Technically, I’m not a Millennial. I was born in 1979, two-and-a-half years shy of the cutoff moment that ushered in the Midnight’s Children of the new millennium. Generationally, I feel like a tween, too young for the angsty doldrums of GenX yet too old for the bated optimism that’s come to characterize Millennials, a generation so maligned and misunderstood that it’s often blamed for killing many of our culture’s sacred cows. If you want to know who’s responsible for the decline in marriage, homeownership, and even the all-American paper napkin, look no further than the year 1982. That’s when the first Millennial was born, and where Seattle-based writer Shaun Scott begins his new book, Millennials and the Moments That Made Us.
Perhaps no generation deserves a genealogy more than this one. Scott makes a compelling case for the singularity of the Millennial condition: “The product of both landmark mid-20th century social reforms like the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 and the arrival of Reaganomics in the 1980s, Millennials are simultaneously the most diverse and disprivileged generation ever.” This is a generation that’s floundered toward adulthood in the midst of deregulation, austerity, and perpetual war; a generation for whom the narrative of human progress seems more like a lesson out of a history book than an encounter with reality.
But Millennials isn’t all doom and gloom. It sparkles in Scott’s account of the cultural landscape. As a latchkey child of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Scott spent his formative years in front of screens, absorbing the sights and sounds of pop culture while his immigrant parents toiled long hours to realize the ever-diminishing returns of the American Dream. “My earliest memory in life,” Scott writes, “is of watching the cartoon Ghostbusters (1986-1991) at home alone in a dark room, waiting for my parents to get home from work.” This image of a child waiting in the darkness struck me as central to unpacking the Millennial condition. Millennials have often been accused of prolonging adolescence, of failing to seize the responsibilities of adulthood, but as Scott argues, the economic pressures of late capitalism transformed the American family, requiring all adults to work outside the home and leaving children to be raised by “ersatz authorities like schools and television.” When older generations portray Millennials as stunted, they fail to appreciate the profound uncertainty of the world that Millennials inherited.
It makes sense that Scott would devote much of his book to an analysis of this uncertainty through a close reading of significant cultural moments. Take his original treatment of 9/11, for example. Scott focuses on the background noise, discussing the albums that were slated to be released that day (Jay Z’s The Blueprint was one), and the struggles of a recording industry recently altered by the emergence of internet file sharing; then dissecting the Today Show segments that aired prior to 8:51 am. Before Today co-hosts Katie Couric and Matt Lauer knew about the terrorist attack, they were interviewing guests about the dot-com recession and America’s “sputtering economy.” They even brought on a psychologist to explain why young people are more prone to “mood swings.”
The subtext of anxiety—economic and otherwise—looms large in Millennials. So does diversity, but not as a watered-down postscript to the main text. Scott’s work is truly intersectional, using gender, race, and class to advance (and enhance) the book’s argument. Close to half of all Millennials identify as non-white or mixed-race. Scott himself is Black and doesn’t shy away from centering on the cultural contributions of people of color. Still, he doesn’t let anyone off the hook. He’s quick to point out the misogyny and materialism in Drake’s music, as well as the individualism and hyper-competitiveness that defines much of hiphop today.
I found a lot to admire and think about as I read Millennials, even though I’m not completely convinced that the generational divide is as strong as Scott would have us believe. Maybe that’s because I’m generationally adrift and slightly jealous that I missed out on being fussed over because of the year I was born. Jealousies aside, it would be foolish to deny the importance of age in predicting people’s attitudes and behaviors.
It would also be foolish to ignore the fact that all of us alive today have been impacted by the cultural, political, and economic forces of the last three decades. Many of us haven’t benefited in the ways we hoped, and regardless of where we fall on the generational spectrum, we don’t know what lies ahead. Neither nostalgia nor strongmen will save us from these bewildering times. As Scott writes, “If I look to popular culture for anything in the fight to forge a better future, it’s for symbols of resilience.” These symbols are everywhere, and I’m grateful to Scott for helping me see them and for encouraging me to seek out more.