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Millennials are accused of killing lots of things. The latest? Aging

Amanda Kehrberg, a Ph.D. student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU who studies digital culture, says aging millennials are changing what it means to be an adult today. 

Full conversation

AMANDA KEHRBERG: The elder millennials. We are the ones that are on either side of 40. Yeah. And then the younger ones I think are kind of in the maybe, maybe somebody's squeaking in, in the late 20s. But really, I think we're talking like we're in our 30s and early 40s now.

LAUREN GILER: OK. So definitely an aging, aging of this formerly very young demographic.

KEHRBERG: Oh my gosh. Yeah. No, I have so many friends who are turning 40 literally this year. So it is just a constant topic of conversation of just, this is happening, what does 40 look like for us? What was that film? "This Is 40." Like we're all just like this, but it's more like question. It's like, this is 40?

GILGER: Because it does seem to be changing, right? For this generation to be 40 or to be, you know, in your 30s. A little different than it used to look.

KEHRBERG: Oh, it doesn't look the same at all. No, it's crazy. I mean, everybody's just still dressing like we're in our 20s. I mean, if you think of the main quest line for adulthood and what that traditionally looks like, you own a house, you're married, you have kids, you have a very happy dog. You know, you've had a long career, and you're still in the same career and you're progressing forward. That's the main quest. Millennials are doing side quests, hobbies. We're just defining ourselves by other things. And I think that's been partly forced upon us by the necessity of our circumstances. But also I think it's been kind of a cool character choice, too.

GILGER: What are those circumstances? Let's talk about this because I think a lot of this probably has to do with economics, right?

KEHRBERG: Yes. So I think for a lot of us we graduated and hit the market right in that 2008 recession time. So if you take that with the fact that we're getting out of college with a ton of student loans, the real estate market. Crazy, right? Crazy then, crazy now. So I think that there's been kind of a reshuffling of what defines adulthood for us and a lot of it is just kind of making it up as you go. And so that's allowed people to form different kinds of like, there are all these discussions now about what is friendship, what's the importance of friendship in your life? And can that be a kind of valuable long-term relationship? And you know, I'm like, I think that's really nice. I think it's OK to kind of build different ways to be an adult.

GILGER: I think that's really interesting, but it seems as if this generation, our generation, I think we both count in this, in this group, right? Is sort of redefining what it does mean to be an adult in this way.

KEHRBERG: Yeah. Yeah, I think it's so funny because if you think like what we grew up with of millennials constantly being in the headlines, and welcome to that life, Gen Z. But every headline would start with, "Millennials killed blank." And it would be like Applebee's, paper napkins, like staying out late, not staying out late, mayonnaise, ketchup, classic hot dogs, picnics. Like, you know, it was just like everything. So I think like there is something poetic about millennials killing aging as well.

But I also think there is it's a little bit of a fairy tale logic in the sense that, because I don't think we look as old as prior generations. So I think that was, that was the fairy tale universe's gift to us. It was like, if you don't get maybe a house and kids and a white picket fence and a marriage and a career and all this other stuff, right. You don't maybe have a 401k that your parents did at your age. But you know what? You don't have the forehead elevens either. So like the external reality shifts.

GILGER: It does look different, right? In very real ways. Let's talk about the pop culture aspect of this because I think we can see this reflected at us in pop culture in lots of ways. Like, I mean, just the conversation kind of around "Golden Girls." And this has been really interesting about how young, in fact, the "Golden Girls" were.

KEHRBERG: Yeah, they're like in their 50s. Can you imagine Jennifer Lopez retiring with her friends to a happy little like beach cottage in Florida in her 50s? It was just like, oh, life is over. It's wild. The way that it looked to be younger. I mean, at that time is just so different. So the entire "Friends" cast now is older than the "Golden Girls" were when I mean, like canonically on the show, right? And then you think about like when I watch "Seinfeld" now, or "Cheers" is the one that just blows my mind, where you think there's a 60-year-old man sitting on the end of the bar and then you find out he was like 32. Or, or like George Costanza, like 26. And you're just like, how is that possible?

GILGER: Right. So we're seeing a lot of conversation about that and about the shifting, yeah, like the way that age looks differently but honestly, we just think about it very differently. I think in pop culture today, but it's also is sort of flipped on its head, too, right? Like talk a little bit about how pop culture doesn't just affect this, but sort of is reflecting it back to us.

KEHRBERG: Yeah, I mean, I always like to think back to, you know how digital culture and technology have shaped our connections to ourselves and to big concepts like aging. And I think with digital technology, it's twofold. On the one hand, millennials are the first generation that scholars call digital natives. So I think that we grew up with both the sense of what it meant to see your identity as a representation. So that sort of representation is reality. Like we were constantly thinking of ourselves as represented in some other form and then increasingly visually.

So like what is the importance of your visual identity? And so I think in that sense, projecting youth and focus, I think, I mean, I know it sounds basic but I think it made us focus more on our appearance. I mean, we grew up and started to age in this culture where yeah, you are constantly showing yourself off as like, yeah, I still look cute. Here's my selfie, ... here's me unfiltered, here's me, oh, this is probably a filter. And then so like, I think that we were taught pretty early on to represent ourselves visually in a culture that valued youth. And I think when you think about the world we live in now, I mean, American culture, you know, like Leonardo DiCaprio, values youth.

But I think that when you look at a society where technological change is so rapid, right? That is a society that just doesn't value the wisdom of elders as much. It values youth because youth can keep up with the technology. And I think that that then feeds into our desire to just heighten that sense of we don't want to age, we don't see that this is a culture that's going to value aging. So yeah, you want to be part of it as much as possible. And so yeah.

GILGER: Gotta keep dying our hair. OK. So last question for you then, Amanda, is like, what do you think this might mean for the next generation? Like for Gen Z, right? Which is in every headline now, like are we setting a new normal? Do you think they will set another kind of new life timeline?

KEHRBERG: So funny, I would say probably yes, but it's interesting when you look at like the, the articles on their economic situation that are coming out right now. Like the Economist just did a big thing about how Gen Z wealth production and income is outpacing both boomers and millennials at their age. Like when we were there, it's not to say again, they're not dealing with problems. I mean, I'm sure any Gen Z person would be like, what are you talking about? I don't see it, not for me, but they have grown up up in such a different world in terms of how you see careers and your sort of independence, your sense of your own market value and your own value, I think as a person, honestly, when you talk to Gen Z people, you're just like, wow, you all are really healthy. But, so I think it will be really interesting to see what that looks like and what their economic situation looks like as they age, as they change careers, even more than we did, as they change jobs even more than we did. And what those kinds of markers will be because there's still like as a generation right now, kind of reflecting the millennial reticence against children being as important as they have been. So, yeah, I think that's going to be really interesting to see. I don't know what it will look like, but I will say they got to start a lot younger with a lot of the advantages of the health and beauty industry. So I think they're going to be OK.

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.