What Does A Millennial Look Like?

by Jeff Ihaza


When Condé Nast acquired Pitchfork Media last year, the company’s Chief Digital Officer Fred Santarpia told the New York Times that the deal would introduce “a very passionate audience of millennial males into our roster.” His preoccupation with the indie-leaning music site’s male audience didn’t go unnoticed, but the adoration for the demographic cohort known as millennials seemed in line with the prevailing mood about basically everything. Right now, billions of dollars in capital is riding on the group — or at least, the version of it that has come to dominate our consciousness: middle-class, educated, white kids.

If you were to close your eyes and listen to people talk about millennials, which by at least one definition includes anyone born between 1981 to 2000, it would make sense to picture Lena Dunham, Taylor Swift, or that YouTube guy, Tyler Oakley. Young people like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin (who, when shot by George Zimmerman in a gated community was partaking in the most millennial of activities — talking on his cell phone) don’t quite fit the picture of the demographic painted by marketers and investors. The traits that have come to signify the generation — a rapacious sense of self-importance, hypersensitivity, and of course laziness — seem more like assessments from a select group of adults looking at their own children than they do general truths.

The identity of young people has always been defined by those with the resources to speak loudly and publicly about them. In 1855, Daniel Harvey Hill, a Southern scholar who would later become a Confederate general, gave an address at Davidson College in which he described the students as having “an undisciplined mind, and an uncultivated heart, yet with exalted ideas of personal dignity, and a scowling contempt for lawful authority.” The only students he could have been describing would have been white men. Women and minorities weren’t allowed to enroll in the college until 1972, and at the time of Hill’s speech, the idea of emancipating America’s slaves was the subject of rumors instead of policy. His assessment of young people echoes our modern archetype of American youth created from a limited view of the population.

In 2000, Neil Howe and William Strauss published the seminal work, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, coining the term in its pages. The two D.C. policy wonks pored over statistics, pop-culture anecdotes, and surveys of teachers and high-school seniors from Fairfax County, Virginia — the first county in the U.S.with a median income of more than $100,000, and whose African-American population sat just under ten percent. Using those data, Howe and Strauss assigned the age group seven core traits: special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, conventional, pressured, and achieving. Today, those words are used to inform and direct the billions of dollars used to target the demographic. In a New York Times story about the heavily funded millennial news site Mic, the company’s twenty-eight-year-old CEO said he’s “still working out how to manage many of the traits associated with his fellow millennials: a sense of entitlement, a tendency to overshare on social media, and frankness verging on insubordination.”

So who exactly are these “millennials” who call for multibillion dollar valuations? Silicon Valley is perhaps the closest thing this group has to Mecca, and the most significant companies to sprout out of the region — YouTube, Facebook, Twitter — and their products have come to define millennialism as digital, social and self-concerned. The venture capital-flush companies in the Valley have also become petri dishes for how to create a twenty-first-century workplace. We all sit in open offices because some genius in Silicon Valley made the case for it. Facebook, whose staff is only two percent black, recently dealt with an incident in its Menlo Park office: some employees were crossing out “Black Lives Matter” from the office’s main wall and writing over it, “All Lives Matter.” When software engineer Leslie Miley left Twitter last year, he wrote about the time when the few black employees at the company weren’t informed that Jesse Jackson would be presenting at the company’s shareholder meeting. He wondered, “Is it because, as one colleague told me, ‘they forgot that you were black?’ Is a prerequisite to working in tech as a minority that one is expected to, in the eyes of the majority, sublimate your racial identity to ensure a cultural fit?”

In the Times feature about Mic, chief executive Chris Altchek said, “there’s 80 million millennials; we focus on the 40 that went to college.” Mic, which has raised $32 million since 2011, is one of a growing number of efforts focused solely on the most profitable block of the millennial audience. Over the past several years, a staggering amount of money has flowed into companies that have proven they understand these consumers. Snapchat rose to platform dominance, and publishers like BuzzFeed, Mashable, and Vox racked up billions in funding, all using similar selling points: access to a vibrant audience of millennials. An unintended result of this corporate flocking is the continued idea of the singular millennial. That is, it matters less to brands how inclusive your audience is, just that they’re “millennials.”

Millennials as a whole have conveniently been cast as the “woke” counterparts of their baby-boomer parents. But the systems of control and oppression that necessitated the idea of wokeness to begin with are still very much in place. If you are a young person of color at a millennial-facing company, it is not unlikely that you’ve had to participate in some kind of performance of diversity: being on the call with a “hip-hop” client because you’re the only black person in the office, appearing in pitch decks to beef up the heterogeneity, or answering twenty-seven stereotypical questions about your race for a piece of content. This need to contort to the whims of a white majority for survival has remained a constant.

In a 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education article about millennials, Texas A&M professor Dr. Fred Bonner appears to be one of only a few academics not in complete lockstep with Howe and Strauss’s findings. Bonner, a black man, warned that this sweeping categorization had the potential to miss the experiences of different kinds of young people. “Many other kinds of students have not come from backgrounds where they felt safe, sheltered, and secure, or from schools that recognized their gifts and talents,” he wrote.

“One of the things I noticed is that there aren’t a lot of people studying the patterns of more diverse sets of young people.” Bonner told me over the phone, “You have a lot of kids who get to college from high schools that didn’t cater to them in the same ways as white students and educators need to be prepared for that.” The challenges faced by millennials of color are just an extension of the problems that have plagued people of color in America for generations. As N.P.R. pointed out last year, upward mobility remains a problem for millennials of color who, unlike their HBO series counterparts, don’t have the financial backing of their parents early on in their career. The prevailing sense of the millennial as heavily subsidized, white, urban dwellers pushes the very real issues faced by young people of color to the back burner, repeating the same pattern of systemic silencing.

Bonner’s work focuses on how colleges and universities can adjust to the changes in how younger generations interact, but his work fits rather nicely in the context of millennials both in and as a business. When the prevailing — and profitable — conception of a millennial is a white bespectacled young man you find in Williamsburg, what room do people of color have to be anything but?

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