1981-Borns: Who are We?
We 1981ers must be the most generationally confused people alive today. Where Generation X ends and the Millennial cohort begins is a topic of fierce debate. The Pew Research Center defines the Millennial generation as those born in 1981–1996 (Pew Research Center, 2019). Today, Pew’s range is arguably the most widely recognized definition of the Millennials. However, we ‘81ers are frequently placed with Gen-X by many other sources besides Pew. William Strauss and Neil Howe, the authors responsible for renaming Generation Y to “Millennials,” define Gen-X as 1961–1981 and Millennials as 1982–2004 (Powers, 2018). Some demographers begin the Millennials in 1980. Others stretch it out to the mid-80s and some perhaps as early as 1977, the original starting date for Generation Y pre-Strauss and Howe. However, the most common starting dates for the Millennial Generation are 1980, ’81, or ’82, with ’81 and ’82 the most frequently used. 1982 is almost always included with the Millennials because of Strauss and Howe who defined the Class of 2000, 1982-borns, as the first graduating class of the new millennium and therefore the first Millennials; thus, the Millennial generation is born. 1980 is often considered Gen-X. 1981, however, more so than ’80 or ’82, is constantly pushed back and forth. Even though I agree with the 1981–1996 range, I can speak from experience that we aren’t really seen as Millennials. Therefore, there is no, “Technically, you’re Gen-X because Gen-X is 1961–1981,” because just as valid is the argument, “Technically, you’re a Millennial because Millennials are from 1981–1996,” or perhaps some other range that includes ’81-borns as Millennials; as many ranges that place ’81 as late Gen-X, there are just as many that include 1981 babies with the Millennials. In other words, 1981 is such a tossup that even if we are late Xers, then we are Gen-X’s forgotten little brothers and sisters who were too young to see Kurt Cobain live in concert but old enough to remember the days when he dominated the music charts. On the other hand, if we are early Millennials, then we are Millennials that escaped the horrors of constant generational bashing from our elders, as we early 80s babies are not recognized as “true Millennials,” but instead overlooked from the rest of our supposed cohort.
In addition, 1981-borns rarely see themselves as Millennials. Many identify as Gen-X. Today’s 39-turning-40-year-olds are not what comes to mind when people think of Millennials. Early 80s babies are well into adulthood, nearly middle-aged. However, are we so different than our younger siblings? When we were coming of age around the turn of the millennium, we were the Gen-Y’s (before Gen-Y became officially recognized as the Millennials) the workforce was afraid of (Mui, 2001). We were perceived as spoiled, entitled, and lazy. That sounds pretty Millennial, doesn’t it? Here is the catch: “spoiled,” “entitled,” and “lazy” are all words that were once used to describe Gen-X and Baby Boomers too. Perhaps we are more Millennial than we care to admit to. We likely did come across as entitled, lazy, and a bit spoiled. What teen or young adult doesn’t? Perhaps we were a little overly sensitive. I remember once having a much different outlook on the world and life in general than I do now. The book Managing Millennials for Dummies states that older and younger Millennials share more commonalities than differences, including us early 80s-borns (Ubl, Walden, & Arbit, 2017). We are closer to our parents, like Millennials, than previous generations and many of us tend to lean more politically liberal than our elders as well. ‘81ers were also born during a shift in parenting styles which placed more emphasis on the children than the employer. Though initially our Little League trophies were earned, by the time we reached middle school we received them for participation too. Early 80s babies tend to be more racially friendly and more accepting of the LGBTQ Community than our parents. As adults, we elders also desire purpose in our work, prefer to be coached, and work well in collaborative environments (Ubl, Walden, & Arbit, 2017). Furthermore, we also tend to contribute to the shopping trends of the Millennials and thus help them “kill industries” such as cable television or plain coffee (Lord, 2017). These are all traits that unite us with the Millennial generation.
We are also largely credited for leading the Millennial generation into its 40s. Recognized by many as the oldest Millennials, 1981 babies turn 40 this year which has sparked numerous headlines among various publications. Such news reminds the world that Millennials are not perpetually teenagers but instead are approaching middle age. Even more unsettling, particularly to ‘81ers and other early 80s babies, is the recent coining of a new micro-generation by author Erica Dhawan (2021) within the Millennials known as “geriatric Millennials,” defined as 1980–1985, which originated from her article that praised early 80s babies as being empowered to bridge the gap within the workforce between the analog world and the digital realm. However, this sparked fierce backlash from early 80s-borns as many of us rejected being called “geriatric,” while some abhorred being referred to as “Millennials” (Foster, 2021). Still, such press confirms 1981’s standing within the Millennial generation. On the other hand, there are traits which divide us and other early 80s babies from the rest of Gen-Y.
