It’s normal for marketing agencies to invent words to capture the essence of an entire generation of potential consumers. It’s done regularly. Boomers, Gen Y, Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z, they are words meant to generalize the habits of a particularly large segment of the population. Unfortunately, in a world where media is dominated by those who do not identify with younger generations, these identifiers are used to communicate all sorts of stereotypes.
When these words are used in progressive circles – labour unions, activist groups, student spheres – it becomes an easy point of division. While self-identification is important and helps build a diverse and inclusive movement, “Millennial” is a loaded term. In addition to its taint from marketing, “Millennial” it is often used as a pejorative and creates arbitrary barriers to building broader working class solidarity.
There are important reasons to examine the effects of age on an individual’s needs in a social and economic context. However, it is important to appreciate that age is a continuum and not everyone is impacted the same way at the same age.
The “Millennial” label, like all of these generational labels, lumps everyone together in an arbitrary category, as if being born a year before or after a predetermined year gives one special super powers of reason or innate ability to use technology. Indeed, no one can even agree about which birth year should mark the beginnings of the Millennial generation.
Despite the difference in age, problems facing anyone that fall outside of the Millennial generation are also replicated among youth. The systems of oppression that affect working people, racialized people, and women in particular, have not yet been eradicated and are clearly also present among the younger generation.
Numerous studies looking at stereotypes of “young people today” show that most of the issues that faced previous generations continue to impact newer generations. This is of no surprise since neoliberal reforms have weakened social supports for generations. And while it is easy to lump people in groups, the reality is we engage with society and the economy at the individual level, not as generations. As such, an individual’s economic and social relationships have not just changed drastically for those born after 1981 compared to those born in 1975.
In progressive organizations, it is more useful to identify people according to their relation to their work. Those new to a job, those in precarious or contract work, those near retirement. This kind of orientation can be related to age, of course. And, those entering (or re-entering) the workforce may be older or younger than the median, but it is their relation to their employment, their economy, and their social group that gives insight into their issues.
There will always be reasons why consumer and communications firms refer to various age groups and attempt broadly generalize their likes, dislikes, habits, buying preferences, or voting characteristics. However, to build a lasting working class movement we must engage with individual workers without preconceptions. The trick is to avoid terms like “Millennial” – terms that divide without providing any meaningful information that might advance the movement.