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Roundtable: What Piece of Tech Defines Your Generation?

Researchers have settled on a specific age range to define millennials, which begs the question: what really separates that group from the next generation?

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The extremely amorphous millennial generation, which has been described as 18- to 34-year-olds since around the time I was 18 a decade ago, is finally getting some boundaries. On March 1 the Pew Research Center announced that in its future examinations of generational cohorts, it will section off millennials as people born between 1981 and 1996. Pew—and other cultural anthropologists that try to give generational demarcations heft—like to group cohorts based on changes in birth rates, important national events, and economic trends. But they also view technology as a key method to understanding how different eras of society are shaped. “Baby boomers grew up as television expanded dramatically, changing their lifestyles and connection to the world in fundamental ways,” Pew President Michael Dimock wrote. “Generation X grew up as the computer revolution was taking hold, and millennials came of age during the internet explosion.”

“Computers” and “the internet” are pretty general terms for defining generations, though. That got us wondering: What specific technological gadgets, trends, or moments help us understand the difference between Olds, Cool Teens, and the people straddling the line between the two? But first, a quick gut check. Does pigeonholing millennials as 22- to 37-year-olds sound right to you? —Victor Luckerson

Molly McHugh: That seems like a generous scale to me ...

Justin Charity: It’s interesting that we keep shrinking the span of each successive generation. The baby boomers are a 30-year span. Gen X is a 20-year span. The millennials are a 15 year span. Which suggests that generational branding is a hyperactive pastime, and maybe exists to stimulate cultural divisions more than it does to actually explain anything about anyone.

Alyssa Bereznak: True, but I think technology has accelerated so quickly that age difference can feel a lot more acute.

Charity: I think the baby boomers lived through a lot of technological acceleration, too!

McHugh: But yeah, I think it’s actually fitting that generational categories become smaller with the rate of change accelerating. The iPhone changed everything to such a degree, more than the television. I think television had a huge cultural impact, but not as huge of a technological impact.

Charity: The tech advancements of the 20th century are legit massive though.

Kate Knibbs: It seems to me like people use “millennial” to refer to very young people, still.

I’m not sure “Gen Z” has caught on.

Shaker Samman: Going to be completely honest: I hadn’t heard of Gen Z before a week or two ago. I just assumed everyone born after 1985 was in some strata of millennial.

Bereznak: That’s because millennial has become synonymous with punk-ass kid.

Samman: I think that sort of arbitrary binning is kind of dangerous though. Like is my life experience different than it would have been if I was born a few months later than I was?

I wouldn’t think there’d be much difference between someone born in ’93 and ’97.

Danny Heifetz: I don’t think drawing massive horizontal lines in history and putting that group in a box is very informative. I’d be way more interested in a vertical approach—certain archetypes of people who engage with culture and technology. I’m sure the first person in a friend group to buy a Kodak in the ’50s/’60s has something in common with the friend who had the video camera in the ’80s has something in common with the friend who first put everything on Instagram.

Charity: It all seems forced. An attempt to make us all slaves to dumb marketing terms. It’s not like smartphones are revolutionary but only for this one specific age range.

Bereznak: That’s a pretty good segue into me bragging about how I had a dope 80-gig iPod.


Samman: Oh, like one of those giant bricks?! My dad had one and I accidentally deleted all his music off of it because I tried to add “Vertigo” by U2 on it. I am very cultured.

Bereznak: It was a total brick. I still have it, and it still works. It sits atop an Altec Lansing charging speaker my grandma bought me. Sometimes I press shuffle while I’m vacuuming.

Luckerson: “One of those giant bricks” feels very “post-millennial” to me.

Samman: This is bullying. I’m being bullied.

McHugh: Yeah if you ever had a piece of tech you referred to as a brick, you might not be a millennial. See: Nokias.

Knibbs: I miss my Nokia every day. I was so good at Snake!

Bereznak: Same, I really miss Snake.

What tech separates millennials from “post-millennials?”

Luckerson: Danny brought up an interesting point about categorizing people based on how they engage with technology. I’m wondering if there is tech out there right now that sort of eludes the grasp of most people beyond a certain age. I still don’t know whether Snapchat is poorly designed or I just don’t get the points, badges, etc.

Samman: I think it can be both, Victor. Snapchat is poorly designed, but the points and badges don’t make any sense.

Knibbs: I have never felt older than during my attempt to understand

Charity: Selfies, maybe.

Bereznak: There is no barrier to entry for selfies. My mom and her friends take selfies.

McHugh: Finstagram.

Bereznak: Yes, and the “Story” posting concept in general, whether on Snapchat or Instagram.

McHugh: It might just be how we use those technologies, though. My godson will just stream himself constantly, like he’s a YouTube star, documenting his every moment in Snapchat or just recording on his camera to upload later, all via selfie cam. Also, isn’t there some sort of rule about how fast things are posted that alludes to age? Like I take pictures while I’m out doing something and later that day or next day I might post a couple to Instagram; ~the youth~ post immediately.

