How Millennials Grew Up and Got Old
What do we do with all this age
Quick Preamble: By definition, millennials were born between 1981 and 1996. That doesn’t mean that everyone born within that age range will identify as a millennial. Generational grouping is imperfect, just like any other grouping that relies solely on one component of who you are. We can understand that there is no universal millennial experience while also acknowledging how larger cultural and financial events shaped our coming-of-age and understanding of how the world works. In this piece, that’s what I’m trying to do: understand what crossing into “middle-aged” feels like for people who entered the workforce when we did. And if you still believe generations are bullshit, this might challenge or at least texture that belief.
I’ll also note: “old” is not a pejorative here. Old is relative. Old is older. To feel old is not to feel bad, it is to feel old(er).
Something interesting happens when you realize your generation isn’t the center of the discourse anymore. I’m not even talking about being the locus of cool. More like: you just seem to matter less. People are less anxious about you, less mad about you — if anything, they seem slightly annoyed by you. You’re no longer the future. You’re the well-worn middle.
Back in 2018, GQ writer Zach Baron wrote about this feeling, which he described as being “washed”:
I myself am probably too washed to pinpoint the moment that “washed”—an existential description that has become ubiquitous in the past few years, as the American empire ebbs and exhaustion sets in—first entered the culture. It's not quite “washed up,” with its connotations of lounge singers in Vegas reflecting on their glory days. It's more about that transitive moment: There you are in the train station of life, waving goodbye to your edge and your youth as they depart. You are Eli Manning, and you are no longer a plausible NFL starter in the eyes of some, but you are not yet ready to go to the bench. You haven't been to that particular new restaurant yet, but you've heard it's nice.
Baron enjoys being washed, as it frees him from the labor of being young, which he describes as “working on being, basically, a more interesting version of yourself.” Being washed means going out less (and caring less about what others think about it, or anything else) and also “acquiring unfashionable hobbies that nevertheless bring you pleasure.” It means relaxing into yourself.
If you’re a longtime reader of Culture Study, you know that leaning into unfashionable hobbies that nevertheless bring you pleasure is written into the guiding principles of the newsletter. But when I first read Baron’s piece, back in 2018 — pre-millennial burnout, pre-pandemic, at age 37 — I found it grating and unrelatable. And yet, a lot of people whose taste I respected, particularly my (somewhat older) editor at the time, seemed to love it. I had a feeling that I missing something, not dissimilar from the way I felt when I first watched Wayne’s World and 80% of the references went straight over my head.
I was missing something. Because even though I recognized many of the behaviors that Baron described, I didn’t feel old yet. Maybe it was because I didn’t have kids. Maybe it was because my career clock really only started at age 33. Or maybe it was because I worked at an organization where the median employee age was 27.
If you’re around my age, I wonder what you felt back in 2018. Perhaps gloriously washed, like Baron. Or perhaps you, too, felt like you weren’t quite there yet — because like me, the Great Recession had scrambled or delayed major life events, from marriage and parenthood to home ownership and saving for retirement. It’s hard to feel the chill of being washed when you don’t have an emergency fund, you know?
But something happened in those years since Baron published that essay. Most obviously: the Trump presidency and the pandemic, when time folded in on itself while also expanding and our bodies came to feel even more vulnerable than before. Millions of Eldest Millennials turned 40 (now, we’re 42!); millions of millennials became parents and millions of additional parents’ kids got older — a process, I hear, that often also makes you feel old.
The pandemic was also the first time I heard managers fully switch to “those Gen-Zers” as a way to complain about workers being “entitled” and “coddled.” Millennials had officially aged out of our status as a cultural anxiety point. It was a relief, of course. But we’d been the punching bag for so long that yielding that bag also felt weird.
And then there’s all the cultural recycling. The songs all over Top 40 radio that interpolate or cover songs from millennials’ teenage years…but also the entire existence of “Y2K” as an aesthetic. It’s going to Target or scrolling through an online storefront and seeing the same fashions that defined us and tortured us…..and realizing our parents probably felt the same way when ‘60s and ‘70s fashions started cycling through our wardrobes in the ‘90s.
But here’s the thing: seeing these fashions, hearing these songs, it doesn’t make me mad. It just makes me shake my head in an approximation of “kids these days, someday they’ll learn how much long denim skirts suck.” Like, you know, an old person!!!!!
Baron starts his washed essay with a description of seeing Jay-Z perform next to Beyoncé at Coachella and realizing, wow, this hero of mine — he’s washed. I love him, but maybe I also love him today in part because he’s washed. That was 2018. In 2023, maybe seeing N*Sync reunite was that moment for you: proof, as this TikTok so succinctly puts it, that Elder Millennial Justin Timberlake “realizes he’s no longer the hot girl at the bar.”
There are tons of memes about millennials getting old, but they’re pretty simple. The best place to find “we’re old, we’re washed, but we’re wise” content is on TikTok, where all manner of overt and cringe nostalgia for millennial makeup and clothing and online habits has become its own genre.
