Sorry, Oregon Trail Generation — 35 is the new 50. People of that once-sprightly age have now been relegated to the retirement home of the “olds,” where decidedly unhip parents text poorly formatted messages to their kids while watching whatever happens to be on CBS. In a recent story about Snapchat, the Wall Street Journal points out that a growing number of these barely-competent tricenarians (read: tricenarians born before the original Ghostbusters dropped) are beginning to use the ephemeral messaging service, which of course means Snapchat is doomed. Olds ruin everything.
Some argue that these age brackets, which companies use to rationalize massive media acquisitions, determine if TV shows live and die, and which media use to frame conversations around how people use technology, are completely arbitrary and don’t account for the variety of tastes and expertise that Americans of all ages possess. These people are wrong. First of all, I’m 26, so opinions like mine are literally keeping the internet economy afloat. And second, these marketing demographics provide a great way to mark the progress of our own directionless lives. Do you remember the day you were born? No. Do you remember the day you joined the coveted 18–34 demographic? Of course you do! “I have measured out my life with Nielsen demos,” a famous poet once basically said.
So I have a modest proposal: Let’s stop getting hyped for meaningless birthdays like 16, 21, 40, and 100. Advertisers have already laid out a perfectly usable roadmap for judging when our lives are most and least valuable (high value: 18–34; moderate value: 35–49; Great Value: 50+). Now, here’s how to celebrate (or cope with) each milestone.
On a single day, you transform from a snot-nosed tween into a tastemaker. You should pose for a magazine cover story in which an aging 29-year-old writer, anxious about his own waning societal influence, meticulously documents you playing with your phone for 10 minutes. Crash a multibillion-dollar company’s stock price by declaring their social network “uncool” (you would never say “uncool” but that’s how the olds will translate it).
Congrats, you are now the five-star recruit of the advertising world. Your mushy teenage brain is still spongy enough to create “lifelong habits,” which is marketing-speak for the inexplicable allure of Crest toothpaste. To celebrate your ascendance, Uber with your Tinder date to a prom after-party hosted at an Airbnb mansion, and proudly use your actual birth date to register for all the services. Scream “MILLENNIAL” enough times during the party and you can probably figure out a way to get Red Bull to sponsor the whole shebang.
You’re officially an adult, free from the prolonged adolescence of the 18–24 demo. Your growing spending power and expanding base of cultured interests (you recently splurged for Hulu in addition to Netflix) make you the most sought-after consumer on Earth. On your birthday, start a website or launch an app. Gather 10 friends your same age, but make sure they are white, male, and hard-to-reach. Get them to tweet, “This Is a Cool Thing” to 10 of their friends. Sell your new company for $100 million.
This is your dying gasp of youthful consumerism, so you gotta do it big. Instead of gifts, ask your (younger) friends to click 1,000 banner ads on your five favorite websites. Sign up for cable, then live-tweet a television event at your birthday party, no matter how mundane. (Suggestions include reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond or, in an ironic, cool way, Blossom.) Once the show’s over, shoot a Vine of yourself cutting the cable cord with a chainsaw.
This is essentially your Internet Retirement Party. Dump the sassy nickname on Facebook — your life is no longer salacious enough to warrant the subterfuge. Change your sepia-soaked Twitter profile picture back into an egg. Announce (preferably via Facebook — maybe LinkedIn!) that you find Snapchat’s messaging feature extremely confusing and would prefer if everyone just used iMessage. It’s fine — no one is judging you anymore, you are worth less than ever.
Get in your rocker, crack open a locally crafted beer, and play your favorite high school band’s Pandora radio station, forever. Maybe boot up Fruit Ninja. You deserve it, you’ve lived a full life.
You’re surrounded by loved ones at the old family lake house on your 49th birthday. Your oldest boy, well, he’s not a boy anymore. He’s 18 — a full-grown, walking dollar sign, like you were once. He hands you a small, hastily wrapped package — clearly his own handiwork. You give him a wry smile as you tear at the paper, but your eyes grow wide as you realize what’s inside. It’s a box of 52 Nielsen TV diaries, to mark your very last year in television’s “key demo.” You’re fighting back tears. You vow to watch more TV than you have since you were a coveted 34-year-old (and it won’t all be whatever happens to be airing on CBS). You’ve got one last shot to change the culture.
Were you born in 1965 or 1940? It doesn’t matter because once you’re too old to understand a six-months-too-late “Netflix and Chill” brand tweet; you’re a shell of a human as far as advertisers are concerned. You are the Internet User With No Face. You float from app to app, invisible to the world. Sometimes you miss the excitement of the old days, when news organizations reposted your tweets without your permission and giant corporations bought out the websites you visited and you were pullin’ so much brand engagement you didn’t know what to do with it. You chuck your phone into the lake and unplug your router. The silence envelops you, and you accept your peaceful, quiet, unmarketable existence.