Probably the reason there is such a huge divide between early 80s babies and the Millennial generation, besides technological upbringings, is maturity. Unlike younger Millennials, we are more grown up — not because we’re better than they are or were raised so much differently — but because we’ve had time to grow. Time matured us as have our experiences. We elders have made mistakes along the way and we learned to overcome them. We’re still learning even as we approach our 40s. We early 80s babies have been “adulting” for quite some time now. We’re more experienced than they are but someday soon they too will be where we are. What some of our younger siblings sometimes fail to realize is that we were once their age too and not too long ago either. While we endured generational bashing from our elders in our younger years, albeit to a much lesser extent than Millennials do today, we eventually faded into adulthood while younger Millennials found themselves in the spotlight. However, they too will soon blend in with the rest of the adults and Gen-Z will be the next target.
On the other hand, perhaps it could depend on birth order: is the 1981er the last of a Gen-X line of children or the first of a Millennial family? Born in ’81 myself, I am the oldest of three children. My two siblings are undisputed core Millennials. I, on the other hand, am a cusper. However, I remember very well my parents saying to me when I was little, “You are so special and unlike any other person in the world.” This is a parenting approach vastly different from anything a typical Gen-Xer would have experienced. Furthermore, I was no latchkey kid and thus missed out on another signature trademark of the X generation. My father worked and my mother stayed home, married to one another, and brought us up under the same roof. Both my parents insisted that we be raised by them and not by daycare or anyone else. My parental upbringing emphasized us kids, unlike how Gen-X was raised. However, my parents were a far cry from the helicopter parents of the 90s. We were raised to be more independent than the younger Millennials. However, Mom and Dad were always there when we needed them — and sometimes there even when we didn’t. While my childhood might have been more Millennial in this regard, another 1981er who is the youngest of the brood would likely have grown up in a vastly different environment. Instead of a more Millennial upbringing like I had, this ‘81er might have grown up in typical Gen-X latchkey kid fashion. Suppose he or she is a middle child; would this mid-born have a more “Xennial” upbringing perhaps than an oldest or youngest ’81 born sibling?
All of us, however, share a lot in common with Gen-X. 1981ers grew up in their shadow. They were the older, cooler crowd we wanted so desperately to be just like. Gen-Xers had the cool music, rebellious fashions, and the “world be damned” attitude to boot. We 1981-borns, like other X/Y cuspers, adopted many of these Gen-X traits ourselves. Grunge and other 90s music is popular among us, particularly as we were just a little too young to attend Nirvana concerts at the height of the Grunge movement but were still exposed to it as it dominated the early 90s culture. We remember Michael Jackson for his music rather than the legal allegations that later plagued him. We, like our elder Gen-X brethren, had to adapt to technology as opposed to most Millennials. Early 80s babies share their sarcastic nature and some of their cynicism (A Sharp Eye, 2017). Some of us even came from divorced parents and thus were latchkey kids ourselves. As a result, we early 80s-borns share the independent nature of our Gen-X elders. Those of us at the cusp often identify as Xers because in many ways we grew up just like they did.
We 1981ers, whether we actually are the oldest Millennials or the youngest Gen-Xers, in real life aren’t really recognized as either one. No one looks at us and thinks, “Millennial!” However, we don’t fit the picture definition of Gen-Xer either. People usually have to look at us and think for a minute before trying to guess which generation we belong to. Most Millennials and all but the youngest Gen-Xers don’t have this problem. Everyone knows which groups they fit into. We 1981ers, on the other hand, because of the lack of consensus on generational definitions and frequent gate-keeping, don’t really know which one we belong to either. If we ask ten different people, then we get ten different answers (trust me on this!).
Younger Millennials frequently gate-keep us from the group. Some detest the generational outline of Pew and other sources confirming 1981 as a Millennial year and instead insist the starting year is actually later. Many vehemently declare us late Gen-Xers, complaining that we’re too old to be Millennials; they can’t relate to us; we’re just too different to be part of their generation. What they fail to realize is that we have no more in common with an Xer born in 1965 than we would a Millennial born in 1996. Consider for a moment that the oldest possible Xer, born in 1961 according to Strauss and Howe (Powers, 2018), was already 20 years old in 1981. According to Pew (Pew Research Center, 2019), the oldest Xer was 16. In either case, there is considerable difference between the oldest Xer and someone born in ’81. Then consider that Pew (2019) ends the Millennials in 1996, the year ’81-borns turned 15. 1981ers were 23 when Strauss and Howe’s youngest Millennials entered the world (Powers, 2018). Regardless of generational definitions, 1981 is a world away from the oldest Xer and youngest Millennial — no matter which generation 1981 falls under, the 1981er does not relate any better to one extreme over the other. Most Gen-Xers, however, insist that we’re Millennials, stating we’re too young to be X; too much had changed between the 70s and 1981; 1981ers were too young to understand events such as the Challenger disaster, Chernobyl, or the end of the Cold War; 1981ers were born during Reagan’s presidency, so we must be Millennial. No matter which cohort one might place 1981 babies, ‘81ers feel like “fish out of water,” and both Gen-Xers and Millennials ensure it.
