Culture  /  Book Review

What Makes a Millennial?

The defining boundaries and problematic categorizations carried by our culture's treatment of the label "millennial."

None of these books take on the fact that younger millennials came of age in a radically different digital ecosystem than elder millennials. Duffy writes that millennials “grew up just as our lives turned digital,” but the digital world — especially the digital world of sex and romance — changed rapidly after 1990. A key reason why someone born in 1980 seems “more Gen X” and someone born in 1995 “more Gen Z” has to do with which digital technologies were available as they came of age.

Older millennials were college graduates when the first dating apps came around; their first crushes were more likely to be mediated by Teen magazine than YouTube, their first sexual experiences coordinated through passed notes instead of text messages. A person born in the United States in 1980 would have likely grown up with a home computer, basic computing classes by the time they reached high school, and perhaps AOL Instant Messenger (released in 1997). But by the time social media came around — Friendster in 2002, MySpace in 2003, and Facebook in 2006, let alone Instagram in 2010 and Snapchat in 2011 — this supposed millennial was already in their twenties and early thirties. Compare that with someone born in 1996, who was just nine when YouTube started making a splash and 14 when Instagram was booming. And while dating sites have existed for quite some time, dating apps as we know them really only came into being around 2009, thanks to the launch of Grindr and the wide use of smartphones, especially those with front-facing cameras, which iPhones introduced in 2010. The point here is that digital technology, and more specifically, the experience of the internet — from online pornography to the culture of online “likes” — strongly shapes generational identity to a degree that is obscured if not overlooked by our current categories.

To come into being as a gendered and sexual subject with the transience of Snapchat; the ubiquity of the selfie; the seemingly infinite and instantaneous array of searchable bodies, preferences, and sex acts; and the opportunity to DM and swipe on a stranger has changed the contours of that subjecthood. In light of this list, the formative technologies of early millennials’ sex lives seem positively antiquated: the suspense of waiting for a pornographic site to load on a dial-up modem (and hoping no one would try to use the phone), the reliance on the family landline and answering machine, and the grainy sex tape filmed on a camcorder and existing only on VHS. These two lists, even just as snapshots, reveal some of the key differences in instantaneity, availability, and the possibilities of self-curation that have differently shaped older and younger millennials.