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The World's Oldest Millennial
Google Ngram Viewer is a massive database of digitized books that lets you track the frequency of a given word's usage over time. When you enter the word "Millennial" into it, you see a sudden spike that begins in the mid-1980s. The usage peaks in 1998 before leveling off in 2001. A precipitous decline follows from then until 2008, when Ngram's data set ends.
As a Millennial who joined Facebook on Election Night 2004 and has not left for any significant period of time since, I can attest that the word started to come back during the presidential election cycle of 2012, when I began noticing more and more articles about Millennials in my newsfeed. The new cultural crescendo trebled in 2013 when Time Magazine ran a cover story about "The Me Me Me Generation" in May of that year.
From 2013 to 2015, articles about Millennials were largely a joke. Cranks used the topic to complain about everything they thought was wrong with America. Business eggheads blamed us for "murdering" any number of industries from home ownership to jewelry. And press outlets peppered headlines with the title "Millennial," even when the articles they advertised had little to do with the age cohort of Americans born in the 1980s or 1990s.
In 2015, a trickster named Eric Bailey had enough. Bailey created a Google Chrome extension that replaced the word "Millennials" with "Snake People." With articles about Millennials routinely mocked and disregarded by Millennials themselves on Twitter and on Facebook, it was not until the 2016 presidential election cycle that serious writing about the political and historical situation of Millennials emerged.
But as much as Snake People Millennials have been discussed in the 2010s, we're still collectively mystified about what a Millennial actually is. As journalist Sarah Kendzior notes in her stellar June 2016 article on Quartz.com, "the confusion lies in the way we define generations in the US, a series of labels that are as unclear as they are inconsistent."
In a March 2014 article on Slate.com, writer Amanda Hess revealed that The New York Times consistently ran stories about Millennials that featured no Millennials. Conversely, authors of anti-Millennial diatribes are often Millennials who — in their early or mid-30s — don't realize that they are Millennials.
At a Prudential Financial-sponsored event called Millennial Week in Seattle on September 15, 2016, businesswoman Lauren Maillian began an eloquent description of her youth with the preface "When I was a Millennial," as if the label were a synonym for "20-something." That's not quite how this works. Today, the word Millennial conjures images of youth. Before we know it, it will make Gen-Z youths think of nursing homes and geriatric care.
THE WORLD'S OLDEST MILLENNIAL
Generational categories are broad-brush descriptors that start to lose fidelity and meaning at the extremes. In his 1951 book Minima Moralia, Theodor Adorno wrote "in psychoanalysis, nothing is true except the exaggerations." The same could be said of the way many talk about generations as cookie-cutter stereotypes that corroborate their complaints about society.
Nonetheless, it's illustrative to begin and bookend periods in history by referring to the populations that grew up in them. If we go with Neil Howe and William Strauss — the writers who coined the term "Millennial" and did some of the first research about the topic — we'll agree that the first Millennials were born in 1982. That makes somebody born on January 1, 1982 the world's oldest Millennial. By retracing what kind of country the United States was around this seminal date, we can learn a lot about the socioeconomic terrain that American Millennials came to occupy: a country where mid-century capitalism was fading, and neoliberalism presented society with new questions about identity, family, and children.
1982 was the year when spectator capitalism in cinema reached new heights with the family friendly blockbuster E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. The movie kicked off an era of marketing tie-ins that targeted children with ads and merchandise. That same year, the musical Annie depicted the rags-to-riches rise of a depressionera adolescent; anticipating a pile of stereotypes that portray Millennials as a coddled generation in the midst of widespread wealth disparities, Annie is told "never stop believing you are special" by a billionaire before famously singing "it's a hard knock life; instead of treated, we get tricked."
Jay Z became an icon of hip-hop culture by quoting that line in his 1998 single "Hard Knock Life." But rap was still a largely local phenomenon in 1982 when the group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five broadcast the conditions that had befallen the urban poor in their single "The Message." Meanwhile — not yet accused of molesting children in 1982 — Michael Jackson's smash album Thriller was released. It became the best-selling record of all-time with the help of a ballad about a bastard Millennial titled "Billie Jean." The song was a rare public moment of parental insouciance in a society that was growing obsessed with kids:
"For the sake of our children," Ronald Reagan announced in his rollout of the War on Drugs in October of 1982, "I ask for your support in this effort to make our streets safe again." And The Missing Children Act of 1982 was passed by the 97 Congress, giving local law enforcement agencies new resources to find abducted kids. These political decisions mirrored a widespread fixation on childhood that was borne out in Time Magazine covers which celebrated "The New Baby Boom" of 30-somethings finally deciding to have children (February 27, 1982), and the coming "Computer Generation of Whiz Kids" (May 3, 1982).
The 2013 film 1982 features a father struggling to protect his children from the ravages of drug addiction and joblessness in deindustrialized Philadelphia. The film dramatizes the mix of squalor, social panic, and high expectations that defined Millennial childhood under neoliberalism. "You're the best little girl that anybody could ever hope to have," the desperate dad tells his distraught daughter. "And none of this is your fault."
