On August 21, 2015

The Millennials are coming

Sometimes, when I read my column in the Mountain Times, I wonder: does anyone actually use the phrase “Generation Y” anymore?

It’s been my impression lately that the term “Millennials” has almost completely replaced “Generation Y” in trend-based think-pieces. The actual data, which I looked up today, is not quite so dire, but it suggests that we’re headed in that direction.

Google Trends (a tool that graphs the popularity of search terms over time) and Chronicle (a website that tracks New York Times language usage) both indicate that, in popular culture, “Generation Y” is a considerably older term than “Millennials.” It seems to have come into vogue in 1999, when it appeared in ten Times articles (up from three in 1998), and to have peaked in 2013, when it appeared in 30 articles. Google Trends shows relatively steady interest in “Generation Y” between 2004 and 2015—again, however, with a peak in 2013 (specifically, in September of that year) and a slight trailing-off in recent months.

“Millennials,” on the other hand, virtually didn’t exist at all in the public’s mind until about 2007, but thereafter it blew up fairly quickly. The New York Times writers were early adopters; with them, “Millennials” had overtaken “Generation Y” by 2009 (27 articles vs. 24), while “Generation Y” retained its lead on Google until June of 2014.

In 2014, “Millennials” showed up in 268 New York Times articles, compared to 17 for “Generation Y.” The NYT count for 2015 thus far is 195 for “Millennials” and a paltry six for “Generation Y.” Google searchers now query “Millennials” about three times more often than they do “Generation Y.”

It’s also interesting to note that, on my initial attempt to track Google popularity for “Millennials,” I accidentally misspelled the word as “Millenials,” and I found that “Millenials,” too, is on the verge of eclipsing “Generation Y” in searches. As of August, it’s an extremely tight race, but when it happens, it may be the final nail in the coffin for “Generation Y”: it definitely can’t compete with “Millennials” if it can’t even compete with “Millenials.”

I started writing this column in 2008, just before the “Millennials” boom. I couldn’t have known.

Still, I can’t blame anyone for what’s happened. “Millennials” is a better term, in large part simply because it’s more functional: the collective noun “Generation Y” puts forth no clear term with which we might discuss a single member of the cohort—meanwhile, we can discuss both “Millennials” and a specific “Millennial” with ease. “Millennials” also feels more unique: while “Generation Y” lazily follows in the footsteps of “Generation X,” “Millennials” implies a specific, separate identity, joining its cohort to a major calendar shift and its symbolic new beginning in a way that allows its members to believe that they constitute a novel category of humans.

The other problem with “Generation Y,” I think, is that it too clearly connotes a successor and thus sets up the stealing of its own spotlight: why continue writing think-pieces about Generation Y when you could, in cutting-edge fashion, move on to Generation Z? “Millennials,” by contrast, offers no clear heir, and so cultural critics will have to continue to write about them until they can actually think of a catchy name for the kids born after 2000 (or 2002 or whatever).

That said, “Millennials” and “Generation Y” are, in my mind, synonymous: when you search for “Generation Y” on wikipedia, it redirects you to the page for “Millennials” (another sign that “Millennials” has won).

From this same wikipedia page, I learn that Millennials were born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s; they are “civic-minded” yet also suffer from “entitlement” and “narcissism.” They are increasingly irreligious and tend to support same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana. They seek “a more innovative work environment,” except that most of them are unemployed and live with their parents because they refuse to “grow up” and/or because of “the economy.”

According to various other sources, Millennials enjoy selfies, YouTube clips less than one in minute in duration, Buzzfeed listicles, and post-hangover meals in breakfast nooks. They like Barack Obama, but they like Bernie Sanders even more. They are lazy and “expect to be rewarded just for participating” but, paradoxically, are also hard-working and innovative. Archetypal Millennials include TV star Kim Kardashian, singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, swimmer Michael Phelps, rapper Drake, activist Malala Yousafzai, disc jockey Skrillex, and actor Michael Cera. Emblematic media products include HBO’s TV series “Girls,” LeBron James’s “The Decision” ESPN special, and Miley Cyrus’s music video for “Wrecking Ball.”

Of course, I don’t really believe too much in “generations”: 99 percent of what’s written about Millennials is designed to agitate old people, to flatter young people, or—most likely—to sell a product. Large-scale social and political changes do occur from decade to decade (as do variances in consumer patterns), obviously, but these shifts don’t issue forth from a unified cohort of youngsters. They are the cumulative product of countless distinct subgroups, the young and the old, whose personal advancements and regressions are more likely to result from economic and technological developments than fundamental alterations within the human character.

So why did I call this column “Generation Y”? Well, I wanted to convince my editor that what I was writing would be of interest to young readers, that elusive demographic; I was selling myself as a spokesperson. And then, of course, once I’d gotten started, I just wrote about whatever I wanted, whether it related to youthful trends or not. The whole thing was dishonest, lazy, selfish/narcissistic: how Millennial of me.

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