Some facts about me; I presently work as a tutor/lecturer for a psychiatry programme (as well as, self-evidently, a science writer and author), but my PhD is in Behavioural Neuroscience, so I could be described as a neuroscientist, someone who scientifically studies the brain and nervous system (or is at least qualified to do so).
However, given my various contributions to other publications and platforms, I’ve been referred to as a psychiatrist, a clinical psychologist, a neurologist, a neurosurgeon, and more. I’m none of these things; I cannot assess and treat patients with mental health problems, I don’t work closely with particular groups of patients to improve their wellbeing, I don’t study and treat those with nervous system disorders, I don’t perform surgery on people’s brains. It’s not just a preference, I’m genuinely unable/legally not allowed to do any of these things.
So when a mainstream publication assigns the wrong title to me, it’s not just an inconsequential error; I could feasibly be accused of fraud (I speak from experience here).
The reason I’m saying all this is to show the importance of being specific when it comes to terminology, especially if you’re a scientist. As a result, I’ve grown to loathe the term “millennial” with an uncharacteristic passion.
What is a “millennial”? A google search for news articles featuring “millennials” published in the last 24 hours yielded hundreds of hits. It seems like the mainstream media has seized upon the term like a dog chewing one of your favourite shoes; they might not have a clue what it really is but they’re enthusiastically using it regardless.
But still, what is a millennial? It’s become one of those terms that everyone assumes they understand but never really think about, like “irony”, “offside” or “free speech”. Some articles do start with an explanation of what a millennial is, but these definitions vary wildly.
Everyone agrees that a millennial is a “young person”. That much is clear. But what’s the cut-off point? How old do you need to be before you’re not a millennial? Even the Wikipedia article about millennials admits to being baffled by this;
“Most researchers and commentators use birth years ranging from the early 1980s to the early 2000s”
Early 1980s to early 2000s? That’s two decades, over a quarter of the average human lifespan. That’s quite a substantial range, it means people close to 40 or about to start their GCSEs both count as Millennials. When you consider that most articles about millennials focus on what they like, their behaviours, their beliefs, their experiences, such an imprecise term renders it effectively meaningless. Can you realistically expect someone still in school and someone on their second marriage with a mortgage to have comparable shopping habits, or views on the government?
Alternative terms are no less uncertain. Sometimes millennials are called “Generation Y”, the generation following “Generation X”, which has similarly flexible age ranges when considering who’s belongs in this group.
It would be tempting to think every generation progresses alphabetically. Did Generation L despair of Generation M? With their steam locomotion and weird-looking bustles and aesthetic art? This of course means that, if we’re on Generation Y now, the next generation is “Generation Z”, which suggests it’s the last generation. After them, we’ll all be wiped out, most likely by zombies (anything with Z in it means zombies). Although some say the next generation is “Generation K”, so that’s all my guesses out the window.
If it’s difficult to quantify what millennial means, maybe it’s more a qualitative term? Maybe you can work out who is and isn’t a millennial based on descriptions of them?
Apparently millennials like to use their phones, especially in the cinema. They don’t like working. They want to share everything on social media. They like socialism. They have short attention spans. They are narcissistic. And lazy. And entitled. And practically homeless.
So there you have it. A millennial is a lazy narcissist who only cares about themselves and their phone although they can’t pay attention to any of these things for long unless it’s to do with something that they want which is typically socialism. Clear?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this description is at best nonsensical, at worst completely self-contradictory. And you’d be right.
A lot of these descriptions of millennials don’t stand up to scrutiny either. Millennials are obsessed with their phones? So it was millennials who invented smartphones and produces them and markets them to themselves? It’s very strange how millennials are to be criticised for things and problems that are older than them. It’s like if you criticise a small child for being spoiled and their parents agree. Maybe, just maybe, you’re looking at the effect, not the cause?
It’s almost as if “millennial” is used as a handy term for older vested interests who don’t understand, and are somewhat alarmed by, the confusing behaviour of modern youth in an increasingly complex world, but still want to exploit it. But when has it ever been any different? What is the housing crisis among young people but an entire older generation saying “get off my lawn!” to the whippersnappers?
But then what do I know, I’m not a millennial. Unless I am one? I’ve completely lost track, to be honest.
Dean Burnett is down with the kids on Twitter, unless that’s unfashionable now? In which case he’s “retro”. @garwboy
The Idiot Brain by Dean Burnett (Guardian Faber, £12.99). To order a copy for £7.99, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.