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"Millennials": The history of a pre-packaged marketing term


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Writing for the New Republic, Laura Mash recounts the curious history of the overused and abused generational term “millennials.” It turns out that the term was coined before most so-called millennials were even out of high school, in a 2000 book called Millennials Rising by William Strauss and Neil Howe. In other words, before they even entered adulthood, millennials had a collective identity created for them. Unsurprisingly, Strauss and Howe also founded a consulting firm, LifeCourse Associates, which advised corporations on how to appeal to the generation they had invented. Read an excerpt from Mash’s article below or the full text here

Millennials Rising gave us the myth that millennials are hard-wired to share, describing this generation as optimistic “team players” who “gravitate towards collective power.” The authors also laid the groundwork for a thousand think-pieces attacking “coddled youth” and “trigger warnings,” cautioning that millennials in their upbringing would be “the most watched-over generation in memory.” One reviewer prophesied that the millennial college experience would “give a new meaning to the word ‘overprotective.’” The same reviewer also worried that millennials “could be led astray by a demagogue or use technology in Orwellian ways.” It’s as though the moral outrage of the 2010s had been written in advance, before there were any facts to get wrong.

Millennials Rising was just one part of a much bigger theory Strauss and Howe had developed about generational flux. As Howe put it in a C-SPAN interview, “Every generation belongs to one of four life-cycle types that seems to repeat in the same order over time.” There are generations of prophets, followed by nomads, heroes, then artists. The G.I. generation—whom they are fond of calling “the greatest generation”—are, obviously, heroes; a so-called Silent Generation are artists; the Boomers are prophets; Gen X they deem a lost cohort of nomads; and millennials are destined to be heroes like their war-era grandparents. In their 1991 book Generations: The History of America’s Future, they parceled the country’s history neatly into 18 generations, and went so far as to predict the American character up to the year 2069.

Despite skepticism about this fatalistic view of history, Strauss and Howe’s thinking about generations—and particularly about millennials—had outsize influence. While promoting Generations, Strauss boasted that “Al Gore is sending this book to every member of Congress, he believes in it so much.” The Washington Post’s review marveled at the word-of-mouth publicity the book had garnered. The authors expounded their theory in an 18-page feature in The Atlantic, and saw their ideas recycled in endless turn-of-the-millennium columns about the future of the country’s youth.

Image via the New Republic.