Millennials will save the world, or so influential trend-watchers Neil Howe and William Strauss predicted in their 2000 book, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.
The authors argued that young millennials — those born between the early '80s and the early 2000s — would be a heroic counterweight to selfish baby boomers. They would have "a new focus on teamwork, achievement, modesty and good conduct" and would lead a "can-do youth revolution." They'd rebel, yes, but against individualism and cynicism.
Two years after the book was published, an Australian kid took a drunk tumble down some steps at a friend's 21st birthday party, his front teeth gouging his lip. "I had a hole about 1 cm long right through my bottom lip," he wrote, posting a self-taken photo of stitches on an online message board. "And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie." His self-photo was cited as one of the earliest known uses of "selfie" when Oxford Dictionaries honored the expression as 2013's word of the year.
And as of today, "selfie" far more readily sums up millennials than the hopes of Howe and Strauss.
Time magazine used the image of a young woman gazing adoringly at her own selfie to illustrate its "Me, Me, Me Generation" cover story last year. The article roasted millennials as narcissistic, lazy and naive — spoiled by participation trophies, coddled by parents and hypnotized by technology.
But we millennials don't like to be defined by others. Kids these days don't like "kids these days" essays. We hit back against Time magazine with our weapons of choice: rants, memes and Photoshopped pics, slamming our elders for failing the environment and the economy.
All millennials, you see, despise generalizations. We don't see our generation through polling averages, with their standard deviations and margins of error. We see it as a collage of 87 million self-portraits, in some senses more individualistic than ever.
Hence selfies: No photographer, no fancy camera, no middleman. Just a smartphone, and maybe a mirror. We choose whether to flex, pout or raise one eyebrow, and we choose when to snap and where to upload. You call it narcissism; we call it control over our own image. We want the freedom to tell our individual story, then process it through our own Instagram filter.
Then we'll post it everywhere, and beg for you to like it, praise it, love it.
Out of Ashes
It's not simple narcissism that drives millennials to write their own narratives: It's that the old script has been shredded.
I — like a typical millennial, I'm putting myself in the story — know the old script well. I grew up in the American Dream: middle class in North Spokane suburbs, with a hoop in the driveway, a grill in the backyard and Wiffle ball games in a nearby sandlot.
My dad was 23 when he got married and bought a house. At 26, he had me, his first kid.
Today, I'm 28 — no kids, no wife, no house, no hoop, no grill. But I'm not alone. By traditional metrics of success, we millennials are floundering: We're unemployed and unmarried. We don't own houses or fancy cars. A quarter of millennial men between 25 and 29 still live with their parents.
There's a darn good reason we're slow to pursue the classic American Dream: We saw it burn down the economy.
We saw carnival barkers promise big houses with big patios and big lawns that could be all be yours — just sign here on the dotted line, no job, no money, no credit, no problem. The market would only go up, up, up, they proclaimed, so you're just a flip away from something even bigger and better. We saw mad scientists in Brooks Brothers suits cobble together crazy financial mechanisms to generate wealth from thin air, devices they barely understood but were sure that, barring a freak lightning strike, couldn't possibly go wrong.
Then lightning struck: The housing market, overbuilt and oversold, exploded, and took the economy down with it.
You can't talk about millennials without considering that seismic context: It's tough to get a job when there aren't any. It's tough to buy a house when you're unemployed. It's tough to have kids when you're flat broke.
And we're hesitant about piling on more debt. Until recently, Leigh-Anne Kelly, 31, sold cars at a Spokane Subaru dealership: When she did see millennials, which wasn't often, they came cautiously and put up big down payments. She's the same way, preferring her old car to a new one from the dealership.
"I am proud of not having a car payment," Kelly says. "I got hell from my co-workers for not diving into debt immediately."
For millennials, the American Dream hasn't just become harder to achieve, it's become less appealing. In six years, homeownership rates for those under 35 plummeted, from 41 percent to 36 percent.
"I see the older generation, they want to get right back after it, and rebuild their wealth," says Kolby Schoenrock, 26, a local property appraiser and Windermere real estate agent. But he says that's not the case with younger buyers.
"They're looking for something smaller, more cozy, more functional, cheaper to maintain," he says. "What they're pinning on their Pinterest is cool and small, versus big and gaudy."
