Xennials? Oregon Trail? Geriatric Millennials? A Microgeneration’s Obsession With Being Identified

The writer who coined ‘Xennial’ on the attempts to describe this unique cohort

Photo: Daniel Schludi/Unsplash

It’s strange, having a public but evidently forgettable claim to fame. Like being the Guinness Book of World Records holder for longest pinkie nail or voicing a one-hit wonder limited to local radio. Yet over the last month, my social media pinged repeatedly with people insisting I get credit for describing the cusp of us at the inflection point between Gen X and millennial, Xennials.

Four years ago, that’s all I’d wanted.

Truth be told, this batch of tweeters seemed mostly angry that someone had the temerity to describe our cohort of Xennials as “geriatric.” A story on Medium rocketed across social media, largely — from my estimation of the comments — due to the enraging term “geriatric millennial” applied to early-middle-aged people and less because of the content itself, which centered more on the flexible communication style of our cohort.

Reflexively, I found myself wondering if the Xennial coopt thing was happening again.

It’s very weird to mother a word. Weirder still (sweet, but weird) to have strangers insist you get acknowledgment after having been at such a loss for how to do so myself.

In 2014, I reached out to an editor I worked with regularly at GOOD Magazine to pitch an idea, what I called Generation Xennial: “I was born in 1980,” I wrote. “According to some sources, that makes me a Gen Xer. According to others, I’m a Millennial. I share traits with each (I hate authority and yet really want those in a position of authority to shower me with accolades. I never understood MTV — too young to be part of the television revolution, too over it to care about the reality shows — except the first Real World. Pedro and Puck formed my primordial notions of justice versus ass-hattery).” On I went, noticing a trend to make sense of these generational tweeners. BuzzFeed had published a long-form story on Empire Records, part cult-movie love, part introspection into what makes our generational segment tick. There was Slate’s article that borrowed the term “Generation Catalano” in an attempt to create a moment around those just old/young enough to have watched My So-Called Life back when it first aired. “We are old enough to remember living pre-social media. We were misfits. We were hammer pants and also flannel,” I wrote.

I wanted to figure out how to describe my microgeneration and why stories about us seemed so shareable. “Is it that we are genuinely interesting (doubtful)?” I wrote. “Is it that we truly are a bunch of misfits and want some recognition that we even exist?”

After a few back-and-forth emails, my editor and I concluded this sliver of society was among the luckiest living then. A staff writer there, Jed Oelbaum, beloved for his bright mind and skillful curmudgeonry argued at a story meeting that we were actually incredibly unfortunate. So we were assigned to write a two-part debate piece, with me leading off with the term I’d coined, “Xennial,” for this microgeneration, born roughly between 1979 and 1983, and arguing “We were born in the quiet break between two generational moments. Between the out-all-night dark horse Gen Xers and the-sunny-still-somehow-optimistic Millennial.” Oelbaum, a bit younger than me, made a point of not being sunny and asserted we’d been uniquely screwed by the consequences of “globalization, deregulation, outsourcing, tapering real wages.”

Fair.

As much as things could gain popularity online in the internet dark ages of 2014, the story caught on. For a couple of years, people would tag me on Facebook as the story was suddenly rediscovered by new crops of generational in-betweeners who didn’t identify with Gen X or millennial character stereotypes but still craved the sense of belonging or fitting within some specialized group.

For me, it was a novel point of pride. I’d coined a term to better define an idea that clearly resonated. For a writer, that’s a unique joy. A tiny contribution to a bigger concept.

But it wasn’t as if I shifted to writing full time about Xennials or even thinking about it much past that one essay.

Out of nowhere in the summer of 2017, folks started tagging me online. Some professor in Australia, one story and then another said, had “discovered” a microgeneration between Gen X and millennial that he was calling Xennial.

“What the hell?” I muttered to myself as I Googled and found stories of this “discovery” had gone viral globally. Nothing I found cited the GOOD essay. A kinship spotted by culture writers was being treated like a research-backed revelation.

Was there such research?

