For years, viral media posts asked how millennials would save the world. But now things seem less certain than ever, the promised changes have yet to materialize, and millennials born in the early 1980s (also known as elder millennials) are entering their 40s. Ultimately, millennials as a generation have been defined by the loss of potential, but they have found new and exciting ways to adapt and reshape the culture – proving that rather than being “snowflakes” they’re actually quite resilient.
As quickly as they arrived, it seems like millennials might be over. For years, viral media posts asked how millennials – people born between 1981 and 1996 – would save the world and embrace new technology in order to fundamentally change things. But now things seem less certain than ever, and the promised changes have yet to materialize, and millennials born in the early 1980s, also known as elder millennials or “geriatric” millennials, are entering their 40s.
“I am a millennial, but I am an elder! I’ll tell you the tale of the landline.” - Iliza Shlesinger, Elder Millennial
Some of the most powerful people in the world are elder millennials. But are they losing their cultural capital? And what are they like as they approach middle age or become parents?
Ultimately, millennials as a generation have been defined by the loss of potential, whether that’s through social media, their fleeting pop culture dominance, or the concept of the traditional family. But in each case, millennials have found new and exciting ways to adapt and reshape the culture – proving that rather than being “snowflakes” they’re actually quite resilient.
So where is the Elder Millennial today – and will they be okay?
Where Are They Now? The Lost Generation
Millennials, and especially older millennials, are at risk of getting lost. They’re trapped between gen-x and boomers, a generation that has held onto power for decades, and Gen Z, which now holds cultural capital and collective fascination. Practically as long as we’ve been telling stories about older millennials, we’ve been telling stories about the fact that they’ve been pushed out by younger people.
For older millennials, the entry into adulthood was, from the beginning, a story of loss, as the generation graduated from college around or just after the 2008 financial crisis. This is part of why Girls is one of the most recognizable portraits of older millennials; the girls of Girls remain just that – “girls” in arrested development, unable to grow up into women – in part because of how little room they’ve been given to actually make a career.
“Do you know how crazy the economy is right now? I mean, all my friends get help from their parents.” - Hannah, Girls, 1x01
Hannah and her friends are millennials who have spent their entire adult lives blamed for their own financial and personal problems, whether it’s thanks to the idea that they were ruined by “participation trophies” and the expectation of success, or the viral myth that they spend all their money on avocado toast.
Termed the “Me Me Me Generation”, millennials have been described as lazy and entitled for years and widely assumed to be obnoxiously self-centered, if not full-on narcissistic.
“I am a millennial. We are known for our entitlement and narcissism.” - Madison Montgomery, American Horror Story, 3x07
Meanwhile, millennials who have managed to carve out success for themselves don’t like being identified as millennials at all. Some didn’t even call themselves millennials a decade ago when “millennial” had the implication of youth.
It’s hard to blame them for wanting to avoid the label: even though the oldest millennials are in their 40s, the dominant narrative about them hasn’t changed. Stories about how millennials spend too much money on food and Netflix subscriptions continue to this day, even though the real reason millennials are less likely to own property is because their wages are stagnant. It took 15 years for older millennials to recover from the devastation of the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession, followed by the added burdens of the Covid-19 pandemic. This has left millennials with a sense of powerlessness and a need to find new ways to define themselves – and it’s made them susceptible to nihilism.
“It seems that our one defining trait is a numbness to the world, an indifference to suffering.” - Madison, American Horror Story, 3x07
No show has captured that helplessness and frustrated need for meaning better than Search Party, perhaps the definitive portrayal of older millennials. Following its opening scene at brunch, much of the series is a long, extended joke about millennials, exploring how the generation’s difficult financial circumstances have, in fact, made some of the stereotypes true.
“Working feels bad and I don’t ever wanna work one more day in my entire life.” - Elliott, Search Party 2x08
At the beginning of Search Party, older millennial protagonist Dory ropes her friends into looking for a missing college acquaintance – but she’s really driven by a profound lack of meaning or purpose in her aimless life. And it turns out the whole quest is for nothing – they were looking for someone who never needed rescuing.
This expectation of big events that fail to materialize is the perfect representation of the elder millennial experience. But Dory keeps searching – and by the time the series ends her striving for enlightenment and improving the world have done a ton more damage than anything she set out to fix. So there’s a creeping feeling that her fatal mistake was ever trying to achieve more or expecting to find meaning in this existential wasteland in the first place.
The Millennial Social Revolution: A Hollow Victory
If the early years of the millennial generation were defined by anything, it was the rise of the internet. The internet came with a promise of openness and connectivity, an ideal that fueled the young adulthood of many millennials. Many of the early successful millennials made billions based on the idea that the internet had the potential to connect people, and rise above the divisions that had defined the 20th century.
“We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the internet.” - Sean Parker, The Social Network
And there’s a sense in which this promise came true; movements like the Arab Spring were fueled by widespread access to social media, which made it possible for protestors to communicate rapidly and actualized the potential of an open internet.
