"Those F***ing Millennials": Tide Pods, Condom Snorting, And The Pejorification Of The Word 'Millennial'
If you were to take a stab at defining the date of birth range of the 'Millennial Generation' what would it be?
Personally, as a '96 baby, I was under the belief that it was people born from '85 to '99, give or take the '00 babies.
But before I launch into my 'how do we define a 'Millennial' section,' I'll drop my thesis for this essay.
The way non-Millennial-identifying individuals use the word 'Millennial' is transitioning from being used as a label for a generation to a slur for an age group.
Labeling And Distinguishing Generations These Days Is Silly At Its Core
Generations are hard to define because age and time are both gradients. It's like deciding what colors exist on the spectrum, but then refusing to use the language of 'red-orange' or 'blue green'. It's easy to look at generations within one family, because one is the literal product of the other, but in a mass population, people don't just all decide to have babies at once.
The population isn't chunked out with 25% newborns 25% parents, 25% grandparents, and 25% the near-deceased. People of every age exist! So constructing these generational 'divides' is complicated and doesn't have a lot of great application because diversity is a thing.
Trends exist, but like a rich kid from Maine and a poor kid from Louisiana born on the same day are gonna have different value systems. My brother and I (born a year and eleven months apart) value things differently and we were raised in the same house.
This CollegeHumor video does a good job poking fun at that idea, while also making fun of the trend of hyper-specific identity labels.
And I don't have the background to talk about Global differences in value systems.
I do feel required to note that the identification of generations can help anthropological study. For example, the Strauss-Howe generational theory if you'd like to read.
Fortunately for my argument as you'll see in the coming sections, I think the concept of a 'Millennial' hits only two, if not just one of the three criteria they set up.
Nobody Agrees On What A Millennial Is
Anyway, so back to defining a 'Millennial' which for my purposes is going to have the footnote of *lives in the US. How does your definition differ from mine?
I watched a video titled "Generations in the Workplace" during orientation for my new job with the State of Wisconsin, in which they defined the 'Millennial' generation as people born between '77 and '89. Everyone born later is considered 'Generation 9/11'.
I was dumbfounded by that definition as I'm sure you are too.
So there's a bit of disagreement about where the boundaries lie, but if we stretch the definition to encompass all the years I've heard defined, for this essay I'll operate with 'Millennials' as being born between '77 and '00, or the people who have, as of today, aged between 17 and 44 years.
I find it odd that right now, the word 'Millennial' is frequently used to describe teens and preteens, most notably and recently the language used surrounding the Stoneman Douglas high school students in mass media.
These students, who range in age from 14-19, are still being described as Millennials, even though only the very oldest fall into the very youngest versions of the 'definition' of a Millennial. And that's operating with my definition. State of Wisconsin isn't having any of that.
It'd be really easy for me to just say 'old people just use the word Millennial to mean 'stupid young people'' (which is essentially my thesis), but I don't think it's gotten to that point yet. However, there's definitely a disjunction between the way the word is used verses the way it is traditionally defined. So far to the point that I think the new use is common enough to be considered its own definition.
I've heard this argument a lot, using 'the Dictionary' as some divine authority. And that gets into a debate over 'descriptivism' and 'prescriptivism' which are very simple but have five syllables. Here are my informal explanations.
Descriptivism (when talking about language) is looking at language, and describing how it is used. Dictionaries do this a lot and they're constantly updating as language changes and word use changes.
Prescriptivism (when talking about language) is looking at predetermined definitions of words (or rules of grammar, it covers a lot) and prescribing them like a medication. This is used in educational settings, and there are a lot of politics surrounding it. On one end there are some gross consequences to teach 'there is only one way to speak correctly [and everything else means you're uneducated]' and on the other end, it's very difficult to teach someone language by starting out with 'okay so nothing means anything, everything means something, and it all changes based on region, culture, household, and person'.
Main point: Dictionaries are cool, but they weren't written by a supreme being. They're written by organizations full of very dedicated people who do a lot of in depth work. But language typically changes faster than dictionaries update.
A fun word-use-change example I like to use is "dank."
This word change is pretty isolated to the internet, individuals with internet-influenced language, and marijuana users.
So when you look in the dictionary and point to the definition of Millennial, that's cool and all, but I'm talking about the contemporary use of the word, not the dictionary definition. Cool?
To conclude my first point, the word 'Millennial' is popularly used to describe (or attack) people of a young age rather than its initial use to label a generation that is constantly getting older and includes people from 17-44. This suggests to me that the word is becoming a slur.
Common Traits Associated With The Archetype Of The 'Millennial' Don't Fit The Age Range It Supposedly Describes (Either By Traditional Definition Or Traditional Use).
Take a look at these two political cartoons. In essential function, they're the same thing give or take the pussy hat.
I'll start with what I love about these cartoons first, because positivity.