At a journalism class at my alma mater Whitworth University, I ask a group of freshmen what house they want someday. Their visions vary: Something out in the country with a barn and a wraparound porch. A downtown condo. Anything within their means, a few suggest, so they don't risking losing it.
"This is, like, super weird," 18-year-old Andrew Goodwin says. "I want to live in a really poor neighborhood of a big city." It's an opportunity, he says, to live beside people in poverty and empathize with them.
For millennials, money is a devalued currency. "Money is not the great motivator anymore," says Bill Haas, a national business consultant. Job promotions don't seem to matter much either. Nor do appeals to tradition or process.
Chris Reilly, 31, founded Aezy, an online marketing firm headquartered in Spokane's Kendall Yards. "For many products and services, not pursuing millennials is the best strategy," Reilly says. "They're looking for things that are genuine in a world full of — to use the Holden Caulfield term — 'phonies.'"
There is, however, still a currency that motivates us — something even more foundational than money: We want to be liked.
Friend Me, Like Me, Retweet Me
The video clip relies on a classic comedic formula: Anticipation followed by unexpected escalation. A shaggy-haired guy slips on a Scream mask and hides under a desk. A second guy, complete with American flag pants, unsuspectingly sits down at the computer. When the masked man leaps out, the prank victim screams, frantically throws his computer printer through a window and leaps out.
That frightened man is Beau Chevassus, 28. He and I pulled pranks on Gonzaga University back when we were at Whitworth. But far more than me, he's lived the Millennial Dream: He's been Internet famous.
The video was staged for a viral video contest. He was flooded with TV studios wanting to license the clip. By 2012, it had made a TV show in Japan; Torihada! Scoop added an animated intro, colorful Japanese subtitles and absolutely delighted picture-in-picture audience member reactions. Today, Chevassus' prank video has 7 million views.
Then there was Chevassus' "World's Most Expensive Starbucks Drink" video ($47.30, with 48 shots) that earned shout-outs from Diane Sawyer and Time magazine. A follow-up video — where he orders a massive custom burger (20 patties, rounds of bacon, a foot high, dubbed "The Kraken") at a Jack in the Box drive-thru — drew calls from franchises considering the Kraken for their own menus.
"It felt good, waking up in the morning and having a ton of comments," Chevassus says. "This may sound very, very selfish. ... The fame part of it, getting a half-million views overnight, that gets my heart going."
I know what he means. There have been occasions when I'm feeling down and then one of my one-liner quips about a TV show gets shared by someone famous, flooding me with notifications of favorites, retweets and replies. In that moment, in a small way that I know is silly, I'm Tinkerbell — killed when you say you don't believe in me, resurrected when you applaud me.
That's how some savvy marketers have managed to reach millennials, says Reilly, the online marketer. They don't pander to millennials, they get millennials to pander to themselves. They offer points, badges, awards and swag, rewarding millennials for pushing out the company's marketing message.
"It dictates everything — the apps that we get, the music that we listen to, the cars that we drive — to be affirmed," Chevassus says.
Millennials hardly invented that craving for affirmation. But these days we can actually measure it with quantitative figures: likes, retweets, Reddit upvotes. Affirmation comes in tiny dopamine hits: Every "like" pops up like a red siren. Important: You are loved. You are connected.
In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr argues that the reward offered on the Internet doesn't just fill need, but also creates it. It "turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment."
Social media is a drug, influencing millennials in their most formative years. One study suggests that the more time we spend on Facebook, flooded with images of other people's apparent happiness, the more depressed we get. So we crave social media affirmation even more.
It's no wonder that despite rejecting materialism in other areas, we line up for hours for the privilege of buying new iPhones. They're our conduit to that high.
Sometimes our pleas for affirmation are naked in their desperation: A word — "vaguebooking" — was invented to define the practice of writing statuses like "as if my life could get any worse" that beg for our friends to ask what's wrong and comfort us. We don't just delete our Facebook profile. We make a big show of deleting our Facebook on Facebook, and, inevitably, a big show of returning to Facebook a few months later.
All this self-obsession doesn't always create selfishness. It can drive us to incredible altruism, but we want to be seen being incredibly altruistic.