“Millions of people in one country after another were tasting freedom of expression for the very first time.” - Richard Gizbert, The Listening Post
But on the other hand, the companies that embodied the promise of openness and connection have proven that, in fact, it might not be the best thing to have everyone constantly plugged in all the time.
Recent shows looking back at the hype of 2010s tech unicorns explore the disconnect between what was promised through millennial culture and what actually materialized. WeCrashed dramatizes how WeWork rose thanks to cool-sounding rhetoric of togetherness and a lifestyle revolution but was ultimately exploiting low-paid labor to enrich people at the top.
Jacob: “We can’t lose the millennials. We need them.”
Rebekah Neumann: “Why?”
Jacob: “Because they work 80 hours a week for free beer and T-shirts.”
- WeCrashed, 1x03
And The Dropout’s story of Theranos CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, captures how millennial optimism and hopes of changing the world could be easily co-opted by a few bad actors and reduced to empty words in service of raising money.
The 2000s and 2010s millennial culture did radically change dominant aesthetics and the starting points of cultural conversations – yet it seemed that little of that impact returned as concrete gains or security for the regular young people who believed they were on the cusp of important change.
The Millennial Family: Changing with the Times
As elder millennials have started to enter middle age, they’ve also been forced to confront that their options for families are fundamentally different from those of their parents and grandparents. Birth rates are declining and, as Business Insider reports, “People of childbearing age, many of whom are millennials, are delaying having children” – often for economic reasons.
We see this reflected onscreen. Previous generations of aspirational TV comedies followed upwardly mobile professionals, who were able to live the American dream.
Chandler: “We’re getting a house.”
Monica: “And a baby.”
Chandler: “We’re growing up.”
- Friends, 10x10
But the Friends equivalent for this generation, New Girl, follows several millennials with stagnant careers, packed into an apartment that’s far less glamorous than Rachel’s and Monica’s, sharing a lifestyle that still feels like a college dorm.
Millennials onscreen are having kids later, having fewer kids, and having more problems when they do. The millennial characters who do get to have traditional families often have compromised their morals or their dreams, cynically assimilating into industries and systems largely controlled by boomers so they can pay for a mortgage and schools. And even when they’ve achieved a semblance of stability, they’re often still living in the past.
Millennial TV series You’re the Worst explores this demographic through Rob and Lexi, a “cool” millennial couple with a young child. At first, series protagonist Gretchen follows Rob and Lexi around, fixating on them as an example of what she could have if she and her boyfriend, Jimmy, were able to commit to having a child and a house while still remaining “cool”. But the illusion falls away fast: adulthood simply fits wrong on Rob and Lexi, and Rob confides in Gretchen that he also feels adrift and regrets his choices. There’s simply no way to have it all.
Rob and Lexi, and the older millennials they represent, are trying to cling to their fading cultural cachet – but at the same time, they don’t want to change with the times, or work to understand how things could be different for the younger generation.
Lexi: “She’s never gonna make a good stepmom.
Rob: “Doing YouTube makeup tutorials is not a career.”
- You’re the Worst, 2x09
The lack of opportunities millennials have had can help explain why they feel so attached to their cultural capital and unwilling to let it slip away, even as they’re equally anxious to hang onto any level of available financial security. Millennials have long been heavily defined by the communities they form online and, specifically, around pop culture.
Millennials are the generation that made Harry Potter, the initial audience for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the drivers behind the entertainment industry’s commitment to trying to cultivate larger fandoms. But after only about a decade of millennial cultural dominance, the tides are already turning in favor of gen-z, which is now the object of collective fascination.
“I know your generation relied on flowers and fathers’ permission, but it’s 2019, and unless you’re Amish, nudes are the currency of love, so stop shaming us.” - Rue, Euphoria, 1x01
Still, elder millennials do have certain power and potential available to them as they enter this middle-age period. Many have been leaving their jobs in large numbers as part of the “Great Resignation,” making them some of the most powerful people in the workforce.
As the generation who grew up along with the internet, they’re arguably the best positioned to run hybrid workplaces. Even the general fact that millennials exist between boomers and gen-z means they can mediate between these two very different generational poles.
Millennials have been defined, above all, by crisis. They’ve been caught up in a series of cascading crises that have left them in a much different world than the one they were promised. Even amidst 2022’s rising inflation, some experts note that the middle-aged (i.e. elder millennials) are among the worst affected by it. But millennial so-called “snowflakes” have had to become incredibly resilient, adaptive, and creative in the face of all these challenges. They’ve helped to redefine so many cultural standards in far-reaching ways that paved the way for gen-z’s outlook to have a fundamentally different starting point. So even at this low moment in millennials’ political and literal capital, we haven’t seen the last of this generation’s power.
“Be nice to the millennials. We’ll be controlling your Medicare soon.” - James Aubrey, Bones, 10x2
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