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Which is ironic, given that TikTok — the whole damn thing — also makes millennials feel old. A few of us are pros, but many (like, say, every single one of my college friends) access it uniquely through other people’s shares on Instagram. You love it but you simply cannot free the limited RAM in your brain for how to handle it, navigate it, understand it, whatever. You’re okay with that. But it nevertheless makes your millennial self feel ancient. And I know this because whenever I post TikToks to Instagram (for RushTok, for That Guy) my DMs fill with gratitude: thank u, I’m an elder millennial, I can’t even with TikTok.
All of the “we’re aging, oh my god” sentiment is natural. It’s only surprising to us millennials who, in this moment, like every generation before, imagined our identity would be fixed at age 28. People are always getting older; there are always, inexplicably, more young people. Again: nothing new.
But I do think there’s something else — something bigger, something more complicated — that’s making millennials feel old. Stick with me here.
During the pandemic, the mix of the student loan payment pause, government aid, increases in saving, and incredibly low-interest rates helped millions of millennials become home-owners for the first time. In 2015, 37% of millennials owned their own homes; by 2022, that percentage had skyrocketed to 51.5%.
Millennials still lag behind other generations when it comes to the age of home ownership — which is significant, because home ownership is the primary means through which Americans amass wealth. But if you look at the graph below, you can see how the pandemic helped close a much bigger gap.
During this spike in millennial home ownership, millions of other millennials settled into a different reality: given the new state housing market (scarcity, incredibly high interest rates, bidding wars) they would likely never be able to become homeowners. (And, according to this 2022 survey data, it’s not because they “prefer” renting and the lifestyle it facilitates — but because it seems financially impossible.)
These charts are a testament to the ongoing income and wealth stratification in this country: sure, a bunch of millennials are finally catching up with other generations when it comes to home ownership. But a solid quarter of those still renting feel certain it will always be out of reach. And both buckets of millennials feel old — albeit in different ways.
First, you have the Millennials Whose Identity Has Been Undercut.
Maybe your whole thing used to be working until your eyes bled, being really pissed off about student loans, having little to no hobbies outside of work, and talking about how you’d never own a house. But maybe you were also forced to rearrange your relationship to work. Maybe you paid off your 20-year student loan plan. Maybe your PSLF application finally went through! Maybe you got married or partnered and doubled your household income. And maybe, back when interest rates were at their lowest, you were one of those millennials who cobbled together enough for a down payment on a home.
Some of it was probably time. Some of it was career growth. Depending on your situation, some of it was probably related to familial wealth, which either made it possible to graduate from college with little to no debt, helped cover emergencies, or contributed, in some way, to your down payment. (Your familial wealth likely has something to do with your racial background: the average Black and Hispanic family has just a quarter of the total wealth of the average white family. The racial wealth gap has everything to do with centuries of racist practice and policy, extending into the current thinking on student loan forgiveness).
If you bought a home in the last five years, maybe you’re haunted by how much of it feels like luck: if you would’ve been a few years younger or behind on your savings, if your parents hadn’t had some cushion of cash, if your job forced you to live in a place with a bonkers real estate market, you wouldn’t have had the down payment to even stick a foot in the market when interest rates were low. By the time you did, interest rates had risen so steeply that the mortgage payment on even a modest starter home was suddenly out of reach.
And it should feel like luck. If you did manage to buy a home, it wasn’t because you were smarter or a harder worker. It was because you were economically and positionally lucky. Which, for a generation whose fate has largely been defined by bad economic luck…..it feels really fucking weird.
I’ve seen that feeling of weirdness pop up in millennials’ public disclosure of home ownership: We were so fortunate to have been able to find a place in this market…..We were so lucky, I can’t believe we got it…..Acknowledging all the privileges that allowed me to become a homeowner, etc. etc. The vibe, at least outwardly, is akin to embarrassment. Which is interesting, right? Why don’t people feel better about securing at least one pillar of the American Dream?
But I get that discomfort. Climbing the class ladder in America means being inundated with messages that it’s not just okay to have more financial security than your peers, but cause for celebration. It’s the whole point. To relax into that posture means alienating yourself from one of the foundational characteristics of our generation: that we’re a lost generation, the first in modern history to end up poorer than our parents. To leave that behind, wittingly or not — you can see how that would make someone feel old.
Second, there’s Millennials Who Are Exhausted By Being Millennials.
For whatever reason, stability hasn’t arrived. You still feel as unlucky and precarious as you did a decade ago, if not more so. Maybe you’re in a field where wages have stagnated. Maybe your job is making you sicker and sadder and madder every day but you can’t even imagine a way out that doesn’t blow up your life. Maybe you’ve switched to a new field and can’t shake the feeling that you’re starting at the very bottom — again. You keep putting money into your emergency fund and emergencies just keep happening.
