Millennial. It’s a word that conjures the image of a crop-topped twentysomething attached to a smartphone. They sit at brunch with a table of other millennials on their phones, placing filters on their expertly curated selfies and perfectly lit photos of avocado toast, and they walk around texting friends rather than taking in the beauty of the world around them. (And, like, they never talk on the phone.)
Marketers and advertisers have wholeheartedly embraced this word — and, often, this stereotype — in their quest to control the millennial wallet. Their overeagerness has prompted predictable eyerolls among millions of actual, diverse, individual millennials. Here at BuzzFeed back in 2013, we tried to draw the line, establishing an internal policy that were we to use this word, “it should have real or implied quotation marks, or appear as a term of art, and with kind of a wink,” as Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith wrote in an email to our editorial staff in December 2013. And about two months later when we published our style guide, we made the ban public:
millennials (avoid using this term when possible; otherwise, generally use twentysomethings, twenty- and thirtysomethings, or teens and young adults, depending on context)
Millennial wasn’t always so fraught. It was coined in 1991 by historians Neil Howe and William Strauss in their book Generations. They just needed a word, and this seemed apt, as the oldest of the generation would graduate high school in 2000. And of course rabid marketing firms almost instantaneously latched on to the term, succinct in its description of the generation larger than any other demographic, comprising 80 million people in the US and consuming information and products in vastly new ways. By 2001, Ad Age had declared, “The Millennials are here … Naturally, the most pressing question on Madison Avenue is not how they will change the world, but how will we market to them?”
And it didn’t take very long for the word to become a sort of a slur, perpetuated by the media and often based on research that doesn’t actually exist. That image, believed by boomers and millennials alike, was of a lazy and coddled generation full of special snowflakes, obsessed with finding ~fulfilling~ jobs, goddammit. (Because WHY would anyone want a job that they enjoy?!) Chances are, you too have found millennial a cringeworthy buzzword or a dismissive way to refer to an increasingly technology-reliant generation. Search the term on Amazon, for instance, and you’re met with a slew of slightly disparaging book titles, like Not Everybody Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials, or When Millennials Take Over: Preparing for the Ridiculously Optimistic Future of Business. (As of March 2015, there were more millennials in the US workforce than Gen Xers or baby boomers, according to the Pew Research Center.)
The only people who didn’t immediately adopt millennial were…millennials themselves. Many (particularly, perhaps, those on the older end of the millennial spectrum) rejected the term and its associations with entitlement, narcissism, and short attention spans — along with a general distaste for being squeezed into tiny little boxes by the marketing industry.
As we liked to muse around the newsroom, sipping our pamplemousse LaCroix, it’s reductive and unproductive to think of a generation defined by its diversity as a singular, homogeneous entity. The term, we argued, was much like the word hipster — one that loosely connects people who share vaguely similar cultural interests slightly outside the mainstream — except one is either objectively a millennial or not, and they will be for the rest of their lives. (Fear of commitment: another millennial stereotype!)
And so at first millennial existed largely as a way for "olds" to refer to the younger generation. We spat it out ironically and rolled our eyes at its use. But perhaps every label used to describe the current coming-of-age generation has always leaned toward the pejorative, in a get-off-of-my-lawn kind of way. In fact, a 2015 Pew study found that while 60% of 18- to 34-year-olds don't consider themselves a millennial, this rejection of a generational label isn't unique — only 58% of Gen Xers identify as such, and 82% of the so-called silent generation don’t love their name either.
Over the last few years, though, the ground has gradually shifted despite our efforts to stand strong — as evidenced by a host of published stories bearing some iteration of the title “No, ‘millennial’ is not a dirty word,” as well as an entry for millennial in the Merriam-Webster dictionary online. In May 2015, even Smith acknowledged that “maybe this is a losing battle, but let's not surrender yet,” citing a Public Religion Research Institute study. BuzzFeed News tech reporter Joseph Bernstein called our guideline “prescriptive and slightly dogmatic” when we pushed back on his use of the term — even though we’d admitted our alternative was “slightly clumsier.” We were stuck with a laughable number of imprecise, ever-changing words for this age group. And so we revised our entry in November 2015 to get a little more specific, making a note to avoid the term “except when referring specifically to demographics.” This is how it’s remained for the last year and a half or so.
It seems that millennials have now reclaimed millennial. Pretty soon, we were saying it grudgingly, ironically, with a bit of a wink of self-deprecation. (Yes, this is a thing we have done, and will probably continue to do, on BuzzFeed, in individualistic defiance of our style guide.)
And today we are flying the white flag, announcing our surrender to the term’s unironic usage and acknowledging its journey from cheesy marketing buzzword we tried desperately to combat to just another everyday descriptive word in our vernacular. (But please make sure you use two n’s and lowercase it, per BuzzFeed style.)
This piece is being published jointly with the Columbia Journalism Review.
For more on the word millennial and our ever-evolving language, check out the forthcoming A World Without "Whom" (Bloomsbury, 2017) by Emmy Favilla, BuzzFeed's global copy chief, available for preorder on Amazon.