Samman: That’s definitely a thing. If I don’t post it immediately, I won’t post it at all. It’ll just sit in my camera roll for eternity.

Heifetz: I think the nostalgia for the music from your teenage years is very similar to nostalgia for that technology. Bill was talking on his podcast about his kids being on Houseparty every day after school. But I don’t see how that’s fundamentally different than all of my friends going home from school and talking to each other on iChat, and before that, AIM. I’m sure you ’80s babies sent carrier pigeons or something. The roots seem to stay the same.

Knibbs: I have a question for the Youngs. I’m an ’80s baby, and during the ’90s and early ’00s, my friends and I constantly catfished adults in internet chatrooms. Do young people still love the art of catfishing strangers?

Charity: Kate is a real scammer.

Heifetz: I think entire CNN-driven news cycles exist because people in their 30s forget people on the internet are 14. To answer your question Kate, it’s never been flourishing more.

Samman: What is the statute of limitations on this stuff? Because uh ... it wasn’t not a thing.

Bereznak: What did you do Shaker!

Samman: Oh, you know. Just the usual. Nigerian princes, fake lovers, spurned former neighbors. Nothing too crazy.

How are young people shaping internet culture?

Heifetz: Meme culture is the future. I swear the post-millennials are the meme generation.

Samman: My generation invented memes. Or, at the very least, we took them from the Gamergaters and made them good. Meme culture is the greatest gift the Youths have ever given

Knibbs: Wow. Hard disagree. You guys did Pepe.

McHugh: Meme culture has been thriving for AWHILE.

Bereznak: It’s beautiful. But, it also maybe encouraged a bunch of people to eat Tide pods.

Charity: I was big into a particular video game forum in the early 2000s, it was very meme-driven, my generation definitely invented contemporary memes.

Luckerson: Modern society is weirdly and chillingly shaped by video game message board culture of the early 2000s tbh.

Knibbs: Shaker, I was forwarding meme-like emails when you were just a twinkle in our eyes.

Heifetz: What’s an email?

Samman: Typical Olds. Taking credit for the ingenuity of the young.

Heifetz: Memes have replaced media as monoculture or the closest thing to it.

Samman: I think more of my friends know the Liquid Swords tweet than saw Lady Bird. And that’s sort of upsetting.

Charity: Here’s my concern about millennials vs post-millennials—the distinction just feels too seamless to be meaningful or accurate. If the distinction is just between a handful of apps, or a single advancement in meme language, how real is it, really? It’s like litigating the difference between the iPhone 5 and the iPhone 6. Instead of the difference between the rotary phone and the iPhone.

Luckerson: There is an odd dichotomy where tech changes really fast but adults are also putting off significant life events (marriage, kids, home ownership) so maybe you have people who are older still eager to be plugged into what’s cool/new.

Heifetz: The thing that makes the most sense is high school class ranges. You have certain things in common with the group four years ahead of you and four years behind you. That’s the extent of an age range I think you can draw nowadays, because so much of what you’re doing is social in nature.

Charity: Sure, but aren’t these generational distinctions about big picture history? Not just pop fads in common.

Bereznak: The whole reason we have these distinctions, in my opinion, is so marketers can sell shit, and The New York Times can write trend pieces.

Heifetz: You’re right Charity. I think I have more issues with the way the terms are overused to explain things they can’t actually explain.

Samman: Totally. I think it originally made sense. They needed a name for the rising birth rate after the war, and baby boomers stuck. Everything after that is just for show.

Charity: So then—why do we, the media, sincerely buy into it? However (supposedly) critically.

Luckerson: Because people also naturally love having their personalities defined, even if only to argue with the result. It’s why Myers-Briggs tests are popular.

Bereznak: As a millennial, I am contractually obligated to disagree that I enjoy having my personality defined.

Charity: [Extremely Bad and Boujee voice] BuzzFeed quiz. Myers-Briggs. I think that’s right though—these generational distinctions have dropped the pretense of historical significance, and we now seem to openly regard them as tools for personality craft, pop rebellion, and manufactured conflict. They’re not really about advancement at all.

McHugh: I think if the potential of VR is ever realized, that will be a defining generational leap.

Samman: Would VR be the next iPhone? Like the next generation’s defining technological advancement? I love my iPhone more than I love my family. I’m just curious if that sort of attachment will pass on to the next thing.

McHugh: I just think it would be the thing that could change the way we live the most dramatically. But I have serious doubts we are anywhere near that realization.

Heifetz: I think cryptocurrency will be the first huge thing younger people intrinsically understood before the olds that holds up over the long haul.

Samman: Blockchain is a myth, like the Loch Ness monster or a brunch restaurant that doesn’t need reservations. I don’t buy it.

Heifetz: Maybe if you do, you can afford a career in journalism!