Earlier this summer, the Ice Bucket Challenge raised more than $100 million for ALS research and got scores of young people to dump ice water on their heads. It worked so well because it made us the stars. We got to show off our uniqueness, ever so slightly: Chevassus challenged me by dumping a massive ice block onto his unprotected head and giving his video the viral friendly title "World's Stupidest Ice Bucket Challenge."
As Chevassus has aged, however, the purpose of making these videos has shifted to something more subtle than fame, he says. It's about expression, a way to communicate who he is and what he believes, in all its messy complication.
Millennials crave that too.
The desire for self-expression isn't new. Hippies, beatniks, punks, greasers and bohemians have all rebelled against the respective Man of their generations. What's different now is the explosion of pieces at our fingertips that we can use to build our own identities and platforms from which to proclaim them. Netflix, Amazon and Google allow us to discover practically anything, glom it onto our identities and then discover throngs of like-minded fans who've done the same.
"Millennials are not just one group of people," Reilly says. "They're a bunch of tribes, rallying around certain causes, certain media, be it a game or a show or a book."
Today, we're allowed to define our identity in ways our elders scarcely even considered: This year, Facebook expanded its gender definitions, from simply binary male and female to a colorful spectrum of 58 possibilities, including Androgyne, Intersex, Neutrois and Two-Spirit.
No wonder a Pew Research survey from March found that 61 percent of young Republicans support gay marriage, a far higher number than any other generation. After all, beyond just tax structures or legal rights, gay marriage is about having your identity accepted and affirmed. There are few things we millennials value more.
Connor Simpson, a 23-year-old entrepreneur, talks with his friends frequently about their own "personal brands." Some of it's fashion. Simpson says he's defined by his moccasins, his hairstyle, his one-of-a-kind thrift-store sweaters. He says his very formal emails, beginning with salutations, also speak of that brand.
He says all this with a frantic speed. That, too, he says, is a part of his personal brand.
"They want to be seen for how they want to be seen," Simpson says about his peers. "Have control over how people perceive them."
It's ironic: Millennials decry corporations in Occupy protests, condemn them in lengthy Facebook posts and mock their hashtags mercilessly on Twitter, but then adopt the dialect of corporate marketing for themselves. Corporations try to act more like people, while people try to act more like corporations.
"If I were to dare ask my parents, 'Have you ever thought about getting your last name as your domain name?' they would be like, 'You're nuts, you're crazy,'" Chevassus says. "But a domain name is powerful. It's going to be in my will someday." Someday, he says, Lucy — his little blonde 2-year-old — will be the proud owner of Chevassus.com.
Eric Bandholz, 33, who recently left Spokane for Austin, Texas, doesn't just sell beard oils and moustache waxes through his startup Beardbrand. He sells self-expression.
"Really, the big thing for us isn't selling products. It's trying to change the way society views beardmen," Bandholz says. "Rather than forcing people to change and be something different, we help embrace who we are as individuals."
About his parents' generation, Bandholz says: "They wore uniforms, they all go to the same church, they eat the same kind of food, they fell into this one giant image of what they should be. [But] we realize you can be yourself, and while you may not find people like you in your local vicinity, worldwide there's a lot of people like you."
After all, we millennials are a diverse bunch. Forty-three percent of millennial adults, according to Pew, are nonwhite. And for us, diversity has become more complicated and nuanced than simply race or culture. We reject constrained groups or labels. Despite their liberal social beliefs, Pew found that half of millennial adults considered themselves politically independent. Nearly 30 percent of millennials were religiously unaffiliated.
The parents of Dany Sok, an 18-year-old at Whitworth University, were Cambodian refugees who fled the Pol Pot regime. She remembers, as a 5-year-old American, visiting Cambodia for the first time and spotting a McDonald's across the street.
"I wanted burgers and fries instead of traditional village foods, like fried grasshoppers," Sok says. No luck. Her mom grabbed her before she could dash across traffic and corralled her into a traditional Cambodian deli. It was a metaphorical intersection made literal: Her Cambodian heritage pulling from one side, the glowing Golden Arches of America on the other.