On December 31, 1981, the Cable News Network (CNN) ran a feature about its second channel, CNN Headline News. CNN formed in 1979 to feature regular programming and in-depth news features. But the goal of Headline News was to create the fastest, most condensed presentation of news ever. Shortly after announcing the public rollout of Headline News on New Year's Eve, CNN cameras cut to the ceremonial ball drop in Times Square as the world said goodbye to 1981, and rang in 1982.
The city that the ball dropped on in Times Square on January 1, 1982 had become a beacon of decay and despair. Gone were the glamorous days depicted in director Martin Scorsese's musical New York, New York (1977). The city's mid-century stability was fading beyond recovery. It was now a petri dish for a new social order — neoliberalism — that constitutes a major part of the cultural and socioeconomic disinheritance of Millennials.
"In response to growing unrest in the 1960s," writes Jason Hackworth in The Neoliberal City, New York was "pressured to increase expenditures for housing, healthcare, and other social services." But the city struggled to pay for these services because its tax base shrank dramatically due to deindustrialization. Between 1969 and 1977, the city shed more than 600,000 jobs — many of which were in ethnic neighborhoods like the one immortalized in the 1957 musical West Side Story.
This hemorrhage of jobs curtailed the amount of taxable income that was available to the city in the 1970s. In lower Manhattan, the recently completed World Trade Center (1974) further deprived New York of revenue by attracting commercial tenants away from buildings where they had to pay property taxes, luring them into the government-subsidized confines of the Twin Towers.
The phenomenon of deindustrialization leading to decreased government revenue, chronic underemployment, and declining social services is a hallmark of neoliberalism. In a 1978 editorial in Newsweek, neoliberal economist Milton Friedman declared that the state needed to be starved of revenue at all costs. These reforms created conditions of financial desperation and insecurity for Americans who had grown accustomed to steady employment and an accompanying social safety net.
Because of decreased tax revenues, New York City was forced to appeal to the federal government for a municipal bailout in 1975. But President Gerald Ford — whose intellect was regularly disparaged on the new television show Saturday Night Live, which debuted in October 1975 — remained unconvinced:
"I am prepared to veto any bill that has, as its purpose, a federal bailout of New York City," sneered Ford on October 29, 1975. The words were barely out of his mouth before the New York Daily News paraphrased them in an infamous headline: "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD."
THE NEW COLOR LINE
Black, Hispanic, and poor-White sections of New York City who depended on social services were hit hard by Ford's decision to not bail out the city. With working class residents displaced into the South Bronx by the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, citizens already reeling from perennial unemployment were soon victims of a new form of segregation known as red-lining: the systematic denial of resources to municipal areas based on the racial and financial makeup of those areas.
Real estate developers in the South Bronx discovered that setting their vacant properties on fire and collecting an insurance payoff was more profitable than making their buildings livable. They were emboldened when the city's fire department began using a RAND Institute algorithm that advised closing fire stations in the Bronx, and reopening them in more affluent parts of the city.
THE BRONX IS BURNING
As Tricia Rose writes in Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture, "the disastrous effects of these city policies went unnoticed in the media until 1977." But with the New York Yankees in a high-profile World Series matchup against the Los Angeles Dodgers in October of that year, there was no longer anywhere to hide. In the 1 inning of Game Two, ABC cameras cut to a roaring inferno at an abandoned public school near Yankee Stadium.
HIP-HOP IS BORN
Out of this cauldron of fire, underemployment, and neglect in the South Bronx came a new art that would dominate America's cultural landscape over the next 35 years: hip-hop. A federation of visual art (graffiti), poetry (rap), music (DJ'ing), and dance (break dancing), hip-hop was created in the poorest sections of New York City, in the housing projects of the South Bronx.
STARTED FROM THE BOTTOM
A child of neoliberalism created by disaffected Baby Boomer and GenX youths, everything about hip-hop represented a 'something from nothing' ethos. Graffiti artists beautified burned-out buildings and bland subway cars. Break-dancers turned their very bodies into metaphors for the skill and contortionism required to survive precarious times. And DJs made masterpieces from forgotten scraps of obscure records. Rap, meanwhile, scored its first hit with Sugar Hill Gang's 1979 record "Rapper's Delight" — a boastful party tune that paved the way for Millennial stunts like Drake's "Started from the Bottom" and "Bad and Boujee" by Migos.
But rap could never resist commenting on its own squalid origins. Released July 1st, 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message" anticipated the urban tales of Millennial rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Meek Mill.
The music of "The Message" is post-disco psychedelic sonic peyote pulled from urban cacti; a synth-laden mirage inspired by the rising temperatures of a hot New York City summer. The slither of a desert rattlesnake heralds the song's fifth and final verse.