Some people refer to us as “Xennials,” and many of us ‘81ers do claim the Xennial label. “Xennials” are commonly defined as those born between 1977–1983, often categorized as a cohort composed of the youngest Gen-Xers and the oldest Millennials who share a variety of traits from both generations (Miller, 2018). There are those who would claim that we ‘81ers are the ultimate Xennials, half Gen-X and half Millennial, particularly as 1981 shifts frequently between representing the last Gen-Xers or the first Millennials more than any other birth year. The problem with identifying as Xennials is that we get chastised for this too. People tell us there is no such thing as “Xennials.” Kyle McMahon, popularly known as K. Mac, for example, states that the reason micro-generations do not exist is because every generation has traits of its nearest cohort (McMahon, 2017). Furthermore we hear, “Xennials are just Millennials who don’t want to be called Millennials,” particularly from Gen-X, though some Millennials may feel that way also; and some Millennials younger than us “feel” like Gen-X or think they can relate to Gen-X and because they are core Millennials, unlike us actual cuspers, that makes them Xennials and we real Xennials are suddenly too old to be Xennials; so we must be Gen-X. Now not only do we get kicked out of our Gen-Y and watch our Gen-Y turn into the Millennials everyone loves to hate, we get kicked out of Gen-X by Gen-Xers, the Millennials by Millennials, and people from both sides want to take away our Xennial micro-generation. So, if we’re too old to be Millennials, too young to be Gen-X, and we can’t be Xennials because of any number of reasons, then what are we?
Lifestyle editor for Bustle, Emma Lord, a Millennial herself, believes that Xennials are older Millennials who reject the Millennial label, hypothesizing that “Xennials” are Millennials attempting to escape from association with other Millennials and the negative stereotypes which slam the generation (Lord, 2017). Again, many Xers would agree with this. Could we ‘81ers be betraying our own by separating ourselves from the Millennials? This would not be the least bit unusual. In fact, some would say that creating a special micro-generation is itself a very Millennial trait (McMahon, 2017). Therefore, our claiming to be Xennials may prove that we are more Millennial that we may care to admit to. Emma Lord (2017) states that even many core Millennials attempt to disassociate themselves from their own generation. No one born in the 80s or 90s likes the idea of being called a snowflake or enduring endless blame for all the woes of society. The truth is, however, that while we cuspers have some definite Gen-X traits that Millennials lack, we also share characteristics with the Millennials that we don’t share with Gen-X.
Making things even more confusing is that if Xennials do exist and we are Xennials, are Xennials the last members of Gen-X (’77-’80) and the very first Millenials (’81-’83) along the generational spectrum, or are Xennials an entire group all of their own, completely unique from both X and Y? Many profess the first is true while many others propose the second theory. It is often said that Xennials are not quite Gen-X but not quite Millennial. Instead, Xennials are a unique blend in between the two with the unusual experience of having a Millennial upbringing in a Gen-X world (Miller, 2018). Some may see us as Millennials who rock out to Nirvana or perhaps as Gen-Xers with avocado toast. Meanwhile, we Xennials, 1981ers especially, still don’t know where we belong. The only thing for sure is that we, along with our fellow X/Y cuspers, bridge the gap between the world of the disenchanted Xers and the ambitious yet handicapped world of Millennials.
Most people can’t relate to this dilemma. This is one that only we cuspers really know, especially those of us born in a year such as 1981, perhaps the most disputed generational birth year. It is almost always either the very last Gen-X year or the very first year of the Millennials. Though Pew’s 1981–1996 range is the most frequently used, many others define the Millennial generation differently. Adding to that is the fact that neither Gen-Xers nor Millennials, except for other fellow Xennials and perhaps a few exceptions on either side, really want us in their cohort and we ‘81ers are left with no generational home. If we claim Gen-X or Xennial, then we betray our Millennial brethren; if we identify as Millennials, then we are Xers unsuccessfully trying to fit in with the younger crowd. No matter what cohort we claim — Gen-X, Millennial, Gen-Y, or Xennial — there is always someone there to kick us out.
A Sharp Eye. (2017). “Confused by the Generational Labels? Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials?” A Sharp Eye. Retrieved from https://www.asharpeye.com/confused-generational-labels-baby-boomers-gen-xers-millennials/?doing_wp_cron=1606246279.7155630588531494140625
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Foster, A. (2021). “People Born in the Early 1980s Have Been Dubbed as ‘Geriatric Millennials.’” News.com.au. Retrieved from https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/news-life/people-born-in-the-early-1980s-have-been-dubbed-geriatric-millennials/news-story/55ee1776aa56e2091cfd9010e2b2999f
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Mui, N. (2001). “Here Come the Kids: Gen Y Invades the Workplace.” The New York Times, p. 1. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2001/02/04/style/here-come-the-kids-gen-y-invades-the-workplace.html
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