When I read Emma Gannon’s excellent book the Multi-Hyphen Method, I was struck by a page describing different generations. Gen X is labelled as those born in 1961 – 1980 whilst Millennials are those born in 1982 – 2004. Having been born in 1981, according to these brackets I am in neither category. Yet according to some definitions, I am a Millennial. Though perhaps a Geriatric Millennial, a term used by the similarly aged Jean Hannah Edelstein. I like that. It feels accurate.
Geriatric millennials are old and young at the same time, or at least it feels that way.
I recently went to the opticians and received the news that my eyesight had for once improved, rather than worsened. Is it because I’m getting older? I heard that short-sightedness improves with age. I asked the optician. Oh no, she laughed. You are not there yet! You’re still young! Ok then, I thought. Although when people tell you, you’re still young, it’s hard not to note that you are on the cusp of old. That’s the strange panic induced by society’s views on ageing.
We were once labelled micro-generation Xennials, defined as the people born between 1977 and 1985. United by characteristics such as watching teen drama ‘My So-Called Life’ (definitely me). Other than an appreciation for the early work of Jared Leto, what else shaped us?
We are tech savvy but had pre mobile and Internet social lives
Geriatric millennials grew up without social media. Yet computer games were part of our social interaction. We devoted hours to Super Mario Bros, Sonic the Hedgehog and my personal favourite PacMan. It was a mark of a good friend if they didn’t make you wait too long before giving you a go on their Nintendo.
Did games teach us anything? I was mesmerised by the simplicity of platform game Frogger. Like life, all you need to do is keep pressing the forward key but it can be very, very difficult not to get squashed. Through The Sims I learned the basics of keeping humans alive. The characters always needed something: food, a wash, a job, a chair, social interaction or entertainment. That is basically adulting. Sometimes I feel like a Sim when they go into existential crisis mode. It all seems dark but usually I just need toast and a bath to reboot myself.
We were children in the era before mobile phones. I got my first one when I went to university at 18 and I treated it as a landline. It was only there so my parents could contact me and I didn’t take it on nights out, in case I lost it. Socialising was often spontaneous. You could knock on someone’s door and ask if they wanted to go out.
When the Internet arrived I was around 12. We were fairly sure ‘the Net’ was a virtual island located near America. It didn’t seem to matter what you did or said there. It was populated by anarchic advertising, bright pop up ads opening in windows without your permission. Everyone had AOL or Hotmail. It was Ling’s Cars, but with chatrooms.
University marked the most social period of my life. But we had no Facebook and the idea of sharing your life online wasn’t there yet. I made new friends and had a serious boyfriend for the first time. None of this was shared with anyone except those who knew me. Looking back, that seems a blessing.
We took photos on drunken nights out. But they lived in one person’s camera, furtively processed in Boots if anyone even remembered. Mistakes were quickly forgotten. Our social circles were small and contained, gossip known by only the mates we saw. I think about this every time the controversial video or tweet of a teenager goes viral. Mistakes are allowed. That’s how we grow.
In summary, many of us geriatric millennials had an early insight into the use of technology for entertainment and socialising, which helped us to see the potential in it as a career. Whilst we often use social media and share our lives online now, we retain the sensibilities of keeping our full personalities for sharing in offline settings. I also have a few friends who are not on social media at all. They are just as interesting as those who are, though harder to track down.
The economic climate was tough for us, but not as tough as it is now
I was one of the first batch of students to pay tuition fees at university, which meant taking out loans of around £10k. It took me over a decade to pay them back. If fees were as high as they are for students now, it is doubtful that I would have gone to university and even more doubtful that I would have studied English. It was in a time when studying what you loved without any thought towards career prospects was an acceptable attitude (to my parents).
Attitudes have shifted and people start thinking of career options and earning potential earlier. I still advocate for studying Arts subjects if you have the interest and motivation to do so. Whilst I’m the first to joke about how studying English didn’t give me an obvious career path, the skill I’ve used most in every job I’ve had is communication. Words are useful.
Most of us geriatric millennials were in the workforce already when the recession hit. A few years into my career I started to get involved in hiring people. By then we were in the worldwide financial crash (2008) and it became apparent that there were lots of talented graduates looking for jobs. Salaries had fallen and budgets were being cut. The supply of people outstripped the number of good jobs. I witnessed graduates struggling and accepting unpaid internships to gain experience. I hadn’t appreciated it at the time, but I had been lucky to get a paid full-time job in London at 21 without any connections to help me get my foot in the door. It enabled me to start working my way up before the economy destabilised.
Early in my career, people would always talk about ‘the good old days’ when companies used to pay for long lunches and boozy nights out to celebrate success. I witnessed a few of those, but always had a feeling the boom times had just finished as I arrived. I felt frustrated as I love a boozy lunch!
I was the manager of a graduate scheme at work so I felt older than many around me. But I was noticeably younger than a good proportion of peers too. I felt the difference in styles. I was constantly frustrated by the slow pace of change from upper management. I was stuck in the middle zone – wanting change but lacking the authority to implement it. As a freelancer, I feel much more empowered.
When I look around now, I think things are even tougher for more recent graduates. It’s critical that governments bring in policies like graduate tax to pay for university fees. This would mean the higher earners amongst us contribute most to the cost of providing education for future generations. It’s much fairer than saddling the youngest with ever higher amounts of debt.
As a result of the economic context, geriatric millennials tend to be slightly better off and more likely to have savings that those born a couple of years later. Having lived through austerity, we know that things could get worse. We make pretty good managers and leaders too.
Ticking boxes doesn’t work, rewriting the narrative does
In dating terms, we had a much smaller pool of people to choose from pre-Internet. We often met potential partners through school, college or work. But diversity was less, even as little as 10 years ago. My dating life really only got going when I left my hometown and went to university in a different city. I got a boyfriend from Surrey, which seemed wildly exotic at the time.
The explosion of people available to us as potential partners only happened when dating apps hit the scene. If you are a geriatric millennial who was already in a long-term relationship by that point and still is, it’s possible that you’ve never used Tinder and its ilk. If like me, you’ve entered relationships pre and post Internet dating, then you may be familiar with this fundamental truth: It is easier than ever to meet people online but it is more difficult than ever to meet like-minded people. More choice doesn’t always equal more happiness.
In my twenties I assumed my life would evolve in the way of previous generations. I’d study, get a boyfriend, get a job, get promoted, get married, buy a house, have children. I ticked all but one of those boxes. But as I hit 30 it all started to unravel. I didn’t know where I was going in my job, cracks were showing in my relationship and I was struggling to conceive a baby. Where were the narratives about these issues? Why hadn’t anyone prepared me?
In the following years my life at times felt like it was going backwards. I became single again, moved from a house I owned to a small rented flat. Starting over felt like a huge disappointment, but it has been the making of my happiness on my own terms. Ticking boxes in the order society dictates doesn’t work. Writing your own narrative does.
It is not just me. As I look around my friendship group, I see many who are going through online dating dramas, rethinking careers, taking a close look at their marriages, experimenting with alternatives to monogamy or splitting up. We are finding new ways to fulfilment.
Maybe that’s what unites us, in the end. We are gradually shrugging off those Gen X expectations and embracing our geriatric millennial status. We want fulfilling work, unconventional relationships, success as we define it. And we have stories to tell.