A generation isn’t a generation until everyone hates it. That’s my thinking, anyway. The first time I realised I was part of a gang of strangers so close-knit and clear-cut in collective identity that they could inspire a Who song was the first time I picked up a weekend supplement aged 24 and read an article by a forty-something journalist about how awful we all were. Entitled, narcissistic, precious, attention-seeking and oversensitive. Man, people were trying to put us down, just because we got around. And because we all wanted to be high achievers or even superstars without doing any work. And, also, because we over-shared online. Oh and all the avocado toast stuff – they didn’t like that one jot.
Since I published my memoir earlier this year, the question journalists and panel event chairs ask me most tentatively is: “Do you identify as millennial?”, as if one’s date of birth is a state of mind. And while I have been known to boast loftily about being “born in the wrong era” or to have been “far better suited to Carnaby Street in 1969”, this itself is evidence to the contrary. One of the first rules of millennial club is that no one wants to be in millennial club. We are hopelessly nostalgic for times in which we didn’t exist. My Sonos speaker sits next to a Pye record player; my MacBook Air is a natural desk-fellow for my 1960s typewriter. Faces and Rolling Stones concert posters adorn my wall; I long for a SodaStream despite never having used one.
I’m just about as millennial as they come. I bank with NatWest, and probably will for eternity, for no other reason than the fact it was offering free student railcards the year I opened my account (the best way to spot a group of millennials in a restaurant is their matching purple debit cards when the bill arrives). I complain about how I’ll never own a flat to anyone who’ll listen, but have little to no interest in saving money. I greet people at parties with: “You don’t know me but I follow you on Instagram.” I wear my politics loudly, as if it’s a cool band T-shirt. I claim to believe in paying for content but I resent the paywall of the very newspaper for which I write. I’m an oversensitive, overstimulated, overspending, supermarket-Prosecco-swillin’, brunch-buying, perennially overdraft-dwelling millennial.
All this is fine, I suppose, while you’re in the extended adolescence of your twenties. But, a handful of months away from my 30th, I’ve started to wonder what will happen to us as we enter the next phase. In my head, millennials would be 25 for ever. We’d always be in jobs called things like “online communications assistant” and “junior media manager”. We’d always be written about by our predecessors with concern, confusion and pity. But I’ve started to realise – like every generation before me – that we get old as a collective, as well as individuals. Just as I assumed that us millennials – Generation Y – would always be 25, to my mind Generation X have always been no-nonsense women at work who own enormous houses they bought for 50 quid and sing the Stone Roses when drunk on white wine.
I thought Gen X men have always been grumpy blokes who don’t really know how to WhatsApp and use “hon” unironically and have absolutely no pubic hair preference for their sexual partner. But they, too, had their decade in the spotlight. They too were once rambunctious and reckless; ravers and rioters – making choices that left baby boomers scratching their heads in dismay. Gen X grew up and so will we.
There is one thing that undeniably connects the majority of Generation Y. Whether we grew up in a household that had pioneering AOL dial-up internet, or we took turns to have our ten minutes on MSN in the local library – we were the first generation to colonise the virtual world. The internet to millennials was what the Beatles were to boomers – everyone has their own relationship and history with it. Yet what will happen to the relics of our online past as we leave our youth behind?
Will we ever be able to buy houses? Or will we all mostly be renting well into our thirties – bringing up babies in homes that don’t belong to us furnished with Ikea Malms? And what kind of parents will we be? If our parents abandoned austere Victorian methods, I wonder if millennials will be firmer with their children as our own backlash to the boomers’ backlash.
And then there’s our perpetual inability to commit – that restlessness we feel when we skip from tab to tab on our internet browser, or the dating apps we flip through like a human Argos catalogue, overwhelmed and yet malnourished by a horizon-less quagmire of grinning people wearing swimsuits. Will we continue to suffer from Fomo and Yolo and other afflictions caused by asking just that little bit too much of life? Or will we, as we become bosses and parents and partners and spouses, become the snowflakes that finally settled?
There’s nothing to pull together a generation quite like another one rising up beneath you. The interns in the office have a name now – they’re Generation Z. And maybe, sooner than we think, we’ll have the pleasure of analysing them in a concerned way just as Gen X did to us. The journey of generations is a reassuringly prosaic thing – as hierarchical and predictable as climbing up the ranks of school years eight, nine and ten.
I’m sure one day we’ll make a comeback to talk nostalgically about this time – perhaps I’ll be 45, gracing a weekend supplement dressed up in Topshop like it’s Biba and holding avocado toast as if I were a boomer with a can of evaporated milk. But for now, I’m glad we can head offstage as uninteresting and unanalysed grown-ups. Into a brave new decade and maybe even a brave new world.
“Everything I Know About Love” by Dolly Alderton is published by Fig Tree
This article appears in the 21 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special