Conga drums culled from the Tom Tom Club's 1981 hit "Genius of Love" punctuate a lurching groove that sounds like a slowed down version of Zapp's 1980 banger "More Bounce to the Ounce." The creeping, observational pace of the music — just over 100 beats per minute — perfectly complements a hurried pedestrian's pace. Decades after its release, the pensiveness of "The Message" still makes it a stellar song to people-watch to on a busy city street.
If any early rap song earned — begged for — music video visuals on the new medium of MTV, "The Message" was it. In the song's video, graphics with gritty documentary realism are spliced in between the performative bravado of The Furious Five, establishing them as ghetto raconteurs. In the year that CNN expanded into Headline News, the footage and edits of "The Message" seem inspired by an evening news broadcast or a PBS documentary, bringing to mind rapper Chuck D's statement that "rap is Black America's CNN."
In five stanzas, Bronx rappers Melle Mel and Duke Bootee relay the fate that has befallen the urban poor under the arrival of neoliberalism: stoppages of public transportation, debt, and lack of access to adequate healthcare. Perhaps it bears pointing out that 1982 also saw the release of Queen's record Hot Space, which included their David Bowie collaboration "Under Pressure." The urgent cadence with which Melle Mel enunciates "don't push me, cuz I'm close to the edge/ I'm trying not to lose my head"can scarcely be done justice on paper. Mel seems on the brink of madness when — at the end of every recitation of the song's hook — he adds a manic chuckle.
When the world of beleaguered adults in "The Message" has been wrung dry of narrative material, the narrators focus on children. First, a young Gen-Xer tells his dad that he doesn't want to go to school because of a condescending teacher. Then, Melle Mel chillingly forecasts the life of a young Millennial:
A child is born with no state of mind,
Mel's intensity in this fifth verse is unflinching, as he details the life of a doomed Millennial who "grows in the ghetto, living second rate." With no positive role models to speak of, the hypothetical child succumbs to a life of crime. Too cool for school and uninterested in acquiring a skill that might lead to legitimate employment, he drops out, gets busted, and endures sexual assaults in prison. A suicide-by-hanging follows, with Mel supplying a sublimely morbid obit in the child's wake:
It was plain to see that your life was lost,
32 years before the arrival of #BlackLivesMatter (and decades before the "Trap" genre of rap), Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were describing the lives of countless Black, brown, and poor White American youths embroiled in a rapidly expanding criminal justice system. And well before social scientists coined the word "precariat" to describe the underemployed castoffs of capitalism's new phase, they depicted the financial desperation enveloping Americans because of the neoliberal turn.
Sugar Hill Records released "The Message" on vinyl in the summer of 1982; it could not have been more durable if it were etched in stone.
"The Message" was meant for Americans left out of the "greed is good," Go-Go 1980sand its celebration of accumulation. After the tumultuous 70s, New York City eventually rebuilt itself along neoliberal lines by slashing funding to affordable housing, hospitals, and social services, and devoting resources to growing the finance, insurance, and real-estate sectors of its economy.
"By the end of the 1980s," writes Jason Hackworth, "New York had become one of the nation's most polarized cities." The same year that Bronx rap outfit Boogie Down Productions dropped their classic album Criminal Minded (1987), real estate developer Donald Trump released his memoir The Art of the Deal.
For Americans who benefited from the upward redistribution of wealth resulting from President Reagan's tax cuts for big businesses, 1982 also offered quite a different message than the one delivered by The Furious Five: "Billie Jean," a song about an affluent father, a vindictive woman, and a baby Millennial fathered out of wedlock.
THE IRONY OF "BILLIE JEAN"
Released as a single in January of 1983 following the November 1982 unveiling of Thriller, "Billie Jean" survives to this day as a dance floor favorite at weddings. This is ironic, since the song is straightforwardly the first-person narrative of a bachelor who wants nothing do with commitment. The emotional subtext of "Billie Jean" is selfishness. Cues contained in the song's verses imply that the song's narrator might in fact be father of the baby Millennial in question. But the catchy chorus asks us to side with Jackson anyway — because what Yuppie should have to pay for unprotected sex with an 18-year sentence?
Excerpted from "Millennials and the Moments That Made Us"
Copyright © 2016 Shaun Scott.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword — By Marissa Jenae Johnson,
Introduction: The History of Our Future,
Part I: CHILDHOOD (1982–1990),
Chapter 1: The World's Oldest Millennial,
Chapter 2: American Dad,
Chapter 3: American Mom,
Part II: YOUTH (1991–2000),
Chapter 4: Entertain Us,
Chapter 5: American Siblings,
Chapter 6: Back To Work for the American People,
Part III: YOUNG ADULTHOOD (2001–2011),
Chapter 7: Live From Ground Zero,
Chapter 8: People You May Know,
Chapter 9: All Millennials Are From Akron,
Part IV: ADULTHOOD (2012–present),
Chapter 10: Millennial Man,
Chapter 11: Millennial Woman,
Chapter 12: The Millennial Agenda,