It was odd, this morning, to spot this piece by Chelsea Clinton debunking myths about Millennials. Odd, mainly, because while Clinton refers to them as somewhat alien, she is by most definitions a Millennial herself. Except, like me, it’s quite apparent that she doesn’t see herself that way.
Millennials are commonly categorized by a few things: materialism, a desire for wealth, digital nativism, anti-competitiveness, and helicopter parents. Of course, that’s a shallow assessment, but that’s how generational definitions work. Much has been written about the Millennials (or “Digital Natives,” or “Generation Y”) and I’ve read much of it. And the more I read, the less I relate.
The thing is, digital natives are often described as having grown up online. They are faster than their parents at adapting to new technologies, they “natively” understand how to use them. When I read Palfrey and Gasser’s Born Digital—which defines this generation as starting with those born in 1980—the truth was, I couldn’t relate. I think I even left a comment on an internal wiki as such: that I felt they generation they were describing actually started somewhere around 1985; that is, those young people likely to have been born with a wired computer in their home, who probably got a mobile phone in high school. Not me.
And then there’s the generation prior, Gen X: They were all the rage when I was a kid reading teen magazines. They were the ones challenging the norms, watching MTV, philosophizing, slacking off. I knew I was on the far end, if included at all, but I nevertheless related to the media of the time.
This morning, after reading Clinton’s piece—a perspective I can relate to—I looked up the age ranges of each generation, just to check. Turns out, I’ve been (sort of) right all along.
Generation X is defined, variously, by the following age ranges:
Generation Y, on the other hand, is said to begin in either 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, or 1983.
That puts a whole lot of us right on the cusp. Having been born in mid-1982 myself, I can see why: While “my generation” grew up watching the Real World and worrying about AIDS, many of us also got online at an early age (for me, 11) and owned mobile phones in high school (I was 17, but it was a total brick). While we embraced Slacker and Reality Bites, its protagonists were actually our older brothers and sisters. But while we use Facebook, it wasn’t released until after we graduated from university.
Thankfully, I’m not the first person to present this conundrum. In an article featuring danah boyd, Fast Company references what it calls Generation Flux, while Slate cheekily refers to us in-betweens as, alternately, “Generation-I-Watched-Saved-by-the-Bell-in-its-first-run,” “Generation Jem,” and “Generation Catalano” (and being just two years younger than the fictional Angela Chase, I totally get that one).
Does any of this really matter? When I asked on Twitter this morning, I found a large number of people that felt that generational divisions are just “marketing BS.” In large part, I agree, and yet as a member of the in-betweens (or, as I’m going with from now on, Generation Catalano), it resonates with me that two of the best shows of our generation—My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks—were cancelled because they “failed to resonate with the broader population,” according to Slate writer Doree Shafrir. It may not matter when you’re a part of something, but it matters a little when you feel alienated from all of it.
As Shafrir writes, “This urge to define generations is also about a yearning for a collective memory in an increasingly atomized world, at least where my generation is concerned.” Indeed, it is. In the US, I relate to my age peers through the television we watched as kids and teens (on its first run, that is), through the video game systems we owned (Coleco Vision then GameBoy for me), and through the age at which we first used the Internet. Globally, it’s some of the same things, plus music, the fall of the Berlin wall, the start of the Euro. We are solidly in between, searching for something that we may not find.
Finally: “Generation Catalano is never fully comfortable with its place in the world; we wander away from the periphery and back again.” I think that sounds about right.