Yet that's too simplistic. There are other dichotomies Sok has to contend with. The recession helped to plunge her family from privilege into poverty. By eighth grade, she was homeless, crammed with 14 other people into a one-bedroom apartment in Tacoma. She got to Whitworth, she says, by working her butt off to get scholarships and loans.
So, no, she doesn't want her identity to be American or Cambodian or rich or poor or the average of all of them together. She wants something new.
"I'm still evolving and creating my own identity," Sok says. "I want to be my own person while honoring my culture, while staying true to who I am."
David Boose, director of Gonzaga's Center for Teaching and Advising, studies data on the millennials entering college.
"The group is defined by this awareness of being lumped into a group and not liking it," he says. "Baby boomers don't have any problem with being called baby boomers. Now you've got this group saying, 'Don't call me a millennial.'"
We know the employment market is stacked against us, that internships come without payment or job offers, that a degree ain't a guarantee. So screw it, we say: If every job's a long shot, we figure, we might as well shoot for a dream instead of drudgery.
Karlin Andersen, 19, was a sophomore in high school when she watched her family's business — a cabinetmaking shop — crumble in the recession. Nobody was building homes, so nobody wanted cabinets. She'd grown up sweeping sawdust and cleaning bathrooms at the shop, assuming that someday she and her brother would take over the family business. Now those plans have been blown away.
"If you just focus on what makes the most money — that obviously didn't work out that well," Andersen says. "So what do we shift our focus to? Something that will make us happy."
She has lofty dreams, like working for 60 Minutes or National Geographic. Improbable, she knows. But like many millennials, she's not afraid of improbability.
"Behind all of that is this sense of true helplessness of the debt that they're in," Reilly says. "People don't see a future where the American idea of retirement exists. So they're looking for a life that's fulfilling now."
Naive and short-sighted, maybe. But — and this is one thing that Howe and Strauss got right — we're a romantic sort of generation. Surveys show a contradictory optimism. We're cynical about politics, religion, business and other people, but we're in starry-eyed love with our own future.
As an assistant professor at Whitworth University, Elizabeth Campbell is a millennial studying younger millennial college students. In 2012, she ran an experiment, studying whether 18- to 25-year-olds were worried about "having it all," balancing work and family in the future. They weren't. They see roadblocks, but don't doubt they'll easily surmount them. "I see a tremendous optimism," she says.
That's not to say they don't experience failure. Connor Simpson, the entrepreneur, saw Barters Closet, his startup that had been profiled in the Inlander, shuttered just last month. And yes, he says, it sucked. "I'm not going to lie: It freakin' hurt," he says. "My heart torn out of my chest."
But that hasn't stopped him from launching his own new startup and working for another.
"I have a failed startup. I don't think it's a bad thing," Simpson says. "You can't knock it out of the park every the time. You fall down a couple times, brush yourself off, get up again."
We millennials don't think the pathway is about working 40-hour weeks, paying our dues, slowly moving up the ranks. Instead, we self-publish long fantasy novels hoping one catches fire, or make hundreds of videos hoping one goes viral, or kick off one startup after another, hoping one survives. We spend a lot of time shamelessly marketing ourselves, yes. But we also spend time becoming somebody worthy of marketing.
The Next Generation
There's a sense, though, that this old model of generational definition is becoming obsolete, that things are just changing far too fast: Nearly a century passed between the invention of the telephone and email. Only two years passed between the invention of Facebook and Twitter, and for teenagers, those sites are already beginning to feel creaky.
So I've become the curmudgeon, grappling to reckon with kids these days. Back in my day, we didn't all have cellphones. We sent each other chat messages via AOL Instant Messenger, and that was good enough for us, dammit.
I stand in the classroom of my former high school history teacher, talking with a crowd of kids who, by some definitions, are part of a new generation, one that hasn't yet been defined. These kids don't only use Facebook, they date each other on Skype, send each other flurries of Snapchats, share six-second videos on Vine. There's barely more than a decade between us, but their formative high school experience could scarcely be more different.
It's foolish to draw conclusions early. Howe and Strauss' confident prediction of millennials was made before the World Trade Center attacks, before two long wars, before the economic meltdown, before MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram or smartphones.
In other words, the story of millennials is still being written. But we want to be the ones who write it. And then tag it, hashtag it and share the hell out of it. ♦