tropes of millennial friendship is the apartment share. Often, the roommates in these stories live together out of necessity, because of their generation’s financial precarity – which isn’t so far from reality. 1 in 4 Millennials say they plan on being “forever renters,” giving up on the American dream of homeownership – and more Millennials are sharing that rent with roommates than the generations before them.

At the start of New Girl, for example, none of the characters can afford to rent by themselves or afford to leave a room in their loft vacant, so an unlikely friend group is pushed together by their material circumstances.

Jessica Day: “I wanna live here.”

Nick Miller: “I still have some questions. No offense, but we barely know you.” — New Girl

And this is even true when the characters are already friends – in Everything I Know About Love, Maggie and Birdy are old friends who meet Nell and Amara at university, but their friendship blossoms when none of them can afford living in the city alone, forcing them to share an apartment. There’s an intimacy and an energy to these shared apartments that goes beyond the classic apartments of 90s multi-cam sitcoms like Friends. In that show, even low-earning and unemployed characters like Joey and Rachel never lived with more than one roommate. But in these more modern millennial apartments, everyone lives together, and their shared home becomes the center of their social lives.

But while these shows often imply that millennial friendship is an inevitable fact of life, in reality, millennials self-report being the loneliest generation. Although 49% of millennials do have one to four close friends, these shows about easy millennial friendships rarely represent the other half of the generation. And for millennials who do have thriving friend groups, the way these groups come together on-screen can often feel inauthentic. According to a study done by Konnect, a quarter of millennials make all of their friends online.

So why are these shows about millennial friendship so committed to old-fashioned, offline ways of making friends?

Fran: “I have to know her.”

Annie Easton: “Let me just get my bearing for a second ok?” — Shrill

In We Are Lady Parts, the friend group comes together not through an apartment, but through a band that recruits its guitarist by posting paper flyers around town, which feels even more like something from a previous generation. The characters and their friendships do feel very accurate to the millennial experience – they deal with the uncertainty of their future and the desire to play at living a kind of life they can’t possibly yet afford. But the way they come together feels like something that’s happening less and less in real life.

Not all representations of millennial friendship miss the mark – in Sally Rooney’s work, for example, online communication is crucial in forming relationships. In Conversations With Friends, many of the titular conversations are digital, with people sending and receiving text messages and filling in the gaps with the real world interactions. In Normal People, Connell and Marianne’s relationship is able to grow because of the digital connections available in the modern world.

Even when far away from each other, their devices keep them close, and so items like phones and laptops become imbued with this romantic charge because of the moments they’re able to facilitate. These depictions feel more representative of the world millennials live in, where relationships are shaped by the forms of communication that generation has grown up with.

Underpinning a lot of millennial depictions is the idea they are a uniquely progressive, forward thinking generation, who are reshaping the world for the better. Whether it’s played for laughs or not, they are more often than not viewed as socially aware, politically correct, and overwhelmingly liberal.

Jacob Hill: “Climate change. We are living in the middle of its disastrous effects.” — Abbott Elementary

There is some truth to this – Millennials are more democratic-leaning than older generations, and those generational differences are only growing. But this generational divide is often over-exaggerated with the uber-woke millennial stereotype.

And sometimes that exaggerated stereotype can be used to dress up genuine obstacles the millennial generation is facing as a matter of progressive political choice. For example, it’s well-known that millennials aren’t having kids at the same rate as previous generations, with the cost of starting a family one of the primary reasons.

However, when we see child free women on screen, it’s rarely shown as a financial decision – instead, it’s written off as evidence of the shifting values and increased freedoms afforded to women in this generation. Similarly, as Kate Taylor points out in Business Insider, the notion that anti-capitalist millennials “killed” certain industries is often cast as millennials making conscious choices about where and when to spend their money, rather than the more prosaic reality that they simply don’t have as much money to support those industries in the first place.

But there are some shows that get closer to the real thing – rather than making light of Millennials as politically idealistic. Shows like Broad City emphasize the financial reality behind those political views. Abbi and Ilana live a less than glamorous hand-to-mouth existence that is unfortunately all-too-familiar to many millennials.

Abbi’s Mugger: “That’s your total equity? 374 dollars? You gotta keep more money in your bank account than that!” — `Broad City

They’re precariously employed and often try to game the system to make ends meet – doing everything from using coupons to selling stolen goods to returning items they no longer have a need for. Jessie in Starstruck also feels like a more accurate depiction of what millennial living is like – she works two jobs, neither of which get her any closer to what she actually wants to do. Often onscreen, big cities are seen as these exciting places full of opportunities, but for Jessie, the city is a drain and a constant reminder of how hard she has to fight just to get by.

We’re now starting to see these sometimes-inaccurate tropes about millennials get transplanted onto gen-z – and the two groups are being conflated with one another – bundled as generic “young people” who talk, think, and act in the same way. And while these generations do share some struggles, they’ve been shaped by completely different circumstances.

Millennials are the generation that came of age in the post 9/11-era, and now Gen-Z is coming of age in the aftermath of a totally different tragedy, the COVID-19 pandemic. These generations are more than cliches and two-dimensional depictions, and they deserve to be represented with more nuance than under the broad umbrella of “young people.”

In any case, some millennials are now — shhh — pushing forty, and they’re starting to tell stories about characters who are not-so-young anymore. So maybe the era of truly accurate, authentic millennial representation on screen is still to come.

Nadia Vulvokov “The universe is trying to f*ck with me and I refuse to engage.” — Russian Doll