Both Millennials in these cartoons are actively holding the tide pod container. From this I can draw two conclusions:
1. The cartoonists do not believe their audience will recognize a tide pod without literally spelling it out on the container, or
2. The cartoons exists in a universe where Millennials carry around containers of tide pods like packs of skittles.
Either way, I love it. (also can we talk about how the second one feels the need to literally label the figure as 'Millennials' as if it wasn't apparent already. These cartoonists think a lot of their audience).
The first time I saw one of these cartoons, I had a few initial reactions.
I'LL DO WHAT I WANT.
1. 'This group of people is stupid' comedy. Intelligent. 10/10
2. Do these cartoonists really think that people actually ate the pods? Like, the problem was with toddlers and young children consuming them, which launched a meme. Sure a handful of Millennials may have actually eaten them, but what numbers do you have to support that.
3. Wait, condom snorting is a thing?
The Tide Pods thing has bothered me for a while, for reasons I detailed in my numbered list. There's no good way to get a count of how many people actually ate tide pods even if hospitals were to disclose records, because you'd have to rule out all instances of toddlers and young children, and I don't know if you can make a multi-variable request like that of all hospitals in a country.
What outsiders are responding to is the meme of eating Pods, not people actually eating Pods. Here's a sampling of some dank Tide Pod memes, from which one could reasonably presume that Millennials are eating tide pods, but like, maybe do some research?
And because I used College Humor once, here's a 'Tide Pods look delicious' video (which is literally age-restricted on YouTube) and a 'Tide's marketing team are idiots' video.
And just recently we've seen an influx of mass media panic about Millennials and the condom snorting challenge. One need look no further than these to comics to see if people are actually doing any research on it. One cartoonist got it right, but the other seems to think that you snort a condom in one nostril and out the other like you use a Neti Pot.
The overarching problem is that condom snorting is not new. To quote the subtitle of the article "A Brief History of the Condom Snorting Challenge" by Samantha Cole: "The viral condom-snorting stunt can be traced back to at least the 90s."
Anyone tossing around this condom argument as a way to attack young people is either
1. Someone knowingly employing a lie as rhetoric
2. Someone operating under false information dealt out from person 1.
There's also a hypothetical person 3 who is both operating under false information and legitimately concerned about the well-being of young people.
I have yet to see this person.
It's like back in the day where there were figures in the medical field publishing work claiming that black people were genetically inferior or genetically pre-disposed to be violent. They weren't. Those people just hated black people, and the manufactured a roundabout reason to hate them.
And this is where I see the 'Millennial'. You've got a group of people that dislike young people for one reason or another -- whether it be difference of ideology, fear of change, jealously of youth? -- choosing to manufacture reasons to hate a group of people that aren't there.
True. And those complaints that aren't as bluntly incorrect as Tide Pods and condom snorting bring me back to my initial point about the group described as Millennials. I'm not here to vindicate any perceived wrongdoings of 'Millennials'. If you think that the gradual destruction of Applebees and the napkin industry is a bad thing, go ahead. What I question then is why the word 'Millennial' is being used when it so clearly does not fit the target of the outrage.
Which brings me back to prescriptivism! I'm also not here to tell you that you're wrong for looking at an obnoxious young person and calling them a 'Millennial'. You could look at a cactus and call it a 'Millennial' too, and I'd be fine with that. (big mood). I've been known to use the word 'grandpa' as a pejorative term for 'annoying old person' regardless of the persons status of parentage. It's this shift in use and developing new transition that I note as the pejorification of the word 'Millennial' as it becomes a slur.
Disability Language And Conclusion
Which is why I say that it's in transition. Only time will tell if 'Millennial' will turn into a complete slur. For all I know 20 years from now, people will start using 'generation 9/11' as a slur, even though it's the least catchy phrase ever.
And as a last ditch point to convince you, know that the pejorification of labels that used to mean something else isn't new. It's especially common with terms used to label or describe disability.
Lame is less of a slur and more of a common adjective now, but used to describe a physical disability.
Idiot, moron, and nincompoop used to be medical terms describing a variety of mental illnesses.
The word 'retard' has been used as a slur so much that there are petitions to have it banned.
Even the word 'special' has arguably become a slur too, but that one relies heavily on the delivery of the word.
(All of these examples of disability language come from an essay I read in my undergrad that I can't find through a common web search. I think the points stand on their own logically, so this statement is more of an attempt at due-diligence citation rather than 'look a smart person wrote this trust the authority').
With the rise of mass media and the rise of the internet, information and language is moving faster than ever, and the way it evolves fascinates me. Whether it be the word 'lame' or 'dank,' language changes to suit the needs (good or bad) of those who use it. Language is social. Language can bend. Language is so much more than a definition carved in a stone tablet dictionary.
So to directly plug my thesis again, the way non-Millennial-identifying individuals use the word 'Millennial' is transitioning from being used as a label for a generation to a slur for an age group. The next time you hear someone say 'Millennial', take a second and think about who they're describing and what they're actually saying. Maybe they're attacking someone. Or maybe they're just admitting that they like avocado toast.
IDK, you figure it out.