It's a rite of passage for each generation to get bashed by the media. The baby boomers were the original "me" generation, as they were dubbed by Tom Wolfe in the 1970s. In their 20s, they were portrayed as rebellious individualists who threatened to destroy all that was good about post-World War II America. Once the boomers grew up, got jobs and started families, they turned around and attacked Gen Xers, whom they characterized as apathetic, MTV-addled misanthropes.
Now it's the millennials' turn to take the blame for the downfall of society. Recently, in this newspaper, columnist Chris Erskine informed millennials that they are not really adults until they pledge to vote, pick their battles, drive without texting and hug their mothers, among other requirements. The reaction from millennials, Erskine later wrote, was predictably smug and humorless.
I was surprised by Erskine's pledge, not because finger-wagging at twentysomethings is anything new but because I thought we'd already hit peak millennial-trashing. Criticism of the millennial generation has become so familiar that the best jokes about it are meta. In August, a graphic designer and programmer named Eric Bailey created a browser extension that automatically replaces all Internet references to "millennials" with the words "snake people."
There's a discernible rhythm to media coverage of each generation as it ages. A generation is identified and named when most of its members are children or in their early teens. Around age 18, commentators and reporters start shaming and blaming these almost-adults for the decline of Western civilization. The reasons vary by generation: It's because of rebellion (boomers), apathy (Gen X) or selfishness (millennials).
Once a generation begins shouldering professional and familial obligations, there's a steep decline in media coverage. ("The members of Generation X have plenty to be grumpy about. For starters, no one talks about them anymore," reported Bloomberg Businessweek this year.) They are our workhorses, no longer sucking up resources from Mom's basement and not yet draining our national coffers as retirees. In other words, they're boring. But once they hit their 60s, the trend stories pick up again. Lately, boomers have received almost as much negative press as their laziest-generation sons and daughters.
Strange to say, apart from baby boomers, the Census Bureau does not define generations. It's media outlets and academics that draw these arbitrary lines by birth year. Yet the temptation to define and judge younger generations is easy to understand: We are anxious about the future. More specifically, we are anxious about a future in which our values and lifestyle have been rendered obsolete. Documenting the way the younger generation lives — and the values it holds — is a way of figuring out whether we'll still be relevant in 10, 20, 30 years. It's a crystal ball. And, typically, we don't like what we see.
It's easy for me to not take millennial criticism personally because, while I squeak into the category — born in 1982 — many of the hallmarks of this much-maligned generation don't apply to me. Yes, I'm comfortable on the Internet, but I spent my entire childhood in the pre-social-media era. I could legally buy beer before I owned my first cellphone. I like to text, but I'm not afraid to make a phone call. I almost exclusively stream music now, but I buy records too. I have healthy self-esteem, but I wasn't coddled. I didn't move back in with my parents as an adult. I've participated in social-justice marches and in hashtag-activism campaigns. Aligning these details with trend stories, it looks as if I am of every generation and none at all.
Perhaps a lack of generational identity is a trend in itself.
"Thirty or 40 years ago, there were stark, clear differences in generational likes and dislikes," wrote Neil Howe in Governing magazine in 2012. "Youthful boomers invented the generation gap and the notion that you shouldn't trust anyone over 30. Boomers actively, purposefully chose to have nothing in common with their parents. Not so today."
Apparently boomers and their millennial kids — and presumably the members of Gen X in between — are using the same apps, listening to the same music, watching the same shows. "The generation gap," the article concludes, "has been erased."
I do think that the generational differences highlighted by trend reports and listicles are not as stark as their authors would have us believe. (I'm living proof.) Still, that belief hasn't stopped me from consuming trend reports and listicles about Generation Z. Apparently, teenagers are not addicted to their phones and they're managing their brands, clarifies Fast Company. "As for the Web, violence, porn, they've already seen it all," explains Business Insider. They value privacy and are already deleting some of their social media accounts, according to Teen Vogue.
This crop of post-millennial teenagers is still being described with breathless curiosity, not outright annoyance. They should enjoy it while it lasts. Their time will come soon enough.
Ann Friedman is a contributing writer to Opinion.