In 2013, Joel Stein wrote “The Me Me Me Generation,” a widely read cover story for Time magazine about millennials, the population of Americans born approximately after 1980 whom he called “lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents” who would, somehow, “save us all.”
Last week, millennials struck back.
I was sitting at the back of the Pepco Edison Gallery in Penn Quarter last Monday, taking in the crowd of trendy dresses and skinny ties while scarfing Sour Patch Kids I’d snatched from the candy buffet, when Jeff Gilliland, a 26-year-old who works at a theater nonprofit for young playwrights, spotted my notebook and guessed I was a reporter. We started talking, and Gilliland plugged a play by his students: Dear Mr. Stein, an actual staged response to Stein’s article. He wasn’t the only one there pushing a millennial-serving organization. By the end of the evening, I’d networked myself out of business cards.
It was the opening event of Millennial Week, a series of nightly events devoted to accomplishments of the group that, at least in the eyes of its organizers and its sponsors, has a lot do with D.C.’s current economic, technological, and gastronomic boom times. On Monday, Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal presented the award for Millennial of the Year. And from there? Natalie Moss, a 34-year-old molecular biologist by day, independently launched an entire week devoted to celebrating the accomplishments of millennials with panels, networking opportunities, and enough hors-d’oeuvres and fruity cocktails (with names like the Chill Hustle) to make even the weeknight pregamer feel sophisticated.
Millennials, Millennial Week wanted attendees to know, are not ADD-addled leeches but disrupters and revolutionaries and economic drivers. That’s why Moss decide to organize the gathering, with each day focusing on the contributions of millennials to politics, entrepreneurialism, food, and community service. (There was also an innovator’s brunch, obvi.)
Since I am an actual millennial, my Generation X editor gave me the perverse assignment of covering every Millennial Week event and hopefully learning something about myself and my generation in the process. Uh, YOLO?
At the opening night party, speakers talk for less than 10 minutes—a choice that may be gratingly of the Twitter age, but at least keeps things moving. In her introduction, Moss brings up the Time magazine cover. In his limited time, Ian Moss, a State Department employee who served in the military (no relation to Natalie), talks about coming of age during war, the decentralization of authority, entrepreneurship, and the political issues that drive millennials. Impressive.
The evening’s token Baby Boomer is Shallal, who cracks a joke about millennials only wanting to dine at Le Diplomate. He implores millennials to become more engaged with local issues, and suggests starting by reading a George Pelecanos novel. Then he introduces the week’s Millennial of the Year, Steven Olikara.
Olikara is the 24-year-old co-founder of the Millennial Action Project, a “post-partisan” nonprofit that works with millennials in elected office to break political gridlock. Selflessly, he declares that the award isn’t really for him, but for all the people who supported him.
Away from the podium, Olikara tells me he doesn’t think his new perch as D.C.’s No. 1 millennial will affect his social status among his peers. Plus it’s unclear how representative he is of his generation: He doesn’t like bottomless mimosas or bloody marys at brunch, and his favorite bar is Darlington House. And, it turns out, D.C.’s top millennial doesn’t ride a bike.
Moss kicks off an evening of panels at the Washington Post’s downtown headquarters. Unfortunately for anyone who’s attending multiple gatherings, she’s brought the same introduction speech to the second event in a row. “Millennials have been called narcissistic, self-interested and, as illustrated by the Time magazine cover, the ‘Me, Me, Me’ generation.” Did anyone consider offering Joel Stein equal time?
There are two panels, with Post reporter Reid Wilson lobbing questions at people including the president of Rock the Vote, the deputy press security of the Republican National Committee, and Olikara. Are millennials more distrustful of the government than previous generations? (They’re not, apparently.) Do millennial women have an easier time in politics than the previous generation? (Kind of.)
The most perplexing part of the night comes when Olikara declares that millennials, while the largest generation in the country, are the most underrepresented in Congress. Millennial Week defines millennials as anyone born between 1977 and 2001; you have to be 25 to serve in the House and 30 for the Senate. So while Olikara’s statement is almost certainly true, it probably has more to do with the fact that a good chunk of millennials aren’t old enough to run for office (some can’t even vote!) than apathy or age-discrimination. No one questions the Millennial of the Year on this point.