Maybe you have other forms of job lock related to your healthcare plan or a partner’s job. Maybe you own a house but the costs of everything are just still too damn high and your debt keeps mounting. Maybe you’re terrified that your prescription costs are going to go through the roof without warning. Maybe you got laid off, or you’ve endured a long strike, or you had to drop out of the workforce to care for yourself or someone in your family.
Whatever the reason, it sucks — and it feels outrageously unfair that you’re still grappling with our broken social safety net, particularly when others who you thought were dealing with the same challenges seem to have moved past them. Millennials in this bucket feel old because dealing with the same problems for two decades is wearying and being part of the precariat ages you. The end.
And then there’s a third bucket — the Millennials Who’ve Always Felt Old.
I’m a cusp millennial, part of the grouping that’s variously referred to as Xennial, Generation Catalano, or the Oregon Trail Generation. Within that group, I find much of how you identify depends on 1) your affinity to “classic” Gen-X culture/norms, aka how important was and is it to you not to sell out, self-publicize, or invest time and energy in finding things outside the corporate sphere but also 2) how acutely you, your family, or your career trajectory was affected by the financial crisis.
If, for example, you graduated with little or no student debt, found a job in 2003, got another job that lasted through the 2000s, started putting money in a 401k when you were 24, didn’t go to grad school, and were able to buy a home in your early 30s (because of accumulated savings, family help, and/or living in a low cost-of-living area)….I can see why millennial discourse would be alienating. Whether you’ve enjoyed that non-stereotypical millennial career and financial stability or just have Gen-X attitudes, millennials have always felt “young” to you in some way.
So there are some buckets of millennial oldness. Clearly I’m still working through this idea; each bucket is layered, leaky, and porous, and I’d love your help refining them. But wherever a millennial finds themselves in this Growing Up and Growing Old landscape, I’m most interested in what we, as people born during this somewhat arbitrary fifteen-year period, do next. Because there is a real risk that our generation will repeat the sin commonly attributed to boomers and the silent generation: climb the ladder to relative stability….and then pull it up behind us.
Yes, millennials are much better at acknowledging the different privileges that boost people to different levels on that ladder. Yes, we’re getting better at understanding concepts like the racial wealth gap and the reasons it persists. Yes, our generation is significantly more diverse and more liberal than any that’s come before. But there are plenty of rich liberal millennials who love rapid growth capitalism, who think good business sense “knows no race,” and who just generally refuse any sort of collectivist politics.
Most notably: Mark Zuckerberg and noted millennial ambition psycho Vivek Ramaswamy. But there’s also plenty of run-of-the-mill next-gen American Gentry: the guy in your hometown who owns a small but lucrative business, who might not be a Trumper but speaks derisively of woke-ism after he’s had a few beers, complains about unhoused people, and votes no on the school levy. You know that guy. You know his wife. And amongst them, there’s a lot of looking the other way, particularly when you feel like you’ve worked long and hard enough to “deserve” what you have.
Some of these millennials have become callous narcissists. Alienation does wild things to people. But in many cases, particularly further down the wealth chart, I think the turn inward — the blinkered concern for me-and-mine — is guided less by malice and more by exhaustion. The situation reminds me of a conversation I had a few years ago with a policy expert in early childhood education. In short: people don’t realize how bad it is until they find themselves in the thick of it. And for a few years, they’re furious — but amidst that fury, they’re also just barely treading water, trying to balance the costs and sick days and aftercare and jobs and other kids. By the time their kids are out of care, they’ve depleted their rage and their desire to do the sort of ongoing work that would make things different and better for parents to come.
That’s where I fear millennials have found themselves: we became clear-eyed about all the ways society is set up to fail so many of us, came to understand racism as systemic instead of just interpersonal, rejected or refined the politics of our parents, but now we feel too exhausted, too old, to fix things. Which is why I cringe at the “Gen-Z will save us” narrative: its main purpose is not to praise Gen-Z, but to excuse other generations from the hard work of saving ourselves and each other.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling older. I like it here; I know a lot of you do, too. But as our generation ages, we have to be vigilant about the ways in which fatigue and fear can blot out even the brightest hopes for a different, more equitable world. Because even if you do find a modicum of security, it’s still not going to feel like enough. You’ll want more, and that won’t feel like enough either. When you’re this conditioned to precarity, no personal safety net is ever robust enough to actually make you feel safe. You need something much more robust: something that’s built for and supported by, well, everyone.
The boomer father of an ex-boyfriend used to tell me: Yeah, you’re liberal now, but just wait til you get older. Have some kids, own a house, pay property taxes, live in the ‘real world’ — you’ll see what happens.
You’ve probably heard some version of that, too. And yes: that was the way, for a whole lot of our parents and grandparents. But amidst all these novel, hilarious, and introspective moments of feeling old, I keep reminding myself: it doesn’t have to be ours. ●
Regardless of your age or generation, I’m curious about your experience watching your generation age and some of its political verve disperse, curdle, or otherwise transform. And be sure to checkout the thoughtful (and delightful) discussion of all that makes us feel old in this Friday’s thread.
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