In Uncertain Times, Millennials Click Back to the '90s
October 24, 2011 | By Craig Wilson
You're what they call a "Millennial," born after 1980 and now roughly between your tweens and your 30s. There are 101 million of you, the largest generation now alive.
You're well-educated but, in this bad economy, you're more than likely unemployed. If you are employed, you're underemployed, itching to contribute to an organization that doesn't quite understand how much you have to offer. Really! You know you are far more tech-savvy than your boss. She knows it, too.
You're restless, ready to change the world, ready to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook. And most likely, you're also living back home with the folks. Oddly enough, you don't mind. Neither do they.
Millennials are often thought of as spoiled. Some have dubbed you the "Babied Boom." But your babying days are over, as anyone watching the job market can easily see.
So how are you spending a good portion of your time in these "doubled-up households," aka Mom and Dad's place? Reminiscing. Looking back to the '90s.
Yes, the '90s are the newest "good old days." This summer, some of your favorite TV shows began airing again on cable. Beavis and Butt-Head returns to MTV on Thursday (10 p.m. ET/PT), but with updates. For instance, the famous duo will now be watching Jersey Shore.
MTV executive Van Toffler hopes the dozen half-hour episodes will appeal to old and new fans alike, with many of the latter familiar with Beavis from online snippets and TV reruns.
"We're going through a period of what we call 'instant nostalgia,' where it kind of goes back no further than the mid-'90s," Toffler says. He cites the resurrection of other '90s staples, including Pop Up Video on sister network VH1.
MTV2 also revived 120 Minutes, premiering two new episodes this summer. And another old friend, Barney, is making a big comeback in retail. Yes, Barney.
Some of the best-selling items this fall at novelty retailers, including Spencer Gifts nationwide, are based on the purple dinosaur of Millennials' youth: T-shirts, caps, socks and blankets, as well as an adult-sized Halloween costume.
"The kids of yesterday are looking for positive and fun reinforcement right now. Barney was the first friend they connected to," says Stacey Reiner, vice president of licensing for HIT Entertainment Global Brands. Sales are already "doing well," and restocking requests are coming from retailers daily, she says. "Everyone knows Barney. He makes them feel good."
Nickelodeon shows of yore
And why not? There's not much for Millennials to look forward to, which has made nostalgia for the last decade of the 20th century a growing cottage industry of late.
"They feel very stuck right now," says Melanie Shreffler, editor in chief at Ypulse, a marketing firm that studies Millennials. "They're an optimistic generation. They're at that age when they think things will get better. But in the meantime, they're like a deer in the headlights. They can get a job that is beneath them or bide their time, go back to their parents' house."
So what they are doing, more and more, is watching what they used to watch in their adolescence. Nickelodeon's TeenNick is more than happy to share.
Every unemployed Millennial can now jump into bed at midnight and watch "The '90s Are All That," the channel's programming block featuring series from a decade ago. The comedy and cartoon reruns began airing in July. Nickelodeon was motivated by Facebook fan pages asking for the shows to return, along with chat on Twitter.
Clarissa Explains It All, Doug and Kenan & Kel all came out of retirement.
"There was an audience out there just waiting for this, and they showed up immediately to watch," says Keith Dawkins, TeenNick general manager. "Now they talk about it, they tweet about it. We'll keep responding to what the audience is asking for."
When the '90s shows launched, TeenNick ratings for that time period soared, posting double-digit increases over 2010. The shows have averaged a 50% ratings increase among viewers 18 to 34.
Such escapism is understandable.
"There's no doubt about it, they are stressed. … (There's) pressure to be smarter in school, funnier on Facebook, more creative in fashion, more self-actualized in their career choice, all in an economy that basically (stinks)," says Nick Shore, MTV's senior vice president of strategic consumer insights and marketing. "We are definitely seeing a backlash, a 'newstalgia' for a recent past — that never actually existed — where things were simpler, choices were fewer, and technology was in its infancy."
