Millennials are up to their old tricks again, what with their texting and their blogging. But this time, they’re taking their digital communication styles to the grave. “Gen Y-ers and millennials have begun projecting their own sensibilities onto rituals and discussions surrounding death,” the New York Times reports. “As befits the first generation of digital natives, they are starting blogs, YouTube series and Instagram feeds about grief, loss and even the macabre, bringing the conversation about bereavement and the deceased into a very public forum, sometimes with jarring results.” Case in point: Rebecca Soffer, whose friends sent their condolences after her father’s death in the form of texts bearing messages like “how are you?” and “sorry.”
What a fascinating example of how millennials are using innovative technologies to deal with the most basic of human problems. Except that Rebecca Soffer is not a millennial. She’s 37. According to the Times itself, Neil Howe and William Strauss—the men who literally wrote the book on millennials and are credited with coining the term—establish the start of the millennial generation with people born in the year 1982. That means that today, even the eldest millennials are no more than 32 years old. And yet, the Times trend story on millennial mourning quotes Soffer, the 37-year-old founder of online grief resource Modern Loss; her co-founder Gabrielle Birkner (at 34, not a millennial); 35-year-old Modern Loss blogger Melissa Lafsky Wall (not a millennial); and Jason Feifer, the 33-year-old creator of the Tumblr “Selfies at Funerals” (so close, and yet, not a millennial). Also cited is Esther D. Kustanowitz, another contributor to Modern Loss, though the paper doesn’t divulge her age—perhaps because she is in her 40s. All told, the piece quotes more Gen Xers than it does millennials, even when you count the obligatory reference to Girls protagonist Hannah Horvath, who is 25, and made up.
Shoehorning older generations into trend stories that purport to investigate the life and times of Generation Y is itself a bit of a trend for the New York Times. In December, the newspaper ran a story about Bay Area millennials who are joining nouveau-hippie communes. It hinges on the experience of Mike North, who lives in a “three-story Victorian house known as the Embassy,” where he flits from yoga class to Edwardian theme parties where monocles have been known to appear. Mike North is 36. Also joining him in the commune are Nick Lane-Smith, 33, and Robbie Schingler, 35. A 2010 piece on how millennials plan weddings quotes only one recent bride: 30-year-old interior designer Nina Carbone, who was then two years too old to be a millennial. Even Times trend stories that claim to strictly focus their inquiries on people in their 20s can’t resist fudging the math. A 2013 piece on “the end of courtship” investigates the dating lives of “singles in their 20s” and informs us that “women in their 20s these days are lucky to get a last-minute text to tag along” and that “ ‘dates’ among 20-somethings resemble college hookups, only without the dorms.” The story opens with an anecdote about the text-message-fueled dating life of New York singleton Shani Silver, who is 30. Also making an appearance is 34-year-old blogger Anna Goldfarb, who has “seen men put more effort into finding a movie to watch on Netflix Instant than composing a coherent message to ask a woman out.” She is neither a twentysomething nor a millennial.
Last year, the Times ran a piece on millennials that successfully quoted sources exclusively aged 30 and younger and found that many members of the generation resist the “millennial” label. Maybe that’s because outlets like the Times are holding us responsible for texts we never sent. When millennial trend stories stick to their self-imposed age limits, they produce annoying stereotypes about a group of 80 million Americans. But when reporters can’t even find enough of us to fill out their pieces, they’re just lying. Trend stories are anecdotes in search of a generalization, and choosing the organizing principle of “millennial” allows the Times to pretend that it’s really reporting on something new. But the demographics that truly inform these pieces are the Times writers themselves. Their stories are about predominantly white, affluent people who live in cities and have a slim degree of social separation from the person interviewing them. I guess “a few rich white people in New York are doing something” isn’t a enough of a hook.