I can’t get Jia Tolentino’s A Story of a Generation in Seven Scams out of my head. It appears towards the end of her brilliant collection of essays, Trick Mirror, released to great acclaim in the fall of 2019. While not as elegiac as Ecstasy, comparing her religious upbringing and her first time experiencing a drug high, or as deeply person as The Reality TV Me, narrating her experience as a young reality TV contestant, the essay succinctly captures the feeling of an entire cohort of Americans who came of age in the late 90s and 2000s through the lens of seven scams. In fact, whenever I encounter someone who deigns to ponder why millennials are such an agitated generation, I point them to Tolentino’s essay. I love how she deftly navigates between the tone of a cri-de-coeur for a generation and a thesis undergirding a case to the world on why millennials are so pissed.
In an almost lawyerly fashion, Tolentino provides a step-by-step analysis, replete with the best anecdotal evidence I’ve seen collected, to counter the narrative that we millenials are just avocado-toast eating, social media obsessed, non/gig-working snowflakes who cancel everything and destroy institutions left and right. In case you were wondering, those seven scams are: the Fyre Festival, the 2008 real estate market collapse, the steady rise in student debt, the unrestrained spread of social media (in particular, Facebook), the #girlboss movement, Elizabeth Holmes/Theranos (and Silicon Valley more generally), and the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Just by listing these scams here, it almost obviates the need to read the essay—which I strongly counsel against, as it is an excellent read. But what the easy lacks—through no fault of Tolentino’s—is a comprehensive explanation of what exactly makes this generation so unique, outside its righteous anger. No doubt, every generation has world events foisted up on it and outside its control; think the Vietnam War (for the Boomers) or the neoliberal revolution and consequent deindustrializaiton and hollowing out of the American Dream (for Gen X). Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire wouldn’t make sense as a song otherwise; it is arguably Tolentino’s essay for those two generations.
To understand what makes the millennial generation so unique may offer the key to understanding why these scams almost define our existence as a group. Cultural observers and anthropologists often define millennials as those born between 1981 and 1996, at least for Americans. This period saw a small boom—though nowhere near as large as the postwar one—one that coincided with a regeneration of America’s fortunes after the political, social, and economic stagnation of the late 60s and 70s. I will readily admit that this range is pretty arbitrary and that (especially at the margins) any attempt to create a cohort collapses into meaningless given the huge amount of gradations of personalities and experiences that make up any such cohort. For example, if you are born in 1979, are you fundamentally different from someone born in 1981?
But at a macro level, it intuitively makes sense to talk about this group. People write about this group like we are a real and tangible thing. Open any mass media news service—think People.com or CNN.com—and you’ll see endless hot takes decrying the above-mentioned avocado toast consumption (or countering that such a thing is a defining aspect). I think they are right that this group exists. I believe that there is a collective unconscious that suffuses people born in those years, one that can translate into a general outlook and approach to the world.
The question then turns to what exactly is that outlook and approach. What is it that makes us different outside of the usual pop cultural markers? No one—at least no one that I’ve read—has come to the similar conclusion that I have: that millennials are a truly liminal generation, a window into a world that was but also a group that will be critical at defining the world that is to come. Put differently, we are the paradigm shift embodied in a subset of the general population of this country.
You can argue this about any generation. For example, the Greatest Generation matured into the post-war nuclear age, with its boundless opportunity and potential horrors. For the Boomers, it was the vast social and cultural liberations that occurred during their coming of age. But unlike these two previous groups, I think millennials are critically defined by their liminality.
We are a generation that remembers a world without the internet but are also digital natives. We lived through the exuberance and unquestioned wealth of the 1990s but came of age during the twilight struggles of recession and never-ending war of the 2000s and 2010s. We remember honest and effective government (to an extent) and grapple with a completely absent government composed of ineffectual do-gooders, corrupt plutocrats, and ego-obssessed empty suits. We learned to walk during serenity and came of age during rage.
For the younger generation—Gen Z and whatever comes after them—all they know and all they will ever know is a digitally intermediated world, where our political system is quagmired and social institutions are verging on non-existent. For the Boomers and whatever is left of the cohort that came before them, the world they live in is composed of strange hieroglyphics, unintelligible and not worth changing as they have not much longer on this planet. (This partially explains the yawning gap between them and the former to act on climate change.) Our position on the threshold will require us to act as a bridge between these two generations. We will need to transfer the knowledge of the world that used to be, with all its flaws and baggage, lest that be lost.
mantunes is a resident of Newark who writes about the city (and other things).
Featured photo by Adam Bergo