What Is A 'Millennial' Anyway? Meet The Man Who Coined The Phrase

August 24, 2015 | By Samantha Sharf

This is half of a two-part series on perceptions of Millennials. Click here for: “Is Millennial A Dirty Word?“ 

When Neil Howe and William Strauss coined the term Millennial in 1991 they weren’t sure it would stick.

The historians introduced the phrase in their book “Generations” which charts American history through a series of cohort biographies. The pair demonstrated a predictable cycle where generational personalities form in opposition to their immediate predecessors but share significant traits with groups they may never meet. People born between around 1980 and 2000, for example, shares many traits with the group born from around 1900 to the mid-1920s. Howe and Strauss called this the G.I. generation but it’s more commonly known at The Greatest Generation.

When the book came out generational study was not in vogue. As a result the group we now call Gen X didn’t have a name, even as the oldest of the people born after the Baby Boom were about to turn 30. Howe and Strauss called them 13ers because they were the 13th generation since Benjamin Franklin. Clearly society hadn’t given much thought to what they would call the group that came next.

More than two decades later Howe explains that they chose Millennial because their research made it clear this generation, just eight-years old at the time, would be drastically different than the one before and therefore needed a distinct name. Plus, the oldest of them would graduate high school in 2000, a date that loomed large in the 90s.

To be fair, Howe believes every generation is distinct from the one before. (“If every generation were just an exaggerated version of the generation that came before it civilization would have gone off a cliff thousands of years ago.”) But kids of the day were being raised with so much structure and protection compared to the generations that immediately preceded them — both Gen X and their mostly Baby Boomer parents — that they were destined to leave a very different mark.

“When you look at the future generationally you begin to see how the future unfolds in non-linear ways,” says Howe. “When we saw Millennials as kids being raised so differently, we could already make an easy prediction. We had seen this dark to bright contrast in child upbringing before many times in American history, so we already foresaw that by the time you got to 2000 you would see huge changes in people in their late teens and early 20s.” They predicted the crime rate would go down, families would be closer and these 20-somethings would be more risk averse. All of this turned out to be correct.

Judging by a FORBES article published in 1997 the term didn’t take hold immediately even as the sense this group was different became popular. “Good-bye to body-piercing, green hair, grunge music and the deliberately uncouth look. Hello to kids who look up to their parents and think bowling is fun,” wrote Dyan Machan. “Whatever the post-Generation-X kids end up being called, it looks like they are going to be a lot different from the generation that precedes them.”

Among scholars the term began to take off in 1998 with its use in books peaking in 2000. (Google GOOGL -2.21% Books data ends in 2008.)

Colloquial use seems to have come later. Google Trends data, which begins in 2004, shows near zero interest in the term as recently as 2005. Searches for Millennial/Millennials grew slowly from there, picking up speed around 2013 and skyrocketing this year.


Just because Millennial has become widely used doesn’t mean everyone has accepted it. Many people, or at least a handful of very loud people, hate to being dubbed Millennial. They see it as derogatory. Some will stand down upon learning that technically Millennial is a term to describe the group of people born between around 1980 and  2000 (the end year is still being determined and the start varies a year or two depending on who you ask). To others, the term has been too maligned with insults like narcissistic, entitled and lazy to be accepted as neutral.

“One person’s narcissism is another person’s healthy self esteem,” observes Howe when I ask him why some people bristle at the term. Millennials haven’t had it that bad when it comes to inter-generational scorn, he argues. We like our parents. Our parents like us. Sure some older workers didn’t initially love having us around the office but that’s normal. No one wants to be supplanted.

He also points to German demographer Wilhelm Pinder’s century old argument that every generation has three types: the directive, the directed and the suppressed. For this generation Facebook FB -2.30% founder Mark Zuckerberg is a clear member of the first group. Most others fall in line with the trends he leads and therefore fall into the directed camp. Finally, the suppressed fight against the generational persona.

Back in 1991 Howe and Strauss, who passed away in 2007, explained it this way:

"In this book, we describe what we call the ‘peer personality’ of your generation. You may share many of these attributes, some of them, or almost none of them. Every generation includes all kinds of people.  Yet, [...] you and your peers share the same ‘age location’ in history, and your generation’s collective mind-set cannot help but influence you–whether you agree with it or spend a lifetime battling against it.”