Why 18- to 34-Year-Olds Resist Being Called Millennials

  • February 04, 2016
  • by Caralee Adams

Glendora Meikle is a millennial, but that’s not how she describes herself.

“I don’t identify with a particular generation, and I don’t speak with a lot of people who do,” says the 33-year-old, who works for a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. “I hear very few people start a sentence with, ‘As a millennial ….’”

Meikle says she has friends of all ages, to whom she feels connected because of common interests—not because of when they were born.

She’s not alone. Just 40 percent of adults ages 18-34 consider themselves part of the millennial generation, according to a Pew Research Center survey released in September. Another 33 percent from that age group say they identify as Generation Xers, whom demographers categorize as being between 35 and 50. 

Pew’s survey of 3,147 adults focused on four generational labels: millennials, Gen X, baby boomers, and the oldest, the silents, born in the depths of the Great Depression. It found that boomers have the strongest generational identity, with 79 percent of those born between 1946 and 1964 embracing the term.
Most Millennials resist their generation's label.

While millennials may not have the same sense of generational identity as their boomer counterparts, understanding their attitudes is essential to planning the country’s future as well as its workplace policies: Millennials will soon become the nation’s largest living generation, and they already make up the largest share of the workforce.

“They are just a big cohort, they will change things, and we need to prepare for that,” says Karen K. Myers, a communications professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has researched millennials and their role in the workplace.

Previous Pew research on millennials has shown they face a tough job market, given the lingering effects of the Great Recession. That has had ripple effects, with many continuing to live with their parents and delaying marriage until they are financially secure. A Pew analysis of census data, for example, found that the percentage of 18- to 34-year-old women living at home is at the same level as in 1940.

The names of generations are largely the creation of social scientists and market researchers and can provide a cohesive way of viewing a particular age group. In this latest study, Pew researchers wanted to learn more about how widely accepted these labels are and, especially, which characteristics Americans use to describe their own generations, says Alec Tyson, a senior researcher at the center. 

The survey found that the public is more familiar with some of the generational labels than with others. Only 58 percent of respondents ages 18-34 had heard the term “millennial.”

“It’s hard to identify with a term you haven’t heard of,” says Tyson. “That goes a long way toward describing some of this.”

The study delved deeply into how the generations view themselves. And more than any other group in the study, millennials describe people their age negatively: 59 percent say their generation is “self-absorbed,” 49 percent call it “wasteful,” and 43 percent say millennials are “greedy.”

A greater share of millennials than of any other age group describe their generation as less willing to sacrifice, less religious, less patriotic, less compassionate, and less politically active. They also are more likely to view themselves as more cynical than any of the other groups (31 percent). Only 24 percent of Gen Xers, 16 percent of boomers, and 7 percent of silents say that about themselves.

The report’s findings resonated with many in the millennial age group. “Maybe why we are cynical is because we don’t know how we can make a difference and affect a lot of the problems we see around the world, even though we want to,” says Meredith Niles, a University of Vermont professor who, at 32, falls in the millennial category even though she says she views herself more as a Gen Xer.

Tyler Wayne Patterson, a 21-year-old senior at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, says he identifies himself as a millennial. But, he adds, when people his age are pegged as “selfish” or “lazy,” they naturally want to distance themselves from the generational label.

While millennials may not have the same sense of generational identity as their boomer counterparts, understanding their attitudes is essential to planning the country’s future as well as its workplace policies.

Patterson says that millennials, rather than being “self-absorbed,” are dealing with coming of age in a difficult economy while trying to draw attention to issues that are important to them, such as the need for quality education and affordable housing. And, he says, a defining characteristic of his generation is having grown up alongside the changes in media and technology that have given millennials constant access to new information, ideas, and perspectives.

So that may be why, even though millennials say they are self-absorbed and less willing to sacrifice, they also describe themselves in the poll as “idealistic.” In fact, more millennials use that term to describe their generation—39 percent—than do any of the other groups: Gen Xers (28 percent), boomers (31 percent), or silents (26 percent). And they view themselves as “tolerant” at about the same levels as other generations.

Erik Lampmann, a 24-year-old organizer and writer in Washington, D.C., says people his age have what he calls “idealistic pragmatism.” They can see flaws in the electoral or economic system, he says, and seek change. Millennials have a natural adaptability to new technology, especially for communication, which he sees young people using to expose racial injustice and other concerns.

“I am consistently impressed by the energy, optimism, and creativity of young people,” says Lampmann.

So, cynical yet idealistic, self-absorbed yet tolerant. If there appears to be inconsistency in how millennials view themselves, that also is not surprising, given that they are the youngest generation and are still finding themselves, says Myers, the professor in California.

Millennials “are just developing their identities now. Their values might start to change,” she says. “We all change as we get older. As we have kids, our values can change, and certainly theirs can, too.”