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How “Millennial” Became the New “Hipster”

Lazy. Feckless. Entitled. Bankrolled by their parents. Fond of ironic facial hair and fixed-gear bicycles. You’ve heard all these stereotypes before, of course, but have you stopped to think about where they manifest these days? After a decade of think-piece merriment, the lazy stereotyping of hipsters seems to have finally tapered off, but only because it’s been replaced by something even more pernicious. The same clichés that used to be applied to a small and fundamentally insignificant subset of a generation seem to have been extended to that generation as a whole: in articles like this and this (and, of course, this), millennials have replaced hipsters as the mainstream’s cultural punching bag of choice.

The sort of lazily reductive thinking that boils a diverse cohort of people into a checklist of convenient stereotypes was bad enough when it applied to a single subculture — but at least there was indeed a point in time when hipsters existed, albeit never with either the numbers nor the influence to justify mainstream culture’s ongoing fascination with them. Whether the stereotype still has any currency is very much open to debate, but it at least had some basis in reality.

But how did it come to represent an entire generation? The answer, it seems, is that the hipster was the first and most visible manifestation of culture to emerge from the millennial generation, and as such provided a convenient handle to grasp for writers struggling to understand that generation. The enduring fascination with hipsterdom led to the entrenchment of the characteristics that the media liked to identify with hipsters as being representative of young people in general. And now we’re at the point where those characteristics somehow considered to be representative of an entire generation, so much so that you often see “hipster” and “millennial” used interchangeably.

I probably shouldn’t need to spell out why this is problematic, but nevertheless, here goes: we’re talking about a group that contains, depending on how you count, about 77-80 million people in America alone. This is a group of people that is more socioeconomically, ethnically, and ideologically diverse than any generation that’s come before. It’s a generation so diverse, in fact, that it challenges the whole idea of a generation as a homogenous, monolithic entity to which characteristics can be ascribed. And yet the characteristics that are ascribed to it are defined by a narrow, decade-old stereotype that provides a questionably accurate portrait of a small subset of middle-class white people.

The kid whose parents came here as refugees and is working at a 7-Eleven to save money for college? He’s a millennial. The African-American single mother waiting tables for tips? She’s a millennial. The Mexican kid pumping your gas? He’s a millennial. None of these people bear the remotest resemblance to the hipster stereotype, and yet it’s used again and again to describe the entire generation to which they belong.

You never hear about this stuff, of course, perhaps because it’s a lot harder to ridicule millennials as privileged and entitled when you have to think about the fact that as of last year, the rate of unemployment for people 20-24 was some 5.4% higher than the national average, and 21.8% of people under 18 in America are living in poverty, a figure a full eight percentage points higher than those 18-64. It’s harder to complain about millennials still living at home when you have to acknowledge that maybe the reason for that is the ongoing economic shitshow wrought by the global financial crisis, a crisis that had precisely nothing to do with millennials, but whose legacy they get to deal with for the forseeable future.

There’s a sort of determined ignorance about the way that the millennial generation is depicted in popular culture, a sense that the people doing the stereotyping don’t really want to know the the truth behind their clichés, because the truth is difficult and complicated and doesn’t make for being put into a convenient box like the hipster image does. But we should demand better, because a cultural discourse that consists of variations on the phrase “These darn kids and their darn smartphones” helps precisely no one.

It certainly doesn’t help millennials, obviously, but it also fails the generation who’ll be entering old age when the kids struggling to pay off their student loans finally inherit whatever the baby boomers have left them of the world. When you make statements like “the Millennial Generation as a whole, people born between the late ’70s and the mid-’90s, more or less — of whom the hipsters are a lot more representative than most of them care to admit” (a quote taken, inevitably, from the pages of the New York Times), you serve only to perpetuate needless misunderstandings, creating a generation gap that needn’t exist.

And more importantly, you also ignore the very existence of the majority of millennials — people who aren’t privileged, white, and middle-class. America has already spent far too long pretending these people don’t exist, so maybe the next time Time or the New York Times or the rest of the boomer media wants to sink the boot into the millennial generation, they could perhaps stop and consider exactly who it is they’re ridiculing. But I’m not exactly holding my breath. It’s way easier to just catch the L train under the East River, stick your head out at Bedford Ave, and then head back home to bang out a sniggering trend piece that makes the obligatory references to social media, smartphones, “artisanal” food, and Lena Dunham.