I emailed the professor asking what was going on, and he expressed mortification. He said a freelance writer had asked him if it would make more sense to cut generations a little differently, if Xennials are actually a thing. The professor (who I’m trying to spare another round of social media tagging), answered her questions. He felt his nuance was lost in the resulting piece — and really defining a generation in this way actually ran counter to some of his previous work. But the story was ripped off with exaggerations and misquoting by the Daily Mail first, then lifted by one publication after another. He wrote a piece about the situation and told me the editor cut his few paragraphs ranting about new media failing to even Google things or check with the person they are quoting. The professor tweeted the idea originated in the GOOD debate piece, and Oelbaum, ever collegial, made sure to clarify the word was mine.

For the 20 or so people I estimated saw it, that was great.

As one website after another repurposed the Daily Mail story, I felt my tiny claim to the word being erased. It was showing up on morning shows, in articles in local papers all across the U.S. “A fun new discovery!” “An Australian professor says…” “Take this quiz at home!” A writing group I belonged to tagged me whenever they saw the misattribution, and while I appreciated them trying to credit me, I also felt shy and weird about the situation. It also only made me feel more exposed.

I didn’t want to be a credit monger. Surely, a verbal mashup should not be a point of pride. But also, what the articles were claiming wasn’t true.

I’m comfortable behind a byline, putting my name on my words. I’m more comfortable doing so with the oversight of an editor and fact-checker, roles that are vital to the careful evaluation of our ideas. I was coming to better understand what the internet did with ideas: move their evolution at the speed of clicks. Once something was popular, clickable, someone would plop their take online for the traffic, and I watched as the work of fact-checking was sidestepped.

I felt, well, old. Unsure how to untangle something so vast.

GOOD commissioned me to write a clicky quiz to help reassert my (and likely the magazine’s) claim to its origin. I wrote a story for Vogue, trying to explain what it was like seeing an idea being given new life, pointing to Doree Shafrir’s “Generation Catalano” piece (a term itself crowdsourced on Twitter and from Danielle Nussbaum) and Anna Garvey’s later 2015 “Oregon Trail Generation.” A conversation on Reddit spawned the “Star Wars Generation.”

My modest attempts at reasserting claim for a word — just the word, not the idea — were nearly drowned out on an internet churning over a “discovery” readers really wanted to be real.

There is intoxicating comfort in being seen, feeling like the happenstance of our birth, the marking posts of our lives are sensible from afar. That our major transitions — technological, economic, personal — bind us to those around us in important ways. That as a microgeneration, we are a band of merry misfits together.

A cottage industry seemed to be bubbling up around the world Xennial. My husband’s aunt encouraged me to trademark it. I laughed. That was absurd. It was a word. Words are supposed to be used freely, evolve. I didn’t want ownership, just acknowledgment, the epitome of what seems to be a broader, Xennial desire to be recognized in this world.

Years later, my husband bought me a Xennial T-shirt he saw online.

There is intoxicating comfort in being seen, feeling like the happenstance of our birth, the marking posts of our lives are sensible from afar. That our major transitions — technological, economic, personal — bind us to those around us in important ways.

In late 2017, I heard from Webster’s Dictionary that “Xennial” was on their Words We’re Watching list. They were fact-checking the etymology. We talked through the word’s origin, the initial story and pitch, and with that and their other verification work, they credited me with coining the word. It felt official. A relieving end to a strange chapter online.

To be clear, if I were to choose what I’d be known for — by a very limited segment of fellow online-quiz-taking, roughly 40-year-olds — it would be for my more serious work reporting on politics, religion, and sexual abuse. It’s a little embarrassing that my most referenced story was an 800-word essay in 2014 when I’ve written much more important pieces with heavy research for a range of publications.

It’s still more embarrassing that every time someone tags me when some new Xennial rip-off story comes out, I feel a touch of gratitude.

I smile when I see the word in the wild, along with the newer term for the Gen Z/millennial cusp “Zennial,” which is actually how I initially pronounced Xennial. I had no idea there would be a Gen Z, let alone any interest in a future evolution of the term.

