What defines a millennial? We’ve been called “Generation Me” for our presumed narcissism and the “Peter Pan Generation” for our delayed adulthood. We’ve been accused of killing entire industries, like department stores and chain restaurants. But the only thing that may really define a millennial is that we’re indefinable. For people born between 1980 and 1995, our lives have been marked by some of the fastest-moving shifts in the world’s economy, political landscape and culture. We were radicalized by profound tragedies like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, as well as the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We were stung by the financial crisis in 2008, just as many millennials began to enter the workforce — and we’re still feeling the fallout. And, of course, we’re the last generation to witness life before and after the dawn of the Internet age.
The push into an all-digital world has been key to how we’ve grown, matured and consumed the world around us. From the early days of blogs and instant messaging through the arrival of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, we’ve been sharing our lives. Companies like Napster, iTunes and Spotify, Amazon, Netflix and Hulu have democratized entertainment, giving us more choices than ever before. We’re millions of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, effectively raised on the idea that everything we want can, should and will be available at the click of a button.
At times, this deluge of culture and content feels splintering. Even the difference between “younger” and “older” millennials can seem vast. Those with stronger memories of a pre-digital era feel more grounded in shared experience with our predecessors in Generation X, sometimes longing for the existence of monoculture, while Nineties babies relate more to the faster-paced, still-forming culture of Generation Y, embracing streaming as both a lifestyle and a preference. That divide even within our own generation, and the way millennials have responded to the rapidly changing world we’ve inherited, means we’ve been blamed for the loss of many experiences. We don’t have the same appetite for post-recession luxuries — like diamonds and mortgages — and are threatening to make even smaller indulgences — like albums and movie theaters — obsolete.
It’s not entirely fair, but that blame is a price to pay for our increasing authority and stronger cultural and political voices. For as much as millennials have supposedly taken away from the world, we’ve also given back tenfold. Optimistic and inclusive, we helped elect America’s first black president, Barack Obama — twice. Provoked by tragedies like Sandy Hook and the killing of Trayvon Martin, we’ve started sociopolitical movements to address systemic racism and gun violence. Spurred by social media, we’ve expanded our cultural language, pushing for an increase in minority voices in everything from political offices to media.
As our power grows, time will prove just how much more we can accomplish. While every generation seems to worry about how to adjust to life’s faster pace, we’ve been thrown into the deep end for as long as we’ve been alive. This list looks at 100 moments, artists, events, movements and more that have helped form the millennial identity. How we’ll continue to shape-shift remains to be seen — but you can be sure we’ll defy expectations. —Brittany Spanos