Why I Call Myself a “Geriatric Millennial” — and Why Our Micro-Generation Matters
Regardless of what you call us, kids of the early 80s uniquely bridge the divide between digital natives and digital adapters
Last week, I was astonished that my term “geriatric millennials” triggered over 15,000 retweets of my essay in Medium’s work publication Index about the unique digital communication issues faced by the micro-generation born between 1980 and 1985. It even made international news headlines ranging from The Today Show online to HuffPo.
Sure enough, people of all ages and backgrounds across the internet were doing what we do best — fighting a label. The term itself certainly stirred up a hornet’s nest, with some people who had fun with the term and others who were offended by it. Others suggested less quarrelsome monikers, such as Xennials, Elder Millennials, and the Oregon Trail Generation.
But even as debate raged over the right label to use, people tended to agree with the argument at the heart of my piece: the speed of technological adoption makes it wrong to see an entire generation (spanning almost a 20 year difference) as being the same.
Whatever you call them, the micro-generation I’m talking about is important and unique because it straddles what I call “digital natives” and “digital adapters.” Kids of the early ’80s spent their formative years on both sides of the analog and digital divide, and play a crucial role in helping bridge the communication gaps between the adapters and natives..
I arrived at this realization after having spent more than a decade investigating, researching, and finding new ways to encourage collaboration and communication in the workplace. In my new book Digital Body Language, I explore the new digital cues and signals that foster trust and connection, no matter the distance.
I interviewed American workers across the generational spectrum, from Boomers to Gen Z. The differences in micro-generations were impossible to ignore. While many factors impact digital fluency, the strongest indicator of how you use and engage with technology (and the anxiety that comes with it) is the number of years you’ve spent using digital as your primary means of communication.
Digital natives have come of age steeped in the conventions of digital body language. They assume the signals and cues that are all around them. Signals they find “obvious” are invisible to adapters — text messages with formal punctuation raise a red flag, unplanned phone calls are intrusive, and emoji, far from being childish, help communicate a message’s intended tone.
Digital adapters have had to learn digital body language (the subtext of digital messages) as adults. For many, it can be as hard as learning a second language. Some become fluent. Some only have basic proficiency. Many are in between, somewhat like digital ‘immigrants’ to a new country.
Should you send a reply-all email, quick text or schedule a Zoom? A digital adapter is likely to perceive the same choice of medium differently than a native. One’s expressions of joy, or considerateness, can be another’s expressions of rudeness.
Age only plays a partial role. I’ve met 28-year-old digital adapters who shun serial texting and hate Zoom, insisting on only talking on the phone. I’ve met 50-year-olds with digital fluency approaching that of digital natives who refuse to pick up the phone or read email, favoring texting and Slack.
Geriatric Millennials straddle the digital adapter-native divide. I am one. We’re old enough to have had a cheesy AOL instant messenger name. We grow nostalgic when hearing the shrieks of dial-up internet. Some of us joined the first social media communities. We were full of digital optimism. But, our tools were primitive. We used dial-up connections that hogged our landline connections; downloaded music on Napster that we burned onto CDs to play on our Discman while we were on the go; played games on LAN parties with Windows 95 machines; and when mobile phones entered our lives, aspired to own a Razr flip phone. I could go on. Watching the technologies we grew up with vanish into obscurity within a couple of short decades can make us feel positively old. But the point remains, we Geriatric-Xen-Eld-Oregon-ennials are often able to live in two worlds — comfortable with the communication styles of many Boomers and Gen-X’ers as well as our younger digital native millennial brethren and TikTok’ing Gen Z’ers.
Is “Geriatric millennial” the best term to describe this microgeneration? I heard from people who told me that the term made them “feel seen”, while others on Twitter hilariously embraced the designation, imploring kids to get off their lawn or asking to be left alone with their ginger ale and diners, drive-ins and dives reruns. Personally, I take pride in being a geriatric millennial: I was lucky enough to become a mom through a geriatric pregnancy. Plus, I certainly feel old — but more importantly, what’s wrong with being old? The fact that it carries a negative connotation for so many of us ought to spark some reflection on how we view older members of our society.
I’m happy the “Geriatric Millennial” term attracted attention. It’s sparking a conversation about critical differences within a generation — one that’s only being exacerbated by technology. It’s also highlighting the unique contribution Geriatric-Xen-Eld-Oregon-ennials have already made and will continue to make to our world and in the workplace. The digital native and adapter divide isn’t going away.
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