But this is what language does, and having my name bump around in some etymological dictionaries with other much more astute writers whose work I love is a surprising treasure. All those who identify as Xennials gave me that passing recognition, and whatever comfort feeling part of a microgeneration gives, I’m glad I was a piece of it.

And this brings me to the latest attempt to describe our cohort, the story that went viral recently about “geriatric millennials,” a term writer Erica Dhawan had heard elsewhere before writing her piece.

While I personally have no desire to find affinity with Mark Zuckerberg, one “geriatric millennial” leader noted in Dhawan’s piece that was more broadly about our communications prowess in professional settings, I do delight in seeing people parse through this rough segment of our population, draw parallels between us, and find samenesses that can transcend other ways we dice and separate ourselves.

Since the kinship people have with being a Xennial is about nostalgia and belonging and uniqueness — I suspect it will have staying power. I happened upon the most generic, accessible terminology for the idea. One that doesn’t immediately insult people.

I happened upon the most generic, accessible terminology for the idea. One that doesn’t immediately insult people.

To be sure, most people I saw online frothing over “geriatric millennials” were nettled about having lived through two recessions, boy bands, and a pandemic in, at most, 40 or so years of life, only to be called geriatric by the internet. So much for my cheerful assessment of Xennials’ good fortune.

My eyes tripped over tweets storming that Dhawan had repurposed Xennial’s trait description without citing back to me. (She has, in fact, in a subsequent piece noted the overlapping attempts to define our cusp generation.) She had concluded those born in the early ’80s were adaptable across communications platforms by conducting interviews for her new book, Digital Body Language. Yet most of readers’ energy about her piece was directed at the term “geriatric.”

In the American and U.K. stories reworking Dhawan’s essay, I was glad for her that they at least linked to her piece, aggrieved to see so many stories trying to go viral by covering a viral idea. Most started with a “there’s a new microgeneration” lede and then led into paragraphs quoting (or just screenshotting) the same readers’ tweeted responses.

There’s a difference between using your own words to try to understand an idea versus misattribution or a slapdash rework. Dhawan had done the former; a slew of others were pasting together Twitter reactions.

I recognized it because I’d seen it before.

I couldn’t tell if reporters were bothering to interview her directly, so I asked her. When we talked, no one had.

Moreover, “you’re the only one who was like, how are you?” Dhawan told me when I called to see how she was coping with the onslaught of attention.

As Dhawan and I talked, we realized we represent a narrow, sub-sub-category: people whose lives were briefly flipped upside down by millions of people stuck on this microgeneration idea and its hot-take-ification.

My daughter calls me old nearly every day. She’s nine. At that age, I thought my mom, then 49, was ancient. My mom was days from 40 when she had me, after what now would be called a “geriatric pregnancy,” and then was treated as a miracle of biblical proportions.

My mother is part of the silent generation — a group that I wasn’t even aware had a name until I was well into adulthood. They’d been swamped out by the plentiful boomers, with their bellbottoms and, later, their culture wars and screwy winner-take-all economics. Kind of the same way our media narratives often leap over Gen Xers, forgetting the smaller generation before us.

For years though, I’ve been someone who wanted to latch my cohort back to those quieter Gen Xers. My idea of them is as much a construct as any other generational marker.

Months back, my slightly older friends were sharing chip-on-the-shoulder memes citing how ignored Gen Xers are. They did so with detached condescension. Just stating a point without overtly caring is so Gen X, it’s adorable.

Now, they seem just noticeably amused by the oldest millennials, who I call Xennials — their younger peers — dragging one another for being “geriatric.” Somehow none of it seems to matter as much to them. As if, they don’t really need a BuzzFeed quiz to tell them who they are.

Perhaps not having as much avocado-toast-loving, trophy-kid shorthand foisted Gen X’s direction spared them carrying as much generational baggage. I don’t see them so often looking for a better way to define themselves, a niche to nestle into, putting quite so much weight into mere words.

Sarah Stankorb is a contributor to GEN. Other works in The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Glamour, O, and The Atlantic. @sarahstankorb www.sarahstankorb.com

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