If there’s a word that means less than “millennial,” it’s “entrepreneurial,” which is why I’m still dreading tonight’s panel event as I walk into 1776, a 15th Street NW business incubator with exposed ceilings that’s the frequent setting of trend pieces about D.C.’s nascent tech sector. Illustratively, Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” is playing, a reminder that this is my third evening in a row of celebrating my own generation. Moss’ introduction speech still hasn’t changed.
I cringe when the moderator describes D.C.-based &pizza as “disrupting the pizza industry.” &pizza then disrupts the panel halfway through to hand out free pies. Mercifully, no one says any form of the word “disruption” again.
The panel breaks, a large Millennial Week cake is cut, and networking commences. Among the 100 or so attendees, I meet a few aspiring entrepreneurs and one summer intern at Northwestern Mutual Bank, who came to the event looking to expand his portfolio as a financial representative. He doesn’t have business cards yet, but by the time I go to bed the next night, the college student has sent me a LinkedIn request.
We’re on the outdoor patio of the newly renovated Wonder Bread Factory in Shaw, where the main event is socializing. Millennial chefs reportedly cooked most of the event’s food; most of the evening’s caterers operate out of the Union Kitchen food incubator. Moss skips the intro speech
Before I make it to the Dolci Gelato stand, I bump into David Pasch, the communications directors for Generation Opportunity, a Koch brothers–funded libertarian organization for young people and one of the main sponsors of Millennial Week. “There is absolutely a stereotype that our generation is lazy,” says Pasch, who’s wearing a seersucker suit. “That’s crazy; we’re the most creative and entrepreneurial generation in American history.”
Pasch’s inspiring words have not resonated. I skip Millennial Week’s community service day so I can binge on the second season of Orange Is the New Black.
When I arrive at the City Club of Washington a little after 11 a.m., Moss suggests I network until the brunch officially starts. I “network” with the woman who planned the event, Kimberly Clark, who tells me the brunch will include a number of Millennial Innovation Chats, or MICs, which are apparently modeled after TED Talks. “We are hoping they are power-packed with innovative ideas,” she says.
The brunch-ready millennials enter the main dining hall after an hour of networking, and I grab a seat between two brunchers with overlapping work interests who quickly exchange cards over me. Josh Marcuse, the founder of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and a Pentagon employee by day, tells me that in the government’s latest Quadrennial Defense Review, some form of the word “innovation” appears 33 times. “The question is not what the new technology is, but what the new idea is,” he says.
As Moss begins with her usual introduction—narcissism, Time, etc.—Marcuse suggests I give the speech instead. (By now, I totally could.) Moss eventually introduces the moderator of the event, one of the ladies from the blog Bitches Who Brunch. “It goes without saying,” Moss says. “This blog has really redefined brunch in the nation’s capital.”
We quickly move through the talks, which include one from the co-founder of the viral news site PolicyMic and a particularly substantive speech from Nelson Mandela’s step-grandson Prince Cedza Dlamini of Swaziland, who Skypes in from South Africa to talk about the importance of American millennials connecting and working with African millennials. As the speeches continues, the words “innovate and “galvanize” are said more than a dozen times. While sitting there, I collect a handful of new Twitter and Instagram followers and one Facebook friend request.
These are all impressive millennials, no doubt, who are probably worthy of other millennials’ attention. But as the week comes to close, it’s clear that Millennial Week isn’t especially concerned with weighing issues confronting our generation: There is no significant discussion of social disparities or the rough job market, or even an acknowledgement that there are millennials in this country that may not, say, have access to the resources to innovate and launch a company or nonprofit. (The word “gentrification” isn’t mentioned the whole week! In D.C.!) There is no concession that millennials—a generation raised on the Internet and by Boomer helicopter parents—may have some character flaws. The bullish week received a mayoral proclamation, but it largely feels like one long yuppie happy hour with the occasional side of defensiveness.
The last speaker of the brunch, though, really places the organic cherry on top of the artisanal cupcake. Even though I’ve sat through a week of millennial programming, I have to make sure I understand what Sonia Vora of the Millennial Trains Project is talking about. As far as I can tell, the group puts a bunch of millennials who crowdsourced $5,000 on a cross-country train without cellphone service to work on a project proposal. The buzzword for this “revolutionary experience,“ says Vora, is “retro-innovation.”
Someone put me on a phone-free train to a different generation.
Illustration by Jandos Rothstein