It works for them. Mom and Dad are down the hall, and the Millennials fall asleep feeling secure, as if they're 13 again, dreaming of their flower-patterned leggings and Lunchables.
"They don't look upon their parents as inhibitors," Shreffler says. "They look upon their parents as friends. It's a different time now."
Good thing, too. According to the Census, 5.9 million young adults (ages 25 to 34) resided in their parents' homes this spring, compared with 4.7 million before the recession.
About one in eight older Millennials (22 and up) say they've "boomeranged" back to a parent's home because of the economy, according to Pew Research.
Susie Cook Parker's son, Justin, 24, moved back in with her (and his grandparents!) this summer after he lost his job in West Virginia. He brought along his wife to his mom's house in Wilmington, N.C.
"It's been an adjustment for everyone, but not an unpleasant experience, really," says Parker, who runs an insurance agency, where she hopes her son will work once he gets licensed. "I'm happy that I have the resources to help him jump into a new career."
Low expectations for jobs
Not that it's always rosy in Millennial land.
Humor writer Gordon Kirkland's unemployed son, Mike, 31, a computer programmer, has moved back home to Vancouver, British Columbia.
"He is either making a lot or none, and we are in one of the 'none' periods," Kirkland says. "When (wife) Diane was pregnant with him, she always wanted me to put my hand on her belly to feel him move. I'm still waiting for him to move."
Doug Helman and Alexandra DeArmon are in no hurry.
Helman, 22, is a recent graduate of Tufts University in international studies, unemployed and thinking about law school. He did regional theater in Dallas over the summer. He knows the lay of the land.
"Everyone's expectations are extremely low right now," says Helman, who is living in New Jersey with his parents. "I'm sending out résumés, but you know you'll only get one response out of 25. At this point, you're just looking for someone who knows someone."
His frame of mind? "I'm not quite pessimistic yet. I'm still hopeful."
He concedes that he watches the late-night TV shows of his youth, but "I'd be nostalgic for the '90s even if things were good. Isn't every generation nostalgic for its youth?"
DeArmon graduated from the University of Maryland two years ago and has tried her hand at everything from bagel maker ("dream job") to yoga teacher. She works in a bike rental/repair shop in Washington and says she couldn't be happier.
"My life plan right now is to start an urban hiking/day hiking company targeted at women, kind of a holistic life coach/personal training-type thing where I go on hikes and walks with people," says DeArmon, 23, who lives "comfortably" in a group house after stints residing with her parents.
"I don't have quite as much angst as some of my peers because I was a theater major, so I never expected to ever make a whole bunch of money or have a traditional 9-to-5 office job. … For the time being, this new life goal is giving me something to work on, learning about business, trying to draw up a plan."
Still, she's into all things '90s. "I love waxing nostalgic about elementary school and all the awesome music, movies, TV," she says. "Backstreet Boys! 'N Sync! Hanson! The Spice Girls! La Bouche! En Vogue!"
Resilience will win out
Millennials are like kids in a candy shop.
"This is the first generation that has had instant personal access to the entire history of pop culture," says MTV's Shore. "We see them re-appropriating and remixing elements of virtually every decade. (Tom) Cruise in Cocktail, '80s Ray-Bans with a Zelda Fitzgerald haircut and Japanese manga-style shoes of the future. They're working their way through the catalog and have stopped for a while on the '90s. That particular island hasn't been plundered so wildly, yet."
But can this kind of behavior last forever? Is there an end in sight for Millennials? When will they move on?
Historian and demographer Neil Howe, who came up with the term "Millennials" in his 1991 book Generations, concedes that times are indeed bad for this generation.
"They're getting hurt more than anyone else since no one is retiring," he says. "It's quite a remarkable time."
But Howe, who is also a founder of LifeCourse Associates, a consulting group that studies societal and generational trends, has faith in his Millennials, citing the generation's "can-do" attitude and its tendency to go with the flow.
"They tend to be very far-sighted in response to these kinds of challenges. They'll come through it just fine."
Contributing: Gary